Viola Davis on the Role That Changed How She Looked at Her Career

Viola Davis
Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Women In Film

Viola Davis talks to 'Variety' about how she's perceived in Hollywood and how 'How to Get Away With Murder' changed things for her.

Viola Davis is opening up about the moment her career shifted.

In the “Black Women of Awards Season” issue of Variety, out now, Davis speaks about representation in Hollywood and the role that completely changed how she looked at her career.

"I got How to Get Away With Murder, and that’s when my career shifted. And all I was, was exhausted. I sat next to a life strategist at a party. I said, ‘Why is it that so many people on the top seem miserable?’ And he said, ‘Viola, because they thought that they hit it. That success was the top. But it’s not. It’s significance. It’s transcendence. It’s leaving a legacy.’ My head exploded, because that’s what it is: It’s leaving a legacy," Davis tells the magazine.


When it came to creating the roles the Academy Award-winning actress actually wanted to play, Davis knew she had to take her career into her own hands.

"I took the reins out of necessity. There aren’t movies that are being done and developed with anyone like me in mind. I’m a 55-year-old dark-skinned woman in Hollywood. I’m still in the ‘maid,’ the ‘urban mother crying over her dead son’s body in the middle of the road’ category," she shares.

"I’m not seen as sexual. The most basic fundamentals of what makes a woman do not trickle down to me. For me to get those roles and be seen in that way, I had to create and develop them myself," she adds.

Oftentimes, that development involves Davis making major transformations to truly bring those roles to life.

ET spoke with Davis back in January about the daring transformation she took on for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

"I wanted to create a character on my own terms," she told ET. "I did not want to filter it through the white gaze or through any idea that people would have about someone who is larger, Black, a singer, a woman."

"Usually those characters are just big and funny. Big, Black and funny," Davis said. "I wanted more than that. I wanted autonomy."



For those in collaboration with her, no one expected anything less than this level of dedication on Davis' part. "As soon as she says yes, she's on the journey," Ma Rainey's Black Bottom director George C. Wolfe said of her signing on, "and she's bringing every single thing she has." 

For Ma's bandmates -- a troupe of musicians played by Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Glynn Turman and the late Chadwick Boseman -- that was evident from the moment they stepped on set. "The thing that is so apparent," Turman said, "is Viola doesn't run away from anything."

"She runs to it," Domingo chimed in.

"She is daring. She takes chances. She runs right into the flame like a first responder," Turman explained. "It was not a Hollywood dance around the subject and make sure we come out cute on the other side kind of thing. This was just raw power all the way. And to watch her layer those on? Oh boy, what a performer. What a performer."

Watch the video below to hear more about how Davis dove into her role as Ma Rainey.