Acclaimed Facts About Viola Davis, The Hollywood Trailblazer

May 8, 2023 | Kyle Climans

Acclaimed Facts About Viola Davis, The Hollywood Trailblazer

Few actresses have a more prestigious career than Viola Davis. Ever since she came to prominence in the 2000s, Davis has been on a steady ascent through Hollywood. Not only has she proved her talents in arthouse films, she’s also cut her teeth on blockbusters. Of course, there is always more to an actress than her career, so keep reading to find out more about Viola Davis!

1. Table for Two

Incredibly, Davis is one of only two African American women who have gotten Academy Award nominations for both Lead Actress and Supporting Actress. The only other woman to achieve that accomplishment is Whoopi Goldberg.

viola davis

2. Welcome to the World

Davis was born on August 11, 1965 in the town of St. Matthews in South Carolina. Interestingly, she wasn’t born in a hospital, but at a farm owned by her grandmother.

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

3. Go East, Young Woman

Although she was born in South Carolina, Davis actually spent her childhood and youth growing up in Rhode Island. She was two months old when she and two of her sisters were taken to Rhode Island by her parents. Two of her siblings stayed behind in South Carolina with her grandparents.

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

4. Starting from the Bottom

Davis came from rural and humble origins. Her mother, Mary Alice, worked as a maid and a factory worker. Her father, Dan, worked with horses as a trainer. He hadn’t had the chance at a full education, having only reached the fifth grade during his life.

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5. Literally, the Bottom

Speaking of those humble origins, Davis has gone on record describing her first childhood homes as consisting of “rat-infested and condemned” apartments. The financial situation of her family led them to request permission to live rent-free in buildings set to be demolished. It’s safe to say that she’s moved up from those kinds of living conditions!

Viola Davis FactsShutterstock

6. Desperate Times

Such was Davis’ poverty and malnutrition during her youth that she joined a summer program simply because they offered free snacks. Davis has even candidly pointed out that she once searched for food in a dumpster out of hunger.

The Wizard of Oz factsPexels

7. Lending a Hand

In 1965, the same year of Davis’ birth, the Higher Education Act was passed. This led to eight different programs known as TRiO. These programs were meant to provide assistance and financial support to disabled students, low-income students, and first-generation college students. Davis was one of many students who benefited from this kind of assistance during her youth.

Viola Davis FactsShutterstock

8. Like Mother Like Daughter

If you’ve ever wondered where Davis learned to be socially conscious and prepared to defend her values, look no further than her mother. Mary Alice was very active during the civil rights movement, campaigning alongside untold thousands fighting to make society better for all Americans. On one occasion, Mary Alice was arrested while protesting, and her two-year-old daughter was taken to jail with her.

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9. The Day My Life Changed

Davis was first inspired by the power of acting and art in 1974. It was that year which bore witness to the TV drama called The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. This film, depicting a woman’s journey from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement, starred Cicely Tyson, who won an Emmy for her performance. Davis has stated that it was this performance which first convinced her just how moving and powerful acting can be.

Viola Davis FactsWikipedia

10. Your Move

Davis first studied acting at Central Falls High School. Years later, after she’d made her fortune, Davis provided financial backing to the secondary school’s chess team, which has reached great acclaim. They have represented Rhode Island six times in the United States Chess Federation National High School Championship.

Viola Davis FactsWikipedia

11. You’ll Go Far

One of the first people to recognize Davis’ talent was Bernard Masterson. He was the director of an acting program at the Young People’s School for the Performing Arts in West Warwick, Rhode Island. Davis was enrolled there for a time, and her acting was such that even Masterson distinguished her as a talent meant for a lofty future.

We can’t deny that he was right!

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

12. Upper Echelon

After graduating from Rhode Island College in 1988 with a major in theater, Davis spent four years at the prestigious Juilliard School. During her time there, Davis was a member of “Group 22,” part of the school’s Drama Division.

Viola Davis FactsWikipedia

13. First of Many Credits

Davis’ first credited film role was the 1996 film The Substance of Fire. Based on a play of the same name, the film follows Isaac Geldhart, an aging Holocaust survivor who grew up to run a publishing firm which focuses on authors’ passion projects. Davis played a nurse in the film adaptation.

Samuel L. Jackson factsShutterstock

14. You’re In!

Speaking of that first role Davis had in film, it was a single day of work which saw her getting paid $528 for her work. However, brief the job was, though, it was this day of work which secured her Screen Actors Guild card in 1996. The rest is history.

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

15. Wait, that was Her?!

It’s rather remarkable where some actors started out before they became household names. As a result, it might surprise a lot of you that Davis had a very small role in the opening of the 2001 heist film Ocean’s Eleven. She voices the parole officer who speaks with Danny Ocean (George Clooney).

Viola Davis FactsWikimedia Commons

16. Early Days

CBS viewers have probably heard of Jesse Stone. He is the main character of a series of TV movies based on a book series by Robert B. Parker. The film series first began in 2005 and a tenth film is currently in the works. While Tom Selleck is the star of these films as Jesse Stone, Davis spent the late 2000s appearing in four of these films as well. Her character was Molly Crane, a police officer who assists Stone during the films.

Viola Davis FactsJesse Stone: Death in Paradise, Sony Pictures Television

17. Love and Marriage

In June 2003, Davis married Julius Tennon, another actor. Davis became the new stepmother to Tennon’s children from a previous relationship. We can only assume that she is the opposite of what Disney taught us stepmothers were like!

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

18. Fabulous for Less Than Fifteen Minutes

An Oscar nomination is impressive, but not many actors receive one for a single scene. Davis’ first ever Oscar nomination  was for her performance in Doubt, where she only had lines in one scene. Admittedly, it was an extended conversation between herself and Meryl Streep’s character, but it is the only scene in which she has lines. Apart from that, she appears in one other scene near the end, for about ten seconds, and is completely silent.

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

19. New Mother

In 2011, Davis and her husband, Julius Tennon adopted a newborn daughter together. Her name is Genesis Tennon.

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

20. In Hindsight…

In 2011, Davis co-starred in the film The Help, which was nominated for several Oscar nominations, including Davis herself. However, despite the film’s success, it received a lot of criticism for its insensitive portrayal of Black women working as maids in the 1960s US. Even Davis herself has expressed her regret for ever acting in the film, saying she agrees that the film never really addressed the voices of the Black maids, despite the film supposedly being about them.

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

21. Round Two

In a recent interview, Davis revisited The Help and repeated her misgivings about the movie, this time saying that she "betrayed herself and her people" by accepting the role. Even so, despite her feelings about The Help, that didn’t stop Davis from reuniting with her former director Tate Taylor. They worked together again on the James Brown biopic Get on Up. It’s good to know there were no hard feelings!

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

22. It was a Very Good Year

It’s safe to say that Davis was doing well for herself in 2012. Not only did Glamour magazine name her the Film Actress of the Year, she was also named by Time magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

23. Did She Get a Writing Credit?

One of the most well-known sequences in How to Get Away with Murder is the scene where the protagonist (played by Davis) strips off her makeup, wig, and eyelashes before confronting her husband on his infidelity. This scene, where a powerful woman removes her metaphorical mask to face something that makes her vulnerable, was actually Davis’ idea, rather than one that came from show creator Shonda Rhimes or any of the writers.

Viola Davis FactsHow to Get Away with Murder, Disney–ABC Domestic Television

24. Giving Back

As of 2015, Davis donated nearly $5 million to Hunger Is. For anyone unsure, this is a program begun by a collaboration between the Safeway Foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation. Davis’ close friends and co-workers Meryl Streep and Shonda Rhimes also contributed funds to the cause of helping provide food to American children in poverty.

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

25. Bring on the Accolades!

As of July 2019, Davis has been nominated for four Primetime Emmy Awards, five Golden Globes, and three Oscars, coincidentally winning one of each of these awards. In case you’re curious, she got her Oscar and Golden Globe for Fences and her Emmy for How to Get Away with Murder. Speaking of that Emmy, Davis made Emmy history in 2015 when she became the first African American woman to win the award for Lead Actress in a Drama Series.

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

26. Studying a Sociopath’s Mind

Some of you might remember that Davis played cold, calculating government official Amanda Waller in the DC film Suicide Squad. In order for her to portray this character, Davis read the book Confessions of a Sociopath. Published under a pen name, the book is written from the first-person perspective of a law professor who is a diagnosed sociopath.

No doubt people who disliked the movie will uncharitably joke that Davis put way too much effort for a film like that!

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

27. A Form of Immortality

In 2017, Davis was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. If you’re curious enough to go find it, we’d suggest you go to 7013 Hollywood Boulevard.

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

28. How did it Take This Long?

In 2017, Davis received her third Oscar nomination for acting. And with that, she became the first African American woman to receive three Oscar nominations in her career. Thankfully, she isn’t the only one now. Two other women (actress Octavia Spencer and costume designer E. Carter) received their third nominations in 2018.

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

29. We All Need Help Sometimes

Going from rags to riches isn’t a smooth or an easy transition for anyone, and Davis was no exception. According to Davis herself, she struggled a great deal with going from abject poverty to her current status as an A-list actress. It took her years of therapy to come to terms with the issues that she had been carrying with her throughout her life, as well as adjust to what her life had become and how to manage things responsibly.

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

30. Broadway Star

Davis has been nominated for three Tony Awards during her career as of 2019. These nominations were for the plays Seven Guitars, King Hedley II, and Fences. She won her awards for the latter two plays.

Liza Minnelli FactsShutterstock

31. Four’s a Good Strong Number!

As of July 2019, Davis has appeared in four films which were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. In case you use the Oscars to decide which films you’ll watch, these films are Traffic, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, and Fences. She has yet to appear in an Oscar-winning Best Picture film, but given her career thus far, it’s just a matter of time!

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

32. Music in Your Soul!

Besides acting, Davis has also leant her singing voice to two of her projects thus far. One of these was for the film Fences, while the other was the TV movie Life is Not a Fairytale: The Fantasia Barrino Story.

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

33. The Business Side of Art

In recent years, Davis has become a formidable producer behind the scenes. She and her husband, Julius Tennon, cofounded a production company known as JuVee Productions. As of 2019, Davis has been credited as a producer on more than 14 productions, including The Last Defence, Lila & Eve, and many episodes of How to Get Away with Murder.

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

34. Recurring Collaborator

One person with whom Davis has worked with several times is producer/director Steven Soderbergh. He directed her in three of his films (Traffic, Out of Sight, and Solaris) and produced another film in which she appeared (Syriana).

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

35. Interesting Trend

Davis has thus far appeared in two different films revolving around the 9/11 attacks. One of these films was the 2006 Oliver Stone film World Trade Center, and the other was the 2011 film Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

36. If You Want My Opinion…

Interestingly, in the great battle of film vs. theater, Davis has allegedly stated that she actually prefers stage acting to film acting. Frankly, we’re just happy that she didn’t make herself choose to only pursue one of those fields.

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

37. Hi, Cousin!

We’ve all heard about surprise family connections in the entertainment industry, and Davis is no exception to that. Her surprise relation in the industry is none other than Mike Colter, best known to Marvel fans as the actor behind the most recent portrayal of Luke Cage. Colter’s grandmother and Davis’ grandfather were siblings.

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

38. Viola & Denzel Forever

Davis fans will be aware of her long-standing connection to actor Denzel Washington. She famously won her acting Oscar for Fences, which Washington directed and co-starred in with her. They also worked alongside each other in the play which inspired said film. Beyond Fences, however, Davis also portrays a woman in Lila & Eve whose hobby is watching Washington movies in her spare time. Not only that, Davis was directed by Washington in the film Antwone Fisher.

Viola Davis FactsGetty Images

39. Let’s Put on my Author Hat

Many of us are fans of the 1968 children’s story Corduroy, the sweet story of a teddy bear in a store who tries to find a missing button so that he might be taken home. Davis has expressed her own affection for the story, both as a child reading it and as a mother introducing her own child to the story. In 2017, Davis went one step further and announced her intention to write a sequel to the classic book. It was published by Penguin/Random House in 2018.

Viola Davis FactsFlickr

40. Taking Up the Cause

In 2019, Davis gave her voice to narrate the short documentary A Touch of Sugar. This documentary focuses on the subject of diabetes, which is a sensitive topic to Davis. Not only have many of her family suffered from diabetes, but she herself revealed that she has been diagnosed with pre-diabetes.

Diabetes EditorialShutterstock

41. Two for the Price of One

Rare for any actors even today, Davis won an Academy Award and a Tony Award for playing the same role on stage and on the screen (for Fences in both cases). Only eight other people have achieved this accomplishment in the history of entertainment: Jose Ferrer, Shirley Booth, Joel Grey, Jack Albertson, Paul Scofield, Anne Bancroft, Rex Harrison, and Yul Brynner.

Viola Davis Facts Getty Images

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22

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