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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
In 2011, Davis and her husband, Julius Tennon adopted a newborn daughter together. Her name is Genesis Tennon.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.
Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
Want to tell us to write facts on a topic? We’re always looking for your input! Please reach out to us to let us know what you’re interested in reading. Your suggestions can be as general or specific as you like, from “Life” to “Compact Cars and Trucks” to “A Subspecies of Capybara Called Hydrochoerus Isthmius.” We’ll get our writers on it because we want to create articles on the topics you’re interested in. Please submit feedback to email@example.com. Thanks for your time!
Do you question the accuracy of a fact you just read? At Factinate, we’re dedicated to getting things right. Our credibility is the turbo-charged engine of our success. We want our readers to trust us. Our editors are instructed to fact check thoroughly, including finding at least three references for each fact. However, despite our best efforts, we sometimes miss the mark. When we do, we depend on our loyal, helpful readers to point out how we can do better. Please let us know if a fact we’ve published is inaccurate (or even if you just suspect it’s inaccurate) by reaching out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for your help!
The Factinate team
If you like humaverse you may also consider subscribing to these newsletters: