Viola Davis is about to have one of the biggest seasons of her career. The two-time Oscar nominee and two-time Tony winner is starring in ABC's How to Get Away with Murder, joining a powerful block of programming that includes the only other series on TV featuring a black female lead – Kerry Washington in Scandal.
That fact is unfortunately still worth noting in 2014, but Davis is well-aware of its importance. Though the constant string of bit parts for black women is well-worn ground among online debaters, for Davis to make such frank remarks about it in today's just-released New York Times Magazine profile is unusual – and impressive.
"I have been given a lot of roles that are downtrodden, mammy-ish," the actress best known for her role in The Help says in the new piece, notably forgoing much chat about being a woman of a certain age, instead focusing on being a black actress of any age. "You’re going to get your three or four scenes, you’re not going to be able to show what you can do. You’re going to get your little bitty paycheck, and then you’re going to be hungry for your next role, which is going to be absolutely the same. That’s the truth."
Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder executive producer Shonda Rhimes historically has aimed to make race a non-issue in her work. "I don’t think it’s odd to see two black women standing in the same place because, well, that’s my house," she says in the profile. "To me, it just feels like Tuesday." But Davis does see it – and feels strongly about it.
"I don’t see anyone on TV like me in a role like this," Davis says, calling herself "a woman of color, of a certain age, and a certain hue." She then draws a stark line between herself and other black female leads like Halle Berry and Scandal's Kerry Washington – because Davis is significantly darker-skinned. It's a valid point, often left undiscussed in major media circles, that women like Davis and Lupita Nyong'o – who has called her own dark skin "an obstacle."
Elsewhere in the piece, Davis talks about Murder, revealing her natural hair on the red carpet, and what it means for a woman to really let go in a role. On that last subject: "Vanity destroys your work. That’s the one thing you have to let go of as an actor," she said. "I don’t care how sexy or beautiful any woman is. At the end of the day, she has to take her makeup off. At the end of the day, she’s more than just pretty."
You can read the full interview here; it's lengthy, but well worth the read. Almost all of Davis' comments are incredibly insightful – no matter how talked-out the subjects – but it's really her attitude about race that stands out, especially regarding her role in the process.
"I see the kind of work that needs to be put out there in order to make change," she said of her career work. "A 25-year-old white actress who is training at Yale or Juilliard or SUNY Purchase or NYU today can look at a dozen white actresses who are working over age 40 in terrific roles. You can’t say that for a lot of young black girls. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.