Viola Davis is sitting on the couch in her airy living room in Granada Hills, California, busily swiping on her iPhone. “Here it is,” she says, landing on a photo of a sagging building—her grandparents’ house on the Singleton Plantation in St. Matthews, South Carolina, where she and her five siblings were all born. The roof has a gaping hole, and the house looks fragile enough to be taken down by a light wind. “It had no running water, no indoor toilet; it’s really just one big room,” says Davis, who explains that her grandfather was a sharecropper and her grandmother worked as a maid while raising 11 children of her own. “I show it to people, and they are just shocked.”
It was in this home that Davis lived until her parents—Dan, a horse groomer, and Mary Alice, a maid—moved Viola, just two months old, and two of her sisters to Central Falls, Rhode Island. (Her older sister and brother were left behind to be raised by the grandparents.) The only African-American family in a white working-class factory town, the Davises took up residence in a condemned dwelling. It was rent-free but so rat infested that they wrapped thick scarves around their necks at night to keep from getting bitten. After school, young Viola would often be chased home by gangs of boys slinging ugly racial epithets and bricks.
“We lived in abject poverty,” says Davis, who had so little to eat that she wasn’t above stealing food or fishing it out of garbage cans. Being undernourished left her listless, and the biggest struggle of her school days was trying not to fall asleep. But it was also in Central Falls that Davis, age eight, and her sisters entered a skit contest and, against all odds—their wardrobe budget was $2—took home the top prize. “There was a lot of name calling and ‘N-----, n-----, n-----,’ and ‘You’re not going to win,’ so we had to be great. And here’s what motivated us: When you’re poor, it infects your mind, it infects your spirit, but we all wanted to be somebody,” says Davis, who points to the victory as the moment she began to fall in love with acting. “It was a childhood filled with the best memories of my life and some of the worst memories. It was a town filled with great friendships that I still have to this day and people who bullied me to the point that it was damaging. But I’m not ashamed of it. I embrace it as a part of who I was. I feel like if I hide it and I fight it, I’m not releasing my blessings.”
Regularly hailed as one of the greatest actors working today, the 48-year-old Davis has a dramatic arsenal—her low, purposeful voice, her steady gaze, her aura of deep emotional honesty—that has made her a reliable scene stealer and film-critic favorite. After studying at Juilliard, she first turned moviegoers’ heads in a 2002 cameo in Antwone Fisher, playing a woman confronted by the son she’d abandoned. Davis had little screen time but still left a “Who is she?” imprint on audiences. Six years later came Doubt, and its now-famous 11-minute scene opposite Meryl Streep, as a mother superior, which garnered Davis a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination and turned Streep into the self-appointed president of the Viola Davis fan club. “Somebody give her a movie!” Streep was known to holler on the awards campaign trail, which may or may not have resulted in Davis’s first leading role, as a truth-telling domestic in the ’60s-era, Mississippi-based racial drama The Help, which landed her a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
Yet in the course of 30 years and more than 70 mostly supporting roles in film, theater and television, Davis has never been cast as anyone quite like Annalise Keating, the shrewd, forceful attorney and law professor she plays on ABC’s twisty new thriller, How to Get Away with Murder. Glamorous, expensively dressed and more than a little scary, Davis’s Keating has a seemingly nice Caucasian husband, a chiseled cop boyfriend on the side and a young male student whom—in one of the strangest, most mesmerizing moments in the first episode—she kittenishly sidles up to, just to unsettle him.