Born in South Carolina, Viola Davis grew up in Rhode Island, where she began acting—first in high school, and then at Rhode Island College. After attending the Juilliard School of Performing Arts, Davis soon made her Broadway debut in 1996. She won her first Tony Award in 2001, and was nominated for an Oscar in 2008 for Doubt. In 2011, Davis starred in the hit dramatic film The Help. She has also appeared in Ender’s Game (2013) and Get on Up (2014). In 2014, Davis returned to television in the mystery series How to Get Away with Murder.
Growing up poor in Rhode Island, Viola Davis found an oasis from her family’s financial woes in watching movies. Her father worked at racetracks, often as a horse groomer. She discovered a love of acting early in high school. At Rhode Island College, Davis earned her degree in theater in 1988. From there, she soon continued her studies at the famed Juilliard School of Performing Arts in New York City.
Before long, Davis began to establish a name for herself in the New York theater world. She made her Broadway debut in August Wilson’s tragic comedy Seven Guitars in 1996. In the play, Davis starred as Vera, a woman who takes back the boyfriend who wronged her. She again worked with Wilson on his 2001 drama King Hedley II, for which she won her first Tony Award.
On the small screen, Davis tried her hand at series television with the medical drama City of Angeles, in 2000. She also made several guest appearances on other shows as well; one of her most notable performances was as a serial killer on Law & Order. It is one of her favorite roles, despite some negative reactions in the African-American community. “I’ve had backlash playing a serial killer … Anthony Hopkins didn’t, but I did. I have to follow my heart at the end of the day,” she later told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
After a few feature film parts, Davis caught the attention of critics with her small role in 2002’s Antwone Fisher. She made the most out of her one scene in the film, in which she barely speaks. Her turn as the mother of a troubled navy sailor (Derek Luke) brought her critical praise and an Independent Spirit Award nomination.
In 2008, Davis’ career reached new heights with her nuanced performance in Doubt. She, once again, made a tremendous impression with a small supporting role, and showed she could hold her own against some of Hollywood’s greatest talents. In the film, Davis played the mother of a boy who may have been sexually assaulted by a priest (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) at his Catholic school. She delivered an especially strong performance, as her character clashes with the school’s principal (Meryl Streep) over her son and the alleged crime. For her work, Davis received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Returning to the stage, Davis gave another show-stopping performance in Fences in 2010. She co-starred with Denzel Washington in this revival of the August Wilson play, playing the wife in a long-married couple whose relationship is falling apart. The pair had great chemistry together, creating a believable and compelling portrait of a struggling marriage undone by infidelity. Both Davis and Washington won Tony Awards for their work on the production.
In 2011, Davis co-starred with Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Bryce Dallas Howard in the film adaptation of the best-selling book The Help by Kathryn Stockett. This 1960s drama shows the racial divide between white housewives and their African-American servants in a Southern town.
In the film, Davis plays Ailbileen, a maid who is interviewed by a young white writer named Skeeter -for a book about the lives of “the help.” The experiences of her character are familiar to Davis. “The women in this story were like my mother, my grandmother,” she explained to Variety. “Women born and raised in the Deep South, working in tobacco and cotton fields, taking care of their kids and other people’s kids, cleaning homes.”
Davis worked with the director and screenwriter Tate Taylor to refine her character, making sure that her responses and actions were believable. Because racial tensions were so high during the time that the film is set in, she believed her character would have been afraid of saying too much to anyone. Davis played Aibileen with great restraint and won extensive praise for her work on the film.
As an African-American actress, Davis continues to look for more meaningful roles and perhaps start up some projects of her own. “It is a time when Black women now have no choice but to take matters in their own hands and create images for ourselves … It’s up to us to look for the material, it’s up to us to produce it ourselves, it’s up to us to choose the stories.”
Over the next few years, Davis took on some interesting parts. She appeared in the 2013 science fiction movie Ender’s Game and played singer James Brown’s mother in the 2014 biopic Get on Up. Davis then tackled an important television role. She stars in How to Get Away with Murder as Professor Annalise Keating. The mystery drama series is the brainchild of Shonda Rhimes of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal fame.