It’s 9:15 a.m. and Viola Davis confesses she hasn’t slept much. She’s filming at night and trying to spend as much time as possible with her family. A suite on the third floor of the Waldorf Astoria in Beverly Hills is abuzz with members of Viola’s team touching up her hair and makeup as she speaks about her daughter Genesis, who turned 7 (seven) last July. Viola Davis is a brand ambassador for Vaseline and the company flew me to Los Angeles to meet with Viola and spend a weekend learning more about their latest product, Cocoa Radiant Body Butter.
I enter the room quietly and Viola directs her attention to me. Her eyes are warm and welcoming as I take a seat next to her. I can’t help but immediately notice her toned arms, similar to Michelle Obama‘s and the flawlessness of her liquid chocolate skin. Viola Davis is 52-years-old with skin that looks like someone in her 30’s. I need to know more.
“I love when people compliment my skin, I have to say, and I don’t consider myself to be vain like that, but I love when they compliment my skin. That’s why I’m with this product. The Cocoa Radiant Body Butter has everything so I can put it on my heels, my elbows, my makeup artist put it on my back!”
Vaseline is a product I think every Black woman has used at least once. Like the Martin Luther King Jr. photos in Black homes in addition to photos of the Obama family, Vaseline is a staple. She tells me, “I always look for one product that can do it all. The shea and cocoa butter, the vaseline…it can do it all.”
I inquire about her skincare routine and pleased at how willing she is to share. “Steam, I love steaming. We just bought a new house with a steam shower,” she said. When you steam your face you open your pores, facilitating the removal of daily dirt and debris. It also allows your serums and products to absorb better into your face. She reveals,”With my skin, my face, I love serums. Hyrolonic acid serums, LOVE. Like Kinara [Skincare Products], I love Kinara products.”
While our conversation began with outer beauty, after about five minutes we were laughing and chatting like friends. I press her a bit more about her 2017 Oscars speech where she proclaimed that at 51, she finally felt like she was loving herself. I wanted to know how did she arrive at authentically loving herself and more importantly, how did she maintain it? She looked at me intently and said,
“My coming to faith and my coming to love myself just started with staggers. It didn’t start with just one leap. You know, it started with me just kinda going from one leap pad to the next. And each leap pad held me up and kept me strong until the next challenge came into my life. What helped me leap to one leap pad to the next are just people in my life who just showed me the way. Experiences that I learned by the journey of just…pain, sometimes.”
Viola has admitted to growing up in extreme poverty and dysfunction in South Carolina. “The big leap pad for me in this part of my life has frankly, been my celebrity,“ she said.
And a celebrity she is. Viola Davis is one of the most coveted actresses and made history as the first Black woman to reach the triple crown of acting, winning an Oscar, Tony, and an Emmy. She joins the ranks of Al Pacino and Jessica Lange, who each took 35 and 33 years respectively to reach the milestone. Davis did it in 16. “Being thrust in front of millions of people and all of a sudden trying to figure out, how do I look like I belong? But then at the same time, how do I belong to myself? How do I maintain my authenticity? Because the fighting of the two is very, very difficult. So what I did was I just let go. I just said, ‘This is your nose. This is my skin. This is my body. This is who I am,‘ and my God, it just worked. At some point, it just worked. It just worked. Me just being who I was has worked for me.”
“I listen to myself. I listen to my experiences. You always know when you’re not honest with yourself. You just do. People who are filled with anxiety all the time, their stomachs are always tied up in knots, they know exactly what they need to do. The only problem is they are not listening to it and because they don’t listen to it, it becomes a kinda battle between outside forces and their force.” She waves her hands, “And when the anxiety goes aways, it’s just a matter of saying, ‘What do I wanna do?’ That’s what I’ve done. 52 years of life.”
Viola has almost an uncanny awareness of her place, privilege, and platform as well as the responsibility she holds. With delight in her voice, she shares a life lesson that she learned from a life strategist at a dinner party. “The reason why people are unfulfilled in their lives, even when they get to what they want and get what they want, is because they forget the last step. They stop at success, but the last step is significance. And for me, that’s what fills my spirit. I need to feel significant. I need to feel like I left something on this earth that’s going to live way past me. It’s my way of living forever. I have a daughter now, so I sorta want to live forever. And I can’t just live forever being Analise Keating on How To Get Away With Murder.”
Viola Davis’ father was a horse trainer and her mother was a factory worker, maid and homemaker. In addition, her mother, Mary Alice Logan, was also an activist. “Her activism lives through me only because she instilled it in me at a young age. I went to meet with her at the Blackstone Galley Community Action Program. Every Monday. She brought me with her. It wasn’t like something that was separate from our lives. She included us and because she included us, it was just tattooed in our spirt.” That ingrained activism is present throughout Viola’s public speaking. I think of her speech at the 2017 Time 100 Gala where she discusses living a life bigger than herself. I inquire about the complexities and consequences of such a life. Without hesitation, she responds, “To be ostracized. To be vilified by people who are not doing that.” However, when has Viola ever allowed to let others’ opinions stop her.
“I understand that life at the end of the day is not worth living if it does not cost you anything. That’s what I do with my work. Listen when I did the scene as aAnalise Keating when she gave birth to a stillborn baby, that cost me something as an actor. That cost me a chunk of my spirit. It’s the same thing in life. You can’t move through life thinking that nothing is going to cost you anything, otherwise you aren’t living. I get it. At 52, I get it. But, my whole thing is it bring me joy. If I did the other, I would feel dead, so….” she trails off.
Viola’s has several causes that are important to her including poverty, women’s rights, and representation of women of color in film and media. The heavyweight of Harvey Weinstein and the exposure of powerful men who abused their positions by harrassing, assaulting, and even raping women, has been felt throughout the industry. Davis doesn’t shy away from the topic at all, in fact, she brings it up. “I fight for women’s rights, especially in terms of sexual assault,” Davis said. She champions diverse representations of women of color, “I feel very, very strongly about images of women of color. I always feel like our body parts are cut off, our complexities are cut off. I think we are only defined in very homogenized culture on screen. I never recognize those women.”
Alongside her husband Julius Tennon, she began Juvee Productions, a production company committed to produce character-driven stories from a diverse set of emerging and established voices. Viola yearns for stories about Black women, and not necessarily the ones that end up in history books. “Just a story about a woman and by the end, you have sat with her,“ she said. “You have sat with her mess, you have sat with her anger, you have sat with her passion, you have sat with her joy. I want an audience that an end of a movie, to understand who that woman of color absolutely is, on her own terms. I love the mess.”
She emphasizes that it’s not the notoriety or fame that legitimizes a story, “I think the fact we are just breathing and taking up space, legitimizes the story. “That’s why I love ‘Insecure’ with Issa Rae. I love the mess, I love that the mess is honored.“ Davis and her production company are producing the Barabara Jordan biopic about the closeted gay, Texas congresswoman. “Her life was a perfect metaphor for what’s going on politically. There’s a lot of stories. I want to do all of them. I want to do as many as I can.”