Viola Davis’s biography, Finding Me, is coming out Tuesday! I’m so excited, I preordered the hard copy. It’s currently the number one bestseller in books! Part of that is the fact that Oprah has chosen it as a book club selection. Viola’s Netflix interview with Oprah, Oprah + Viola A Netflix Special Event, was released Friday. I wasn’t able to get through the first minute before I started getting choked up. This is so very easily the most moving celebrity interview I’ve ever seen and I’m not overselling it. You can just feel the depth of emotion between Oprah and Viola. Viola has been through so much in her life that Oprah, who grew up poor, admits she doesn’t understand “poverty like the kind you have experienced.” While Viola has talked about growing up in extreme poverty before, she hasn’t revealed the extent of some of what she went through, which includes living without heat or water in the winter, wetting the bed until age 14 and not having the means to get clean, and having rats jumping on her bed and eating her toys. She also dealt with physical and sexual abuse. Viola is one of six children, four sisters and a brother, and grew up in Central Falls, Rhode Island with her father, who worked as a horse groomer, and her mother, who worked as a maid. Her parents were together until her father’s death in 2006.
Here’s some of what Viola told Oprah. I’m not excerpting some of the roughest details of her childhood. If you’d like to read some of that, THR has more. I want to focus on the transformative things that happened to her and some of the wise things she said. I know Viola doesn’t get a lot of comments because she’s just an incredible non-controversial person, but please honk if you love her like we do.
On forgiving her father for abusing her mother
At the end of the day we’re all trying to do the best we have with what we’ve been given and that’s it. We just don’t have a face of what that looks like. Sometimes we watch too much TV and we want lives to be played out the same way. And it doesn’t work that way. Everything becomes a sort of extension to how much you’re willing to accept the life that God gave you and how much bravery you have to forge ahead and create the life that you want. My therapist told me that life is about two things, living life for pleasure and gratefulness and joy but also the understanding that the downtime is going to come. If you can be somewhere in the middle of that and understanding that, it’s survivable.
On finding her way out of poverty
When I was younger, I thought I was cursed. ‘No one thinks I’m cute, I don’t have that. I’m poor. I have a lot of violence in the family. Where’s my sunlight.’ Until you find people in your life who love you. And they love all of you, even your flaws. They give you permission to be able to love yourself.
I needed a dream like I needed food and water. That dream wasn’t just a goal. That dream was my way out, my salvation.
On teachers who helped her
Mrs. Prosser would call me to her office from time to time with a bag full of the most beautiful clothes that were hand-me-downs from her daughter that she would give to me because she knew I needed clothes. It was like giving me some jewels. When you are in the face of compassion and empathy it’s amazing how it kills shame because you’re seen and you’re seen for something what more valuable than your circumstances. At the end of the day what I was looking for was love, that sort of radical power of love.
She was called to the office with her sister because they smelled like urine
It was a hard story to tell. My sister Deloris was also called to the office because we smelled really bad that day. [I knew I smelled] but I didn’t know what to do about it. People just assume ‘you just clean yourself.’ Not if anyone doesn’t show you. No one showed me and we didn’t have any hot water. A lot of times we didn’t have any soap… any clean clothes. We’d wash the clothes by hand the night before, hang them up to dry. The next day they’re wet, you’re putting on wet clothes. If no one shows you, you have to figure it out on your own. I didn’t have the tools [to do that]. All I could do was swim in the shame.
On people helping her understand how to lift herself up
It’s the vision of what you want in your life but there’s this whole part in between of how to get there. That whole journey of someone who gives you that rope, that sword, that knife. That whole in between is what you have to figure out. I wanted someone to help me figure it out. Failure and hardship is an interesting learning tool. Once you hit bottom or either stay there or learn to rise up.
On how acting saved her
From the moment I started doing skits I felt like whatever I can’t express in my life, I could do it in a character. I want to just rip open what it means to be a human being and show it to you in all its ugliness, beauty, contradictions and complexity. I think that’s what saved my life. That’s what healed me. It was my conduit of being able to take all the trauma… and feed it through that vacuum of these characters and give it to you, recreated.
The end of the interview is so uplifting and includes how she met her husband, a man she prayed for who came less than a month later(!), and her adoption of daughter Genesis, now 11. My only complaint is that it’s under an hour long. I could watch three hours of Viola and Oprah. Viola is such an inspirational person and watching her interviews and career over the years has been a true joy and a privilege. I’m not blowing smoke, she convinced me to jump out of a plane. You get the sense that she is living her truth and that she is truly showing us who she is in her work. The fact that she’s only received one Oscar to date is more of a testament to the system she’s working in and the opportunities she’s been given than her massive talent and ability. Now I’m going to binge How to Get Away with Murder.
Photos credit: Huy Doan/Netflix and Avalon.red
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