Viola Davis has won numerous awards for her portrayal of Rose Maxson in Fences, including a Critics' Choice Award, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, a SAG Award, and an Academy Award (her first, and the culmination of her acting Triple Crown). Just as moving as her performance are her acceptance speeches, which manage to be at once profound and inspiring—just more reason to hand her an award, in fact. Such was the case with her latest award, Harvard's Artist of the Year, and her subsequent speech, which she used to talk about her previous acting struggles, her future as an actress, and the importance of art in life.
After taking the stage at Harvard's Cultural Rhythms Festival, Davis opened in a similar vein to her Oscars speech—by speaking to the vitality of art and artists. "Art, it's a very sacred place, the stage and the screen," she said at Harvard's Sanders Theater. "Because really, at the end of the day, even what I do as an artist, when I channel characters and people and their stories, and those moments in their lives that we sometimes hide, that we feel like is just our mess, our shame. I want people to be seen. I want them to feel less alone. I think Picasso is the one who said, 'I paint because I want to show people what's going on behind the eyes.'"
Davis then spoke about a time in her career when she often felt alone and, as such, developed a "chip on my shoulder" that she says has been difficult to shrug, even after her recent successes. "I spent so many years at Juilliard just wanting to beat somebody up," she said. "I think it was the height of my anger, that chip on my shoulder. I'm still trying to take care of that chip on my shoulder, by the way. It was mainly because I felt my voice as an artist was being stifled."
But now Davis hopes her voice and performances leave a lasting impression on the audience—whose job is to "bear witness." "Your job is to come open and willing to transform, and that's the power of what we do," she said. "And I feel like if one audience member is shifted in any way possible, I've done my job."
As for the Artist of the Year award, which has previously been given to Quincy Jones, Andy Garcia, Matt Damon, Salma Hayek, and Shakira, Davis said she hopes to live up to the honor. "I can't promise that I won't do some crap every once in a while, because I've done some crap, let me tell you," she said. "But I have to say that I am honored to even be in the presence of so many artists here. I really do. And hopefully, that I have influenced you in any way to shift, to transform. Thank you."
You can watch portions of her remarks, below:
Watch Viola Davis Take W's Screen Test: