Viola Davis Opens Up About Growing Up in Poverty

“It’s not even that people look down on you, it’s that they don’t see you at all.”

viola davis, best performance, by mario sorrenti, styled by edward enninful. W magazine Feb 2012.jpg
Photo by Mario Sorrenti, styled by Edward Enninful.

Viola Davis is one of the most celebrated actresses of our time: She’s won Academy Awards, Golden Globes, SAGs, Emmys, and Tonys (while almost always delivering a powerful acceptance speech in the process). Most recently, Davis has been named to Time’s Most Influential People list.

In a video filmed for Time, Davis reveals what it was like to grow up in poverty and on welfare. “We don’t want anything that reflects our greatest fear, and when you’re poor, that’s what you are reflecting,” she says. “It’s not even that people look down on you, it’s that they don’t see you at all.”

To escape the difficult reality that she was living, Davis recounts how she and her sister, Dolores, would play a game where they would make believe they had expensive jewelry and were wealthy. “[Dolores] would always break it by saying, ‘You’re not rich, you don’t live in Beverly Hills. You’re poor, you live on welfare,'” Davis recalls. “Then we would fight and cry…[but] it was a coping mechanism to deal with the sort of dysfunction and the poverty. In a way, it was the game that saved us.”

That game of pretend led to a passion for acting that Davis refused to “just squelch”; instead, she “literally took it out and let it soar,” she says in the video. And though her career has taken off to the highest levels, it is still her impoverished beginnings that allow her to fully enjoy all of her success.

“I come from the world of, if you enjoy it, it’s like all of a sudden the sky is going to fall,” Davis says. “Like, when I won this art contest, they had this big ceremony for me at RISD and I ran home to tell my parents and I just remember I was running back to poverty. It didn’t feel the same way as when I heard the news.”

She continues: “Then, I realized…’But Viola, that was your childhood, you can actually enjoy it now.’ So I think it is a big deal to enjoy it.”

The combination of Davis’ incredible acting talents and her ability to stay grounded is what makes her such an icon to many, as her friend Meryl Streep writes of Davis in an essay for Time{: rel=nofollow}. “Viola Davis’ hard-won, midlife rise to the very top of her profession has not led her to forget the rough trip she took getting there,” Streep writes. “Her importance in the culture—her ability to identify it, her willingness to speak about it and take on responsibility for it—is what marks her for greatness.”

Related: Viola Davis Delivers Powerful Speech About Self-Acceptance at the Critics’ Choice Awards

Viola Davis Takes W’s Screentest:

Academy Award Winner’s Viola Davis’s Bold, Primary-Hued Style Evolution

Viola Davis arrives at the premiere screening of Law Abiding Citizen in 2009 wearing a shocking pink mini dress.

Frazer Harrison

Lime green is not a typical hue for a major awards show, but Davis made it work for the 64th Annual Tony Awards.

Bennett Raglin

Another green moment for Davis arrives at the 15th Annual Hollywood Film Awards Gala in 2011.

Steve Granitz

Davis attendded the The Academy’s 3rd Annual Governors Award Dinner in 2011 in gilded white.

Steve Granitz

A vision in red, Davis attends the 17th Annual Critics Choice Movie Awards at Hollywood Palladium on January 12, 2012.

Steve Granitz

At the 23rd Annual Producers Guild Awards in 2012, Davis wore a gorgeous emerald green gown.

Jeffrey Mayer

Showing off her legs in caped burgundy, Davis arrives at the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards in 2012.

George Pimentel

With a stunning jade dress at the 84th Annual Academy Awards, Davis kept her beauty look natural.

Gregg DeGuire

Davis channeled a Grecian goddess at the 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Donato Sardella

Davis arrives at the 19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2013 in one-shouldered turquoise.

Jeffrey Mayer

Yellow but most certainly not mellow at the 17th Annual Hollywood Film Awards in 2013.

Steve Granitz

ZIg-zagging in electric blue, Davis arrives at the Los Angeles Premiere Ender’s Game in 2013.

Barry King

Another Academy Awards red carpet, another jaw-dropping green gown, here in 2014.

Frazer Harrison

A feminine and flirty look for a premiere screening of her hit television show How To Get Away With Murder.

Todd Wawrychuk

A dramatic crimson moment at the 72nd Annual Golden Globe Awards in 2015.

George Pimentel

Davis attends TNT’s 21st Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in a white halter gown.

Theo Wargo

Taking home the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series award for How to Get Away With Murder, Davis steps out in a rare print.

Michael Kovac

Davis arrives at the The 22nd Annual Critics’ Choice Awards in a stunning beaded turquoise moment.

Steve Granitz

Opting for a jumpsuit over the classic gown, Davis arrives at the 10th Annual Women In Film Pre-Oscar Cocktail Party.

Steve Granitz

Contrasting blue stripes make for a statement moment at the 70th EE British Academy Film Awards.

Samir Hussein

To take home her Best Supporting Actress award, Davis chose a scarlet gown by Armani.

Steve Granitz

Viola Davis attends the Time 100 Gala at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 25, 2017 in New York City.


Viola Davis attends the Disney ABC Television Group TCA summer press tour at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on August 6, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California.