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. "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."
Viola Davis Takes W's Screentest: