Shocker: Oscar nominee Viola Davis is routinely offered 'mammy-ish' roles by Hollywood
Viola Davis may be the lead of a heavily-hyped new network series, but as the actress herself tells it, it's been an uphill battle getting to this point as a woman "of a certain age and a certain hue."
“I don’t see anyone on TV like me in a role like this," said Davis - who stars in this fall's new ABC drama "How to Get Away with Murder" - in a recent interview with New York Times Magazine. "And you can’t even mention [lighter-skinned black actresses] Halle Berry or Kerry Washington."
Indeed, even after being nominated for a second Oscar for her performance in 2012's "The Help" (her first nod came four years earlier for her brief role in "Doubt" co-starring Meryl Streep), the 49-year-old Davis claims underwhelming parts continued to come her way.
“I have been given a lot of roles that are downtrodden, mammy-ish,” she said. “A lot of lawyers or doctors who have names but absolutely no lives. You’re going to get your three or four scenes, you’re not going to be able to show what you can do. You’re going to get your little bitty paycheck, and then you’re going to be hungry for your next role, which is going to be absolutely the same. That’s the truth.”
Thankfully, "How to Get Away with Murder" (which comes from "Scandal" and "Grey's Anatomy" creator Shonda Rimes) is the rare part that actually gives Davis something to dig into. On the show the actress plays Annalise Keating, a brilliant defense lawyer and law professor who regularly enlists the help of her brightest students to win cases. When her current crop of pupils becomes embroiled in a mysterious on-campus murder, they begin to question whether Annalise herself may have been involved in the crime.
“It’s [the kind of role] I’ve had my eye on for so long,” said Davis. “It’s time for people to see us, people of color, for what we really are: complicated.”
Even when compared with older white actresses - who themselves face an uphill battle in age-obsessed Hollywood - women of color are at a distinct disadvantage, Davis says.
“Do I think there is a crisis for women over 40, too? Absolutely. But a 25-year-old white actress who is training at Yale or Juilliard or SUNY Purchase or N.Y.U. today can look at a dozen white actresses who are working over age 40 in terrific roles," said Davis. "You can’t say that for a lot of young black girls. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.”