“'In my dreams and visions, I seemed to see a line, and on the other side of that line were green fields, and lovely flowers, and beautiful white ladies, who stretched out their arms to me over the line, but I couldn’t reach them no-how,’ (quoting Harriet Tubman). Let me tell you something: the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” - Viola Davis
viola davis won an emmy, hugged taraji while walking to the stage, quoted harriet tubman in her speech, took hollywood to task for their lack of opportunities for black actors, then thanked damn near every black actress working in television right now for leading us to this moment.
“In my dreams and visions, I seemed to see a line, and on the other side of that line were green fields, and lovely flowers, and beautiful white ladies, who stretched out their arms to me over the line, but I couldn’t reach them no-how,” Davis said, quoting Harriet Tubman in her acceptance speech. “Let me tell you something: the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
Viola Davis made history last year as the first black woman to win the Emmy for lead actress in a drama, but the accomplishment still has not sunk in.
“It’s not my style to walk around and think, ‘I can’t believe I won an Emmy.’ I just don’t think like that,” confesses the star of “How to Get Away With Murder.” “It’s hard to see myself the way others see me. From my perspective, I’m just Viola.”
She drew raves for her powerful acceptance speech, in which she quoted Harriet Tubman and referenced the struggles women of color have faced finding roles on screen. “Absolutely, there’s been progress,” Davis says. “It’s like the old saying: When you know better, you gotta do better. Now we know better.”
Do you think much about awards, or are they just a nice bonus?
You can place so much importance on it, and, really, at the end of the day, it has very little to do with what you do. It’s not just about the hair and the makeup and the gold statue — it’s the work. Awards stress you out. It’s beautiful, though. I’m grateful.
Did you write last year’s Emmy acceptance speech in advance?
I did not write it. But speeches — that’s my side job. I tell the young people on set that I always have something to say. I’ve been doing this for 30 years; I’ve been on this planet for 50. You give me a minute and a half, I absolutely have something to say.
Where do you keep your Emmy?
I keep it in my office upstairs — or should I say my husband keeps it in the office upstairs?
You recently signed a production deal with ABC Studios. Why do you want to expand your role behind the camera?
I think that being an actor, in terms of the business, is the least powerful position you could be in. When you see your entire career as a journey, and when, as an actor, you’re gaining power, I think that you need to do something with it. You need to be the change that you want to see. I want to be able to look back at this time, this renaissance, when you have so many different narratives out there on television, and understand that I pulled some weight in it — that I was a participant, that I was at the table, that I was active. I’m always talking about opportunity or lack thereof for people of color, so at some point I have to put my money where my mouth is. So, producing — the opportunity afforded itself to me, and I took it.
How does “How to Get Away With Murder” compare with other work in your career?
It stands high on the list. I understand that people will say, “I loved you in ‘Doubt,’ I loved you in ‘The Help,’ ” and that’s fine. But this is the only role where I can play everything. I can play the sexuality, the intelligence, the heart. To me, Annalise is alive. Annalise is fully a woman.
Which do you prefer, TV or film work?
People always say, “Don’t you feel bad leaving your movie career for TV?” And the only thing I can say is, “What movie career did I have?” I do five or eight days on a movie, I get my salary, and then it would be over and I would be on to the next [movie], doing my five days of work, and that was it. I think people have in their minds that movies are just more prestigious. I think that’s changed now.
What do your fans think of Annalise?
The response I get is usually very positive, even from people who don’t like Annalise. Even from lawyers! People come up to me now. I’m recognized more. Everyone is a critic. We all feel like we understand what the actor does and what the actor is supposed to do. Likability is the big thing, and that has absolutely nothing to do with being an actor. The foundation of acting is to create a human being, and human beings are flawed — and some are completely unlikable. By the way, what’s so interesting about likability is that I know for a fact that nobody is having this conversation with a man. No one had this conversation with James Gandolfini or Anthony Hopkins or Robert De Niro. The likability factor is not at the [forefront] of the conversation — creating a dynamic character is. We all loved Hannibal Lecter even though he was a cannibal.
What do you want to see in season three?
I loved some of the episodes this past season — just knowing more backstory on some of the characters and [going deeper, getting them] more fleshed out. That’s all I want to see.
What other shows are you rooting for this year?
This is a horrible question for me because I do not watch television. I do not have time. I’ve watched “Fixer Upper” on HGTV! I’m rooting for all the actors in “Roots” because I understand it’s fantastic. I love Sarah Paulson and Courtney Vance [in “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”].
Viola Davis Speaks About Her Emmy, Diversity and Women on TV
By Rachel Syme, The New York Times, September 23, 2015.
When Viola Davis accepted her Emmy Award for best actress in a drama on Sunday night, she was the first African-American woman to ever do so. Feeling the weight of that moment, Ms. Davis quoted Harriet Tubman (“But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line”) and put it plainly to the television industry about the lack of opportunities for black women. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there,” she said.
On Wednesday, Ms. Davis spoke by phone about the moments after her award and her sense of hope for women in the industry. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q. How are you feeling about everything?
A. I’m feeling good! I’m surprised. I usually go inside my head and start overthinking things whenever something good happens and talk myself out of the joy. But I haven’t done that this time, so I think that’s a sign of maturity.
Q. What has the reaction been to your award?
A. I feel like I’ve gotten a really huge response that kind of surpassed the award. Just people admiring my speech makes me feel really good. I remember Meryl Streep told me once, “You know, Viola, these young girls are always listening to us — every word we say is hitting them in a way that you can’t even imagine.” And that’s what I’ve found to be very true.
Q. Did you have that Harriet Tubman quotation picked out far in advance?
A. My husband and I are doing a Harriet Tubman project, and when it was picked up by HBO, one of the producers sent me that quote. It struck me in such a huge way because of its progressiveness, so it stayed with me ever since, and that’s been several months. I just felt it was apropos, seeing that no woman of color has ever won in that category. That moment had to be acknowledged, or else it would be a missed opportunity. It would be one of those moments I would look back on, and I would have regretted it.
Q. What did you and Taraji P. Henson, a fellow nominee in the drama category, say to each other when you won?
A. First of all, that was like the second or third time we hugged through the night. She said, “I love you,” and I said, “I love you more than anything in the world, I love you!” That’s what we said. I think at the end of the day, people want to be seen. And I think that’s why it was important for me and Taraji to acknowledge that in each other, to not just feel like it is competition, to just say, I see you, yes, I see you, too. I love you. I take you in.
Q. For you it is about inclusion.
A. If there has been any backlash, it’s that all people want to feel included in a speech. I know there has been some backlash with an actress who didn’t feel she was included.
Q. You mean the soap opera actress (Nancy Lee Grahn, who argued on Twitter that Ms. Davis’s speech was misleading because she was part of an elite group of actresses who had never been held back by discrimination)?
A. Yes. I don’t know that I want to say more about that.
Q. Did you get to see Uzo Aduba (who won the supporting actress in a drama category) or Regina King (supporting actress in a limited series or movie), at the after parties?
A. Oh, I saw every last one of them! I saw Uzo, I saw Regina, I saw Lorraine Toussant, I saw Niecy Nash, I saw Queen Latifah — I didn’t get to see Mo’Nique or Kerry Washington, who I get to see on the set every once in a while. But I am renewing my vows on Feb. 13, and I hope I will get to see Kerry Washington and Taraji there. Oprah sent me a bouquet. See, these are actresses I get together with every year, in community, in camaraderie, in sisterhood. It’s pointless to be in competition — it’s only adding to the pressure that the business is putting on you.
Q.You mentioned that you want change to come about in the industry. There was a recent study about how women are still vastly underrepresented in TV, both behind and in front of the camera.
A. I was reading Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” last week for some reason, and she spoke a lot about women’s plights in the 1950s. Women who were hiding behind the mask of well-waxed floors and beautiful applied lipstick and suffered in silence. And I don’t think that’s happening anymore. Women are bold! And now that I’m producing, I’m seeing what’s happening behind the scenes with people like Alfre Woodard, with people like Sanaa Lathan, with Taraji P. Henson, with Kerry Washington. These are all women who are producing their own material. They know their beauty, they know their talent. The women I know don’t accept the statistics anymore. They don’t accept the numbers as cementing their future.