Despite two Oscar nominations, Viola Davis says there are few good roles for someone like her

American actress Viola Davis (with husband Julius Tennon) on not wanting her character Annalise Keating to look perfect all the time. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
American actress Viola Davis (with husband Julius Tennon) on not wanting her character Annalise Keating to look perfect all the time. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Viola Davis plays brilliant and manipulative criminal law professor Annalise Keating in How To Get Away With Murder. -- PHOTO: ABC
Viola Davis plays brilliant and manipulative criminal law professor Annalise Keating in How To Get Away With Murder. -- PHOTO: ABC

Outspoken Oscar nominee Viola Davis, who gets her first major role in How To Get Away With Murder, is also a champion of women and children's causes

Even after two Oscar nominations, American actress Viola Davis has not had the luxury of picking meaty roles.

Feted for her Academy Award-nominated performances as a troubled boy's mother and then a maid during 1960s America in the movies Doubt (2008) and The Help (2011), she is getting her first major starring role only now, at the age of 49, in the new television drama, How To Get Away With Murder.

Speaking to Life! over the telephone from her home in Los Angeles, she says good roles are impossibly difficult to come by, especially for "someone like me".

"A lot of lead roles in Hollywood are geared towards younger women, so it's not that I've been rejecting roles, it's that they're just not out there and written for me. Usually, roles written for someone like me are all supporting roles, so it's not even like I am given a chance," she says.

And it is not just Hollywood's traditional bias against older actresses which has been hindering her. In a New York Times Magazine interview last month, she describes herself as vastly different from the typical leading star, being "a woman of colour, of a certain age and a certain hue".

Which is why she is so excited to have snagged the starring role for How To Get Away With Murder, in which she plays the brilliant and manipulative criminal law professor Annalise Keating, a high-flyer on the career front, but whose personal life is in shambles.

"This is the role I want people to see me in. This is the role I've been waiting for. She's complicated and mysterious," says the actress, almost gushing.

As high profile as the part clearly is - especially when the show is executive produced by Shonda Rhimes, arguably the most powerful and celebrated showrunner on American TV at the moment - Davis was careful not to dive in for the sake of it.

"I jumped at the chance when I got the phone call about the role, but I approached it like how I approach everything in my work - that it has to be on a very realistic level," she says. "I don't want to fall into the generic form of anything."

That meant initiating lengthy discussions with Rhimes and show creator Peter Nowalk before taking up the offer.

"I really had a sit down with them and I had to have an honest conversation with them. I wanted this character to be a real woman of a certain colour and age, to be grounded in reality, so as an artist, I needed her to be complicated, dealing with her hair, dealing with her marriage breaking apart."

Neither did she want the character to look physically perfect all the time.

"Every time you see a woman on-screen who's overly sexual, she's always walking in 5-inch heels. I wanted to shake that up and show that regular women out there who are sexualised don't always go to bed with full make-up. They also wear wigs and have issues with their real hair," she says, perhaps also referencing her past insecurities about her own short, curly hair.

She has said in past interviews that she wore wigs everywhere and dared to step out in public without one only at the Oscars two years ago, when she was up for the Best Actress award for The Help.

In an interview with media trade publication Variety last month, Nowalk was quoted as saying that Davis "can speak to things about being a woman that I don't know, and I'm like, 'Oh, that's awesome, we can do this'."

He added in the same interview: "You write a character on the page and you think its complex and three-dimensional, but it's not until she turns it on."

The show premiered in the United States to huge ratings last month, drawing 20.3 million viewers for its debut episode, including playbacks from digital video recordings. While the show's writing was generally noted by critics for being fast-paced and entertaining, Davis' performance was unanimously praised.

The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that her "potent performance nearly overwhelms the show, something that rarely happens on TV" and that "she certainly makes the younger contingent of the cast fade into the woodwork".

Popular entertainment news website HitFix wrote: "The moments when Annalise is plotting strategy with her underlings or pulling one shady trick after another in open court are a treat because Davis is there to carry it all."

Mention any reviews of the show, however, and fans will be reminded of the infamous essay written by New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley last month, which referred to Rhimes as an "angry black woman", a stereotype of African-Americans. The piece also described Davis as "less classically beautiful" than Kerry Washington, the star of Rhimes' TV series, Scandal. The essay was derided for being racist and an editor from the paper admitted later on that the write-up was "astonishingly tone-deaf".

Ask Davis about it and she says plainly that she is not shocked about racism being so prevalent, even in this day and age.

"I was born in 1965 and raised in a city where we were the only black family at the time, so I've heard every single cruel and intentional racist remark. So I can't say that I'm shocked," she says of her birth place of Central Falls, Rhode Island. "With race, people don't have the language for it because no one talks about it, so when it comes out, it comes out as skewed."

This is why she is so pleased about the massive reactions to the fiasco, because they led to discussions about the issue online.

"What I loved was the response. So many black women used the hashtag #classicallybeautiful and posted pictures of themselves, all women of colour with natural hair or their head shaved, with no make-up. They were all refusing to be defined by that label.

"It's them saying, you cannot tell me who I am, you can't define me by my culture, and I just loved that. Because only you can define you," she says resolutely, her voice slightly raised.

At times like this, she sounds like quite the motivational speaker, someone who genuinely believes in her ideals and is all ready to inspire those around her. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that she spends plenty of her free time giving speeches for various organisations, including those that champion women's empowerment and fight domestic violence.

She made headlines for giving a particularly moving and powerful speech about child hunger at Variety's Power Of Women luncheon last week, drawing on her own experiences as an impoverished child who had to go dumpster-diving for meals.

The second-youngest of six children, whose late father was a horse trainer and mother a factory worker, says: "A costume designer on How To Get Away With Murder came up to me the other day to say that she heard my speech at the luncheon and, because of it, picked up the phone and decided to involve herself in a charity and actually make a commitment to it. And you know, that's how I would like to be remembered - as someone who shifted another person's life in any way, big or small."

For now, her own life story sounds like quite the inspiration. After majoring in theatre at Rhode Island College, she enrolled in the prestigious Juilliard before finding work in theatre, off and on Broadway.

She picked up her first Tony Award for Best Featured Actress In A Play for her role as a conflicted wife in King Hedley II in 2001, and collected another in the same category for Fences, in which she played the wife of Denzel Washington's character, struggling to deal with altering race relations in the US.

Since then, she has transitioned to film and TV, playing supporting roles in movies, including Denis Villeneuve's thriller Prisoners (2013), and has had recurring guest roles in TV series United States Of Tara (2009) and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2003-2008).

In 2012, Time magazine named her one of its 100 Most Influential People In The World, and last year, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Outside work and personal campaigns, the rest of her free time is dedicated to her daughter Genesis, four, and actor-producer husband Julius Tennon, 60.

"My No. 1 goal is for my daughter to be happy. If she can be happy and grow up to go out to the world with confidence and not be too damaged, I would love that," she says with a laugh.

Still, even while spending time with her husband on the home front, she is never far from striving to rid stereotypes in her field as well as change things for the better.

If strong roles are not readily available for"someone like me", then she is taking that into her own hands. She and her husband started production company JuVee Productions in 2011 and develop film projects for multi-ethnic actors. These include a film about Harriet Tubman, the lauded African-American abolitionist during the US Civil War, and another biopic on congresswoman Barbara Jordan, the first African-American woman to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 1976.

She says: "I've always wanted to reach a certain status in my career, and the only way I was going to get them was to create those roles. I feel like I've gotten braver and when actors get together to talk about the creative process, I think it's important for the actor to make the choices and just go for it.

"You can't let things fall into what's been done before. As soon as you are released from the fear of failure, then you can really become the person you want to be."

yipwy@sph.com.sg

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How To Get Away With Murder airs on Sony Channel (SingTel mio TV Channel 316) on Wednesday at 8.50pm.