Viola Davis doesn’t mince words about her childhood. “I was the kind of poor where I knew right away I had less than everyone around me,” she says. “We had nothing.”
As she celebrates her historic Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress in Fences, Davis, 51, reflects on her journey to the pinnacle of Hollywood success in PEOPLE’s new cover story. “‘I cannot believe my life,'” she says. “I just can’t. I’m so blessed.”
The first black woman to ever be nominated for three Academy Awards, Davis has been paving her own way for more than 30 years, with powerful performances in films like 2011’s The Help and on TV, where she currently stars in ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder.
Growing up in Central Falls, R.I., Davis and her five siblings endured harsh living conditions as their parents, Dan and Mae Alice, struggled to make ends meet. “I would jump in trash bins with maggots looking for food, and I would steal from the corner store because I was hungry,” the actress says. “I never had any kids come to my house because my house was a condemned building, it was boarded up, it was infested with rats. I was one of those kids who were poor and knew it.”
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Davis coped with the hardships — including bullying by classmates who taunted her with the N-word — by finding solace in her imagination and creativity. “Viola has a creative mind, so we always escaped with stories, little plays and shows,” says her sister Deloris Grant, 53, now a teacher at their old high school. “She was able to take us away from any pain or suffering or depression.”
Davis first envisioned herself as an actor after she watched Cicely Tyson in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman when she was a child. “It wasn’t until then that I had a visual manifestation of the target I wanted to hit,” she says. It also gave her hope for the future and a different life for herself: “She helped me have a very specific drive of how I was going to crawl, walk, run from that environment.”
For much more from Viola Davis, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
She earned a full scholarship to Rhode Island College, then graduated from the Juilliard School in New York City. She found success on Broadway—she won her first Tony for 2001’s King Hedley II—and in films such as 2008’s Doubt, but Davis admits her confidence “took time. It really did, to come into myself,” she says. “It took many years of getting knocked down and getting back up to finally say, ‘Okay, I think I’m pretty tough. I’ve got this.'”
Davis also talks about how finding love with her husband of 13 years, actor Julius Tennon, and becoming a mom to her 6-year-old daughter, Genesis, changed her life. These days, it’s the smallest things that bring her the most joy. “Spending the day with my daughter at Chuck E. Cheese’s or going to the mall and playing in the play area,” she says. “That’s what makes me happy.”