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Viola Davis Admits She Had a Chip on Her Shoulder: ‘I Felt My Voice as an Artist Was Being Stifled’

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Despite a skyrocketing career and a recent Oscar to add to her many other awards — including an Emmy and a Tony — Viola Davis admits to having a chip on her shoulder.

“I spent so many years at Juilliard just wanting to beat somebody up. I think it was the height of my anger; that chip on my shoulder,” she told a crowd at Harvard University’s Sander Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Saturday evening, where she was was honored with the school’s 2017 Artist of the Year award during Harvard’s Cultural Rhythms Festival.

“I’m still trying to take care of that chip on my shoulder, by the way. It was mainly because I felt my voice as an artist was being stifled,” she told the adoring audience who gave her several standing ovations.

The 51-year-old How to Get Away with Murder star, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar last Sunday for her role in Fences, called the stage and screen “a very sacred place.”

“I want people to be seen. I want them to feel less alone,” Davis, who is currently featured on the cover of this week’s PEOPLE magazine, said. “I think Picasso is the one who said ‘I paint because I want to show people what’s going on behind the eyes.’ ”

For more from Davis’ life, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now

RELATED VIDEO: Oscar Winner Viola Davis on Her Acting Strategy: ‘It’s Our Job as Artists to Unmask’

The South Carolina native, who was raised in poverty in Central Falls, Rhode Island, told the audience — most of whom were Harvard students — that their job was to “bear witness.”

“Your job is to come open and willing to transform, and that’s the power of what we do. And I feel like if one audience member is shifted in any way possible, I’ve done my job,” she said.

Davis, dressed stylishly in a black jacket and floral knee-length skirt, enjoyed the myriad cultural performances during the festival, often dancing in her seat on the side of the stage and clapping and singing along.

The mother of a 6-year-old daughter said she will try to live up to the honor bestowed upon her by Harvard.

“I can’t promise that I won’t do some crap every once in a while, because I’ve done some crap, let me tell you,” she joked. “But I have to say that I am honored to even be in the presence of so many artists here.”