Viola Davis' Journey from Extreme Poverty to Oscar Gold: 'I Sacrificed a Childhood for Food'

How Viola Davis overcame an impoverished childhood to achieve to Oscar glory

F:PHOTOMediaFactory ActionsRequests DropBox3000#tvcaptureSNAG-3315.jpg

Born in a one-room shack with no running water, Viola Davis has journeyed beyond the “trauma” of her impoverished upbringing to finally bring home Oscar gold Sunday night thanks to her Best Supporting Actress win for Fences.

Although the 51-year-old is now one of the most renowned actresses in Hollywood — in part because of her acclaimed roles in movies like The Help and her TV show, How to Get Away With Murder — Davis grew up so poor that she had to wear rags around her neck at night to protect her from rat bites, and remembers her family’s refrigerator being literally bare.

Last August, the actress opened up to PEOPLE and Entertainment Weekly editorial director Jess Cagle about being born on her grandmother’s farm, which used to be the site of a slave plantation in South Carolina.

“[There was] no running water. No bathroom. It’s just an outhouse,” she said during The Jess Cagle Interview. “But my mom says that the day I was born, all of my aunts and uncles were in the house. She said everyone was drinking and laughing, and having fun. She said she ate a sardine, mustard, onion, tomato sandwich after I was born.”

For much more on Viola Davis, watch the full Jess Cagle Interview at

Shortly after her birth, the family moved to Rhode Island where they lived in a partly-abandoned building with intermittent heat and electricity. According to a December profile of the actress in The New Yorker, the building’s rat problem was so bad that Davis had to sleep with rags tied around her neck to keep them from biting her during the night.

The family’s financial situation was often so dire that they wouldn’t have food at the house, and at times she solely relied on school lunches for meals.


“When I say we had nothing, I mean zero,” she told the magazine. “I remember one time a friend came over to the house and she opened the refrigerator. There was nothing in it. She said, ‘Are you guys moving?’ ”

Her home situation could also lead to embarrassing moments at school. “We didn’t have money all the time to do laundry. A lot of the time, we didn’t have soap or hot water,” she told The New Yorker. “We were smart kids academically, but we’d go to school smelling. I reeked of urine.”

In 2014, Davis revealed that she was even reduced to Dumpster-diving for food.

“I did everything to get food. I have stolen for food,” Davis said while being honored at the “Power of Women” event, per the Washington Post. “I have jumped in huge garbage bins with maggots for food. I have befriended people in the neighborhood who I knew had mothers who cooked three meals a day for food, and I sacrificed a childhood for food and grew up in immense shame.”

RELATED VIDEO: Is an Oscar Really Only Worth $1?

Now that the actress has found success through a series of memorable roles, she’s able to indulge in the finer things in life — but that doesn’t mean she’s forgotten her early struggles. Davis told the magazine that her poverty-stricken childhood still haunts her in some ways.

“Because I grew up in such tight spaces, I don’t get manicures, pedicures, I’m not into cars, but I am into a fabulous house. I wanted the spiral staircase, clean sheets on the bed, to be able to take a shower,” Davis said. “The big ‘Aha!’ moment is that the trauma never goes away.”

Related Articles