Viola Davis wants her due.
The award-winning actress sat down with famed journalist Tina Brown for the Women in the World Salon event in Los Angeles Tuesday night, where she opened up about feeling underpaid and overlooked throughout her celebrated, 30-year career.
“I have a career that’s probably comparable to Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Sigourney Weaver,” said the actress and Juilliard graduate. “They all came out of Yale, they came out of Juilliard, they came out of NYU. They had the same path as me, and yet I am nowhere near them. Not as far as money, not as far as job opportunities, no where close to it.”
While critics and fans have likened her work to major A-list stars like Streep, who she costarred alongside in Doubt, Davis said her compensation has not been comparable to her white contemporaries.
“People say, ‘You’re a black Meryl Streep … We love you. There is no one like you,” she explained. “OK, then if there’s no one like me, you think I’m that, you pay me what I’m worth.”
Davis also said she’s been disappointed with the roles available to her. “As an artist I want to build the most complicated human being but what I get is the third girl from the left,” the How to Get Away With Murder star explained.
After years of making the most out of limited screen time, Davis said she’s tired of hustling to prove herself. “It’s gotten to the point [where] I’m no longer doing that,” she said. “I’m not hustling for my worth. I’m worthy. When I came out of my mom’s womb, I came in worthy.”
She went on to encourage young actors of color not to settle for less. “You’ll have a Shailene Woodley, who’s fabulous. And she may have had 37 magazine covers in one year. 37! And then you’ll have someone — a young actress of color who’s on her same level of talent and everything. And she may get four. And there is sense in our culture that you have to be happy with that,” she explained.
“I always mention what Shonda Rhimes said when she got the Normal Lear Award at,,,,, the Producers Guild Awards about two or three years ago,” she continued. “She held it up and she said, ‘I accept this award because I believe I deserve it. Because when I walk in the room I ask for what I want and I expect to get it. And that’s why I believe I deserve this award. Because Norman Lear was a pioneer, and so am I.’ And that’s revolutionary as a woman, but it’s doubly revolutionary as a woman of color. ‘Cause we have been riding the caboose of the train — we really have. And it’s time enough for that.”
But, Davis said, she did not always feel so empowered. Speaking about growing up in poverty in Rhode Island, she said, “The getting out is precarious,” adding, “Emotionally I did not get out.”
Raised by an abusive, alcoholic father in a rat-infested house, she said, “I was a rung lower than poor. People see poverty as just a financial state. Poverty seeps into your mind, it seeps into your spirit, because it has side effects.”
Her difficult childhood has motivated her to speak out for others, as she did in an emotional address to the January 20 Women’s March in L.A, where Davis spoke on behalf of “the women who don’t have the money and don’t have the constitution and who don’t have the confidence and who don’t have the images in our media that gives them a sense of self-worth enough to break their silence that is rooted in the shame of assault and rooted in the stigma of assault.”
“It cost me a lot to be on that stage and share my personal story,” she told Brown. “The way life works is its got to cost you something. That’s when you know you really made the sacrifices. If you’re dedicated to change, let it cost you something.”