The How to Get Away With Murder star opens up about surviving childhood poverty, how she learned to let go of self-doubt and why she always chooses hope


Being a mom means everything to Viola Davis.

Her love for her daughter Genesis, 8, with her husband, actor Julius Tennon, 65, “surpasses anything that I could want from the material world,” she tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s cover story. “I empower her to understand that she has to count it all as joy. Even her mistakes, her failures, her triumphs, what she looks like, all of it. That’s all a part of her loving herself, even if none of those things change.”

Davis often draws upon her own upbringing in Central Falls, Rhode Island., amidst poverty to keep Genesis grounded. And she doesn’t hide her truth. “I feel like I’m the mom who has the courage to share her story with her daughter,” the actress says.

  • For more of Viola Davis’ exclusive interview, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Credit: Jake Chessum/Trunk Archive

She’s also honest when it comes to the decisions Genesis will make in life. “I tell her that she’s going to make some big old mistakes, and that Mommy is not going to have the answers, and sometimes you’re not either,” Davis adds. “I’m the mom who says, ‘You’re good enough wherever you are, but there’s going to be times when you don’t feel good enough.’ I’m not the mom who’s just going to tell her a bunch of lies about life, because I want her to be the best woman in the room.”

The How to Get Away With Murder star— who was just named the new face of L’Oreal Paris — now strives to teach her daughter “that beauty is from within. I mean, we’ve got to get past physical beauty, selfies, even though of course I’ve taken a selfie in my day,” she says. “But I always say, ‘Genesis, your heart and your head are the two most important parts of you.’ The physical falls away. The things that you can take with you that really are of value have nothing to do with the physical. And she knows that.”

viola davis family
Credit: Christopher Polk/Variety/Shutterstock

Keeping Genesis grounded “means I make her clean her room, take care of her fish. I don’t shelter her,” Davis adds. “I just tell her she’s worth it. Even if I’m combing her hair, and she’s crying. … She does not have to be a perfect little girl. There’s no such thing. It’s okay to be vulnerable, and there’s strength in vulnerability.”

More than anything, Davis wants her daughter to understand the importance of taking care of herself. “I don’t want her to see an example of a mother who just negates [that], who has sacrificed that just for her,” she says. “I think a lot of women have that as the narrative. You get in a tribe of other women, it’s like, ‘I didn’t bathe today.’ ‘I only had one hour of sleep, but I took my daughter to school.’ I don’t do that. I want to live as long as I can. As much as I can control it. If I don’t take care of myself, I can’t take care of anyone else. I feel like that’s non-negotiable.”

Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: Viola Davis streaming now on, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.