Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal Talk Body Acceptance, Typecasting in Hollywood

"I had never seen a 49-year-old, dark-skinned woman who is not a size 2 be a sexualized role in TV or film," Davis says of her groundbreaking role in How to Get Away with Murder

Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty

Viola Davis admits she learned an important lesson since signing on to play Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder: Don’t typecast yourself.

“When I saw myself for the first time in the pilot episode, I was mortified. I saw the fake eyelashes and, ‘Are you kidding me? Who is going to believe this?’ ” she told The Hollywood Reporter during a roundtable with fellow actresses including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jessica Lange, Taraji P. Henson, Lizzy Caplan and Ruth Wilson.

But after giving herself a pep talk, Davis, 49, says she finally came around to viewing the role as legitimately groundbreaking.

“Then I thought, ‘Okay, this is your moment to not typecast yourself, to play a woman who is sexualized and do your investigative work to find out who this woman is and put a real woman on TV who’s smack-dab in the midst of this pop fiction,’ ” she said.

The two-time Oscar nominee says it was a profound realization after years of being relegated to roles that didn’t necessarily match the way she felt inside – or anything else she’d seen onscreen.

“There was absolutely no precedent for it. I had never seen a 49-year-old, dark-skinned woman who is not a size 2 be a sexualized role in TV or film,” she said. “I’m a sexual woman, but nothing in my career has ever identified me as a sexualized woman. I was the prototype of the ‘mommified’ role. Then all of a sudden, this part came, and fear would be an understatement.”

Gyllenhall, 37, said she came to understand early on that she might not be cast as the typical sexy movie actress – and has been fighting her own version of typecasting ever since.

“When I was really young, I auditioned for this really bad movie with vampires. I wore a dress to the audition that I thought was really hot. Then I was told I wasn’t hot enough. My manager at the time said, ‘Would you go back and sex it up a little bit?’ So I put on leather pants, a pink leopard skinny camisole and did the audition again and still didn’t get the part. After that, I was like, “Okay, f— this!”

Gyllenhaal – who recently made headlines for revealing she was told that at 37, she was too old to play a 55-year-old’s love interest – also said she doesn’t buy into the plastic surgery culture in Hollywood, preferring to see real women onscreen.

“I was never the actress asked to be the hot girl who took her clothes off on her first day of work. I was never objectified that way,” said Gyllenhaal, who added that she felt comfortable participating in sex scenes in The Honourable Woman, her new BBC miniseries. “I wanted to show what a woman my age actually really looks like. I am much more turned on when I see people’s bodies that look like bodies I recognize.”

Davis shared a similar sentiment, explaining that she had to steel herself when she took on the lead in the Shonda Rhimes drama, getting to a place where she knew not everyone would accept her in the role and learning not to care.

“I was going to have to face a fact that people were going to look at me and say: ‘I have no idea why they cast her in a role like this. She just doesn’t fit. It should have been someone like Halle Berry. It’s her voice, and she doesn’t walk like a supermodel in those heels.’ And people do say that, they do. But what I say to that is the women in my life who are sexualized are anywhere from a size zero to a size 24. They don’t walk like supermodels in heels. They take their wig and makeup off at night.”

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Now, Davis is aware of the symbolism of her role – and embracing it.

“This role was my way of saying, ‘Welcome to womanhood!’ ” she said. “It’s also healed me and shown a lot of little dark-skinned girls with curly hair a physical manifestation of themselves.”

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