She "gave me permission to see all my womanhood," the star says in this week's cover story

All good things must come to an end.

When Viola Davis says goodbye to her hit ABC series How to Get Away With Murder after this season, there’s one person she’ll be especially sad to see go. “I’ll miss Annalise Keating,” Davis, 54, tells PEOPLE of her character on the show. “I don’t know if I’m going to meet someone like her again.”

Getting the role was “a huge turning point in my life,” she adds. “Sometimes people have to give you permission to see yourself as better or more than what you think you are. That job gave me permission to see all my womanhood. I am a product of a culture that has dictated who I am, a dark-skinned black woman with lips and a nose and a deep voice. So all of a sudden this character, Annalise, comes in like a whirling dervish, and she’s all of it. She’s messy, almost sociopathic, sexual, mysterious, highly intelligent, a big personality. She’s all of those adjectives that are not associated with me, and I’ve got to play her.”

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

The show’s success allowed Davis, who was just named the new face of L’Oreal Paris, to see herself in a new light. “The most important question anyone can ask is ‘Why?’ And that character has been my why,” she explains. “Why can’t I be sexual? Why can’t men desire me? Why can’t I be smart? Why can’t I be unapologetic? Why do I have to hide my mess? Why can’t I take my wig off on network TV? Why can’t I be as dark as I can be? Why? Says who?”

After production wraps, the actress plans to take a long, overdue vacation with her husband of 16 years, actor Julius Tennon, 65, and their daughter Genesis, 8. “Does that sound nice?” she says, smiling. “Nothing. Peace.”

She’ll return to TV to star as Michelle Obama in First Ladies, a new anthology series she and Tennon are producing with Lionsgate through their company JuVee Productions for Showtime.

viola davis
Credit: Jake Chessum/Trunk

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

Davis admits she’s nervous to portray one of the nation’s most beloved women, but “I’m excited,” she says. “I may fail big. But you know what? I’ll live through it. But I do want to honor her in every way I can.”

In 20 years, the actress plans “to be living life on my terms,” she says. “To absolutely quiet all the voices saying, ‘This is what you need to do next. This is what you have to do.’ It’s a blank page. And it’s not all acting. It probably doesn’t look great to the rest of the world, but for me it does. Aging is a blessing. It means you’ve lived a long life, that you deserve all of your wrinkles and your scars. I have wisdom and a peace that I never did before. And I can look in the mirror literally for the first time and I actually like how I look.”