In a candid discussion, the 'Widows' star — and Sherry Lansing Leadership Award honoree — reveals herself to best-selling author and leadership guru Brené Brown in a raw exchange about trauma, healing, politics ("I see America as that uncle who loved you more than anything, but has a record for murder") and how Time's Up is changing Hollywood: "Now, I don't have to walk into the room like a dude, have a pretend penis and sling it on the table" to be heard.
Viola Davis and Brené Brown first spoke in May 2017. Davis had recently won her Oscar for Fences, and Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston and the author of multiple best-sellers on courage and vulnerability, was developing her 2017 book, Braving the Wilderness. Brown's work as a leadership consultant has earned her fans in Silicon Valley (Melinda Gates: "Brené taught me that leadership requires admitting what you don’t know instead of pretending to know everything"), Hollywood (her A-list acolytes include Reese Witherspoon, Amy Adams, Laverne Cox and Oprah Winfrey, who calls her a "soul mate") and well beyond (her two TED Talks have close to 50 million views between them).
Brown was eager to interview Davis because "she's such an incredible example of what it means to belong to yourself before you belong to anyone else." And Davis embraced being part of Brown's book because the actress had begun to speak more openly about the traumas of her past — growing up extremely poor, hungry and abused in Central Falls, Rhode Island — and her healing path, which includes her art as well as her activism on behalf of impoverished families. The star has helped raise more than $20 million to fight hunger as an ambassador for the Hunger Is campaign, and has donated funding to the local library and the high school theater program in her hometown, as well as supported a community health clinic there.
Davis' 2017 conversation with Brown ranged from her damaged childhood (“I was a bed-wetter until I was 12 or 13. I smelled. Teachers complained about the smell and sent me to the nurse’s office.”) to the fear and anxiety she carried into her adult life and, finally, her awakening, at age 38, to her own strength.
Today, the 53-year-old Davis' star is shining brighter than ever: The perennial awards contender has notched two more Emmy nominations (she won in 2015 for ABC's Shondaland drama How to Get Away With Murder, becoming the first black woman ever to take the drama lead actress honors) and is in the Oscar conversation now for her work on Steve McQueen's female-centered heist film, Widows. JuVee, the production company she founded with husband Julius Tennon in 2011 (the same year they adopted their daughter, Genesis), recently announced a first-look feature deal with Amazon (JuVee's overall TV pact with ABC is ongoing). And THR's 2018 Sherry Lansing Leadership Award honoree says she is "defiantly in the season of finding myself again." So in a searching conversation on Nov. 26 — edited for length and clarity — she and Brown picked up right where they left off.
BRENÉ BROWN: I just finished a seven-year study on courageous leadership, and when I look at what it means to be a leader, I see you. The definition that emerged from our research is that a leader is anyone who holds themselves responsible for finding the potential in people and processes, who has the courage to develop that potential. Do you think of yourself as a leader?
VIOLA DAVIS: I never thought I had the courage to be a leader. I always faded into the background — it was very comfortable for me. But I read something that I've been using in a lot of my speeches: "Courage is fear said with prayers." So, when I see courage like that, then I say, "OK, I can be a leader." You really have to understand the ground on which you have walked and be able to take in your experiences and authentically share them. I know the road of joy, I know the road of science, of excellence. But I also know the road of failure, of feeling invisible, of feeling passionless, and I have the courage to come back and share that with people and guide them through it and give them the elixir of the stuff that I've learned. That's how I mentor. I always say, "If you want to be told a bed of lies, I'm probably not the mentor for you." I'm the mentor that says, "You know what, it's going to be really hard. A, B and C may stop you and it may stop you for a while, but here are the tools that I learned." In that sense I am a leader.
One of the things that we know from hundreds of thousands of pieces of data is that you can't take people professionally to places where you're not willing to go personally. And you go there.
I do go there, and I find a lot of times, that if you're willing to go in the wilderness — it really is a vast wilderness, life is a vast wilderness. I feel like the willingness to go there and tell the truth about it — I'm speaking from a very specific profession — a lot of times people are not willing to follow that person. You'll have fewer people who will follow you with your little lantern through that vast jungle when you are leading authentically with vulnerability. Sometimes people want to be led with a lie. Because people want to believe that you can park your car at success and joy, that it's not a continuous journey. That you're never going to slap yourself against a wall, and if you do you're only going to be there for a second before you come back to yourself. I'm not one of those leaders. I'm there for the long haul because I know that when you slap yourself against the wall, it may stop you for a long time. Especially coming from where I'm coming from, the acting profession and the arts, because a huge part of it relies on luck. And a huge part of that relies on commitment. You need that person that's going to be with you for the long haul.
People want to be led by the lie. When you say that, I think about the current political environment, where we have leaders who — if they can leverage people's fear and uncertainty, deliver an enemy, and give them someone to blame for their pain —can get away with anything. What is the big fear that drives us to be led by the lie?
A great therapist said to me one time, "Change doesn't happen without anxiety and chaos." I think it's the fear of the change, because when you have to change, then you have to go into the wilderness. You have to go into the part of life that is the unknown. You have to face isolation — you say it all the time, and I don't think that people know what that is. For instance, we don't all have the same history. We were not all brought to this country in the same way. A lot of us have a history that's rife with abuse and genocide and chaos and what it has amounted to is a culture where people feel that they're not being seen. So, how do you combat that without somehow feeling indicted and without somehow having to give up your power? It's going into the unknown and going to a place that could absolutely work for you, but it's something that you don't know. It's giving up your power. It's giving up your safety. That's my guess.
If we have these stories in our country of trauma, abuse, slavery, genocide, and we're not willing to own them because they threaten our privilege and power, how do we write a new ending?
I don't know what "ending" means. I know what you're saying, but I don't know what "ending" means. You know what, I see America as that uncle who always gave you a whole lot of candy and treated you with the utmost respect and who you loved more than anything in the world, but who has a record for murder. That's how I see America. I think that that is hard to reconcile, the messy with the love. But for me, taking ownership of my mess personally, I have found myself. I found a huge, whole other space that has opened in my life by owning the mess. I changed my own narrative, because I always felt that stories have to sound pretty in order for them to have power. In terms of a country, in terms of a political system, I believe that [people are attached to that] saying from the '80s: "He who dies with the most toys, wins." I think that people actually do believe that there is a U-Haul in the back of a hearse — that you can take all the stuff with you. Your status. Your power. Your feeling "better than," having more money. That somehow, it all makes your life matter more. When my dad died, the people at the funeral parlor gave me this whole brochure, because I had to plan the whole funeral within 10 minutes of him dying, and they gave me this brochure of all these caskets, and they ranged in price from $1,900 to $8,500, and they each had different handles on them. Some were gold, some were really plain. The way they sold it, was like — I forget the channel where they try to sell jewelry to you and clothing …
Yeah, QVC! It was QVC at the funeral home! And my mom actually said, "Your daddy would love this casket. This casket right here, totally says your daddy." So, I picked the $5,300 casket and I was like, "This is great! I picked the best casket for my father, I'm going to put him away really nice." Then at the funeral, I remember when we finally closed the casket, I looked in to make sure our pictures, [everything we wanted to bury with him], was inside. I saw he didn't have any shoes, and I was pissed off. "Where are his shoes?" Then the next revelation was, "Why does he need shoes, Viola? He's gone." Most people are just valuing life by the level of casket they're able to buy, not the life that they're living. That's why I believe that we are at the point that we are in this country. [The belief] that God sees some of us and he doesn't see others. If you work hard and pay your bills and if you're nice and white and heterosexual and a dude, then God is going to like you better.
You're one of the most decorated actors in the world. How do you reject the connecting of your self-worth to what you accomplish, accumulate and achieve?
I probably could answer that if I told you a lie, but I defiantly am in the season of finding myself again. The big thing in my growth is allowing my 6-year-old self to look at the 53-year-old she gets to become, and allowing that 6-year-old to feel joyful and excited. She made it out. She was brave. I don't know so much about the 53-year-old self.
Are you discovering who that is?
It's very, very hard when everybody has a hand in your life. That's what I have. I have the Viola Davis who is the award-winning actress. The Viola Davis on the internet. The Viola Davis who's at home, the mother and the wife. And the Viola Davis that's just privately me. I don't care how close you are to anyone, they can't be you. I don't care how much they love you, they can't be you. Because I have so much coming at me, I have to be bold and brave and honest with myself about how it makes me feel. How, when I wake up in the morning and I feel that I have a movie that hasn't done well, or I have a TV show that is not fulfilling to me or is fulfilling, or I'm making a ton of money, how do you actually feel? And I have been shocked at how little my joy is connected to how other people feel about my work.
I have to live my life on my own terms. I'd never really thought that that was a choice for me. I thought that you were supposed to be a Mrs. Potato Head of what everyone saw as success and significance. I never thought that you have to pick what the pieces are. Now, at 53, I'm picking out what the pieces are. Literally. For instance, just an example, I've gained weight. Now, listen, I'm not a skinny Minnie. I've never been a skinny Minnie. I'm a yo-yo dieter. I'm always weighing myself. I always go to bed in a panic that I'm really heavy, I'm not pretty, I'm not this, I'm not that. But I don't care about being pretty, Brené! I never cared about being pretty. I came to L.A., and all of a sudden, I care about being pretty because I feel like that is my way of being accepted into a larger community, coming from poverty, coming from a past of invisibility. Now, it's like, I don't care about that! And once I decided I didn't care about that, I feel pretty good! I feel pretty good! It's lightened my load.
You live and work in so much noise. To be able to hear that voice is a miracle.
It is a miracle. When you talk about fitting in, when you talk about belonging, if there is a metaphor on steroids of belonging and fitting in, it is Hollywood.
Something you said to me changed my life, it's become a mantra to me. I taught it to my 19-year-old daughter, I taught it to my 13-year-old son: "Thick skin doesn't work for me anymore, I want to be transparent and translucent. For that to work, I won't own other people's shortcomings and criticisms. I will not put what you said about me on my load." How do you learn that?
Every time people ask me questions like that, I'm always like, "How did I do that?" I guess that's why you have to keep talking and sharing your story, because when you put it out there you're like, "Oh, OK, now that I'm talking about it, that's what happened." It's like a long road trip. The first part of my road trip was my family history. Being the child of an alcoholic. Coming from domestic violence. Coming from that level of trauma and recognizing that I was traumatized. I kept lying about it at first. I kept saying, "That didn't stop me. I made it out. I'm better than what my mom was. I made it out, got my college education. Now I have a healthy marriage. I got it." The minute that I recognized that I suffer from anxiety and leftover residual trauma from my past experience, that it actually did hurt me, that was one big load lifted off. Getting married and being responsible for the marriage [was a milestone]. Adopting my child. The death of my father. Then, all of a sudden, now I am at a point in my career where I've always said, "As soon as I get to this part of my career, I've made it. I'm on Mount Everest." Then I got there. I had the Oscar, I have two Tonys, I have the Emmy, I have a big house, and still — bam —unfulfilling. Then I realized it's because I'm not living for significance and legacy. And this is a big one, and this sort of hurts a little bit: I'm finally admitting to myself that a lot of the jobs I've taken in the past, because I knew that they would further my career, have been things that I have not been proud of. They put more money in the bank, they raised my status, but at night they keep me up.
How does this journey affect what you're creating as an actor and producer, especially with your new platform at Amazon? What are you hoping to put out there to help other people make these connections?
Well, one of the things that I'm learning about is the oyster. When the oyster has a little piece of dirt that gets inside it, and gets irritated, it swims around and fights it. It gets angry, and what comes out of that, we know, is a pearl. With what I do, why I got into it is: I want people to feel less alone. That's what art does. Art is empathy on steroids. We present stories that are based on human life and truth and then we give it to the audience so they can understand and see themselves.
What happens so often in Hollywood, is that because we want people to sit down and escape and sort of zone out with their popcorn, Sour Patch Kids and Diet Coke, we water down life and humanity. So many people in my profession don't see the vast array of humanity as even being interesting. They don't think it's interesting to have a dark-skinned, nappy-headed woman kissing the lips of a handsome white guy. They don't think it's interesting to tell a love story of someone from the LGBTQ community. They don't see it like that. They want to stick with The Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island. But I see people. I observe people. I see stories, and you know what, I see a vast array of stories as being so interesting — and I feel like I have the power now to put it on the screen. Those stories are going to mean a lot to the changing world now, because the world is changing.
Now, I don't have to walk into the room like a dude, and have a pretend penis and sling it on the table and say, "I'm in the room now. You need to freaking listen to me." I can come exactly how I am and I feel that my story, my understanding of people, my experiences, my vulnerability, my need to even embrace people, all of my feminine energy, is going to make me powerful. I think that's going to make me a game-changer. I think that's going to wake people up. There's a part of me that's a narcissist about it. I love that saying: When the last person dies who has a memory of you, that's when you die. I want that last person to die thousands of years from now, who has benefited from my legacy. I do. I think that sounds terrific. (Laughs.)
So #MeToo and Time's Up really are changing the consciousness in Hollywood?
Absolutely. I think everybody's fighting to be seen now, and I don't think anybody is quiet about it. That's the one great thing that has come from this zeitgeist. I'll tell you what I think is underrated: anger. Because what anger does to you is, it makes you realize when someone has crossed a boundary. Now people have gotten angry, they're like, "I may have been quiet for a while, but I can't be quiet anymore. You've got to see me." #MeToo, Time's Up, Black Lives Matter — what is happening with all of that, is that people who are in power are going to be put to task. It's time for people to acknowledge that the world is changing, that people are fighting to be seen. With JuVee, I think that we see them. I do. That might sound like a cliche, but it's not with us. We see them, with all our stories: Shirley Chisholm, the first woman to run for president. Woman King, the story of the women of the Dahomey in West Africa. Are you kidding me? All of our stories have never been done before.
If your daughter told you, five or 10 years from now, that she wants to work in Hollywood and follow in your footsteps, how would that feel for you?
I'll be great with it, as long as she fell in love with the craft and not the celebrity. I think it's a very honorable profession, what I do. I get to really talk honestly with people when I go to work. I get to feel. I get to not numb myself. The more I feel and the more I can express those things, the better I am at my work. Actors are a hodgepodge of nerds and people on the periphery that don't feel like they fit in. There are some things that I want Genesis to take from me, and there's some things that I hope she doesn't. That's the thing that really levels me as a mom. There are certain things I don't want her to inherit from me. The other day, she kept telling me, "People pick at you like an apple tree. They could pick at the leaves, they could pick at the apples, they could pick at the bark, they could even pick at the grass that holds the tree, Mommy. Then soon, you're not going to have anything left. But I'll be standing right next to you, and no one's going to pick at me."
Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and a best-selling author of books about leadership, courage and vulnerability. Her latest, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts., was released Oct. 9.
A version of this story first appeared in the 2018 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.