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Viola Davis joined former Vanity Fair editor-in-chief and founder of Women in the World Tina Brown at Neuehouse Hollywood to discuss the actress’s life and career at the Women in the World Los Angeles Salon 2018.
Davis, the first black woman to win a Primetime Emmy for lead actress for her role as Annalise Keating on How to Get Away With Murder, is also the recipient of two Tony Awards, an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. Despite her numerous accolades, Davis told Brown her career is financially not on par with that of her peers.
“I have more than a 30-year professional career. I have a career that is probably comparable to Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Sigourney Weaver. 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. Nowhere close to it,” said Davis. “And yet I have to constantly get on that phone, and people say, ’You’re a black Meryl Streep and we love you! There is no one like you.’ Well, if there is no one like me, you pay me what I’m worth.”
The conversation also delved into inclusivity. “The only reason people are talking about diversity is because it was a trending topic last year. It was a hashtag. Inclusivity has to start with studio heads who greenlight movies,” said Davis. “They won’t consider you for a role they wrote for Sandra Bullock or Reese Witherspoon. You’re afraid that the movie is not going to make money internationally…. My whole thing is, if you’re dedicated to change, let it cost you something.”
When it comes to a more diverse Hollywood, she thinks there is still room for improvement. “Do I think that there’s voices? Yes. Do I think that they’re included in the conversation at the table? No,” said Davis, who praised Murder creator Shonda Rhimes for writing for women of color. “You see women of color leading the charge: me, Kerry Washington, Chandra Wilson on Grey’s Anatomy. That’s what she’s done.”
Davis had her own demands for the role that garnered her the best actress Emmy, including a scene that appears early in season one, where Davis removes her wig and makeup on camera. “I said, if I have to do a TV show with yet another woman who is a size zero, walking into a room and taking off her clothes like she’s in a triple-X-rated porno movie and she’s getting ready to have sex with her husband of 20 years, I’m not the woman for you. That woman doesn’t exist,” said Davis. “I’m going to force you to write for me.”
A previous panel, moderated by Zainad Salbi, host of PBS docuseries #MeToo, Now What?, tackled the Time’s Up movement sweeping through the industry. “Vote for women, hire women, promote women,” said MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid, who shared the stage with actress Olivia Munn, journalist Kara Swisher and president-CEO of A&E Networks Nancy Dubuc.
Swisher said that while the conversation about equality is ongoing, the statistics in Silicon Valley remain the same. “At Google, which has quite a few women in positions of power, it’s still 70 percent white men, 30 percent everybody else,” she said. “They call it a meritocracy but I call it a mirror-tocracy. It’s white men looking at other white men.”
Swisher suggested filling boards of companies with a more diverse group of people, to which Munn responded that diversity means someone loses their job. “You have all these white men on the board, and they say, ‘Of course we believe in equality. Yes, we want more diversity,’ but that means one of them has to go,” she said. “Being in Hollywood, we’re great at symbolism but crappy at change. I don’t know what it takes to get there, but somebody has to lose their spot.”
When asked by Salbi how pay disparity can be eliminated when it’s good for the bottom line, Dubuc addressed the situation at Vice Media, against which a civil suit has been filed for allegedly paying their male employees significantly more than their female staffers.
“You can’t sustain a company that openly has disparity. That isn’t the case,” said Dubuc. “They’ve made a lot of effort and they have to be accountable for this, and they have to be accountable for the statements that they made about pay parity by the end of 2018, and there is [an] independent council that’s in that organization trying to trudge up where it is, how to fix it, where to reconcile. They have publicly declared 50-50 by 2020.”
“Look, it is not great,” the president and CEO of A&E continued. “The culture that was allowed to exist there was very emblematic of a counterculture skate club. If you can think of the genesis of this organization… that was never acceptable. But it was 20 guys that all of a sudden became 3,000 people and part of the media darling stories of the last couple of years, and now the reckoning has come to them.”
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