The family room of Viola Davis's home on the northern edge of L.A.'s San Fernando Valley is filled with things of vital importance to her 2-year-old daughter, Genesis. A Sit'n Spin on the floor is surrounded by a crush of brightly colored toys; the wall-mounted TV flashes zany scenes from a Disney cartoon. Genesis bounds over and asks to borrow my pen to draw a picture.
Upstairs in the toddler's bedroom, you find something that's pretty important to her mother: a hanging plaque quoting one of Davis's most emphatic lines in The Help, the movie that earned the actress her second Oscar nomination. It reads "You are smart. You are kind. You are important." Genesis clearly doesn't doubt it. And now after battling years of uncertainty, neither does her mom.
Davis has made it her mission to challenge the many messages that "tell women to invest in the external." "Taking off my wig helped," she says, recalling her decision earlier this year to no longer cover the cropped Afro she'd been hiding most of her life. "There's something about emerging into who I am and what I actually look like that liberated me." The road she'd traveled to get to that moment—24 years of playing characters such as crack addicts and derelict mothers, the kind of bit parts that Hollywood tends to offer dark-skinned actresses—had made the wigs hard to abandon. "The roles I played were not glamorous," she says. "I felt like when I went out in public I had to be antithetical to that. I had to be some sort of ideal."
It was Davis's husband, actor-producer Julius Tennon, who early on insisted that Davis's unvarnished self was the actual ideal. (They married in 2003 and honeymooned at the Italian villa of Davis's friend George Clooney.) "Julius told me, ' You look beautiful with your short hair,' " the actress says, smiling. "I thought to myself, I can never be Christie Brinkley. Why am I trying? Why don't I just step into Viola?"
Sitting now on a comfy couch in her living room, the barefoot Davis is relaxed and luminous in a sleeveless black London Times maxidress. At 5 feet 6 inches tall, she's more delicate than she appears onscreen. The fifth of six siblings, Davis was born on her grandmother's farm in South Carolina, and when the impoverished family moved to Central Falls, R.I., they found themselves the only African-Americans in town. Her childhood was marked by a yearning to be like everyone else. She fell in love with acting after seeing Cicely Tyson in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and later attended Juilliard in Manhattan, where she excelled but still felt inadequate. "I couldn't fit in," she recalls. "I was trying to be the flitty, floaty 90-pound ingénue. It was not a pretty sight."
But acting sustained her. She would go on to win two Tony Awards for her work on Broadway and is only the second black woman (after Whoopi Goldberg) to have been nominated for an Academy Award for both best actress and best supporting actress (for The Help and Doubt, the 2008 film in which she held her own, and then some, against her pal Meryl Streep). Currently she appears opposite Maggie Gyllenhaal in the drama Won't Back Down, about a mother and a teacher who, frustrated with the poor standards at an elementary school, decide to start their own. And she is developing projects too, with an eye toward those that feature African-American actresses whose skin tones happen to be "darker than a paper bag." A film bio of civil rights leader Barbara Jordan is the furthest along.
"I'm fighting for women over 40, for black women over 40, and for black women over 40 who look like me," Davis says, while Genesis calls happily from another room. "I'm tired of seeing movies that don't feature people of color. But I don't want to complain. That's like walking into somebody's house and trying to impose your own rules. Instead, I want to build my own house."
Related Video: Listen to Viola Davis's Moving 2015 Emmy Awards Acceptance Speech