Viola Davis on growing up poor: ‘I can’t tell you how many people have helped me’

Viola Davis is covering People Magazine, which makes my day. She’s one of my favorite actresses and I get so happy seeing her interviews. Also this is a sign that I need to book a tandem airplane jump. More on that in a moment. Viola has been open about her childhood growing up in poverty, and about the fact that small acts of kindness made all the difference to her as a child. I remember a story she told about a sweet librarian who used to save half of her tuna sandwich for her so she wouldn’t go hungry. In her People profile, Viola expands on that a little. I got the most out of her video interview accompanying the article, which you can see on People’s site. It gives context to why she’s so appreciative to people who helped her, because she escaped poverty.

“[I] realized we were poor. But I was making my way through it. You either hope or you don’t. And it was hope and dreams that made me put my feet on the floor every morning and just approach every day with a sense of enthusiasm. It was my fight or flight that kicked in.”

While her father, Dan, struggled to make ends meet, Davis, 54, found support through what she describes as “countless” names and faces.

“I can’t tell you how many people have helped me,” she says. “I had a principal and I would come into her office and she would have a paper bag full of clothes. They were hand-me-downs, but they were so cute, the little purses, the A-line skirts.”

One teacher in particular “looked at me one day and said, ‘Viola, do you know you’re an all-American girl?’ ” Davis recalls. “I was like, ‘Me? But I don’t have blonde hair and blue eyes.’ He said, ‘No, you’re an all-American girl. You’re smart, you have all these attributes.’ “

“That’s the little girl who follows me all the time,” she says of her childhood. “I see her every single day I open my big Sub-Zero refrigerator or sit in my Jacuzzi; she’s just standing there squealing. And I always feel like I have to go back and heal that little girl who grew up in poverty, who was called names and ‘ugly’ all the time.”

“Until recently, someone told me, ‘Maybe you need to let the little girl heal you at 54. Maybe you need to allow the little girl to be excited at the 54-year-old she gets to become,’ ” Davis adds. “Because actually, she did pretty good. She was a survivor. She got out of it. And it makes me look at my past completely differently when I see that.”

Now as a mom to her daughter Genesis, 8, with her husband of 16 years, actor Julius Tennon, 65, Davis knows exactly what advice she would tell her 13-year-old self.

“I would tell her that she was enough,” she says. “I wasted so much time listening to the naysayers. And I just wish I had listened to the other voices of people saying that I was beautiful and talented. I always thought when you listen to that, you’re conceited, but I wish I had listened to that more. I wish I had pranced through the world with just hoity toity confidence and overexuberance.”

[From People]

Viola is now a L’oreal Paris spokesperson (yes! Also True Match is an awesome foundation I love it) and she’s promoting the last season of her show How to Get Away with Murder. She told People that role changed everything for her and that she’ll miss it and the people she works with. I love how Viola remembers all the nice things people did for her. I bet her teachers who are still living remember her and are so pleased to see her success.

As for why I’m associating Viola with jumping out of a plane – about five months ago I covered an interview where she said that after she went skydiving she felt like she could do anything. Almost no one commented on that but the story stayed with me. I thought “Viola has an Oscar and she is saying that skydiving made her feel fearless. I want to feel that.” Last month I randomly mentioned to a woman at a party (I just met her, she’s dating my friend’s son) that I have thought about skydiving. She said she would love to go too and we found another woman who said she’ll go with us! I just have to set up a time and I told them late September, but with my schedule it’s looking like early October. So now I have to coordinate with them and book it. I’m not that scared anymore, it’s mostly logistics. Thanks Viola for reminding me to do that and also to be nicer to kids. I’m going to wear a red power suit today!

Premiere of 'The Angry Birds Movie 2'

Premiere of 'The Angry Birds Movie 2'

Premiere Of Sony's "The Angry Birds Movie 2" - Arrivals

Photos credit:, WENN and People

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16 Responses to “Viola Davis on growing up poor: ‘I can’t tell you how many people have helped me’”

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  1. Qzue says:

    O.M.G. I love her so much. Fierce, beautiful, she’s an amazing actress. Those stories of people helping her along the way are so touching, a little reminder of reaching down to pull others up. I didn’t know her back story until today, thanks CB.

  2. Becks1 says:

    I love her, and must have completely missed the skydiving story, but omg the thought of skydiving makes me break out in a cold sweat. I just don’t think I could handle the moment before you jump out of the plane – the anticipation of it. I’m a huge wimp though.

    what I also like about this story is that its a good reminder of the things we can do to help others. She remembers these acts of kindness so well, and I’m sure there are more that she remembers, and they all seem like things many of us could do – bring in clothes for a child who doesn’t have new ones, share part of your lunch, just share some kind words – those things are all relatively simple and could make a huge difference in someone’s life.

  3. olala says:

    She is such a beautiful human being

  4. Astra says:

    I love everything about this interview and esp her stories about those people who helped her growing up. She is absolutely luminous.

    • Carol says:

      Yes, and I’m so glad that she continues to talk about her own experience with poverty, that poverty still exists in America, and how poverty affects children’s self esteem. She is putting a face on poverty that maybe people can relate to.

      Btw- I skydived before and although it was exhilarating, I didn’t find it a life changer. Just a fun thing to do on the weekends

  5. mellie says:

    It’s been said above, but I’m adding to it, she is absolutely beautiful, inside and out!

  6. TIFFANY says:

    I absolutely love Viola and will take to my grave she was ROBBED for her work in Doubt.

    And I will suggest you follow her on IG. It and she are great. I love her Motivation Monday.

  7. alexc says:

    Truly a spectacular human being and great artist.

  8. Nanea says:

    Viola is one among my very few grown-up girl-crushes.

    Beautiful, eloquent, true to herself, a great actress – I ♥ her!

    Also, as much as I hate idioms, she’s living proof that there’s truth to “a little kindness goes a long way”.

  9. lucy2 says:

    She’s an amazing person, all around, and we’re lucky to get to experience her work and the way she lives her life.
    Little acts of kindness go a long way, and I love that she remembers all those who helped her. There’s a group in my state that does stuff like this – they have a clothing closet, a food pantry, and a ton of activities for impoverished kids, and adults. They have a lot of community support and do such good things for people in need, and many of the people they’ve helped have come back to help others.

  10. Renee says:

    She is such an inspiration. I love her!

  11. Lilybugg says:

    Give us an update when you go skydiving! I have done a tandem jump (it was a birthday present to me quite a few years ago), and it was such a fun experience. The initial free fall is surprisingly loud due to the speed you are falling through the air, but once the chute pulls, it is such a relaxing, fun float down to the surface. Have fun!

    • lucy2 says:

      You are brave! 2 of my friends have done it for their birthdays. I couldn’t even begin to consider it!

  12. pupax says:

    Viola is so incredibly beautiful, inside and out. Love her!

  13. Meg says:

    Every interview with her I love her more. I hear she gets paid for speaking engagements because she’s so well spoken and makes so many good points then donates it to charity

    I went skydiving at 20. I grew up in Minnesota and it was late August so once we got out of the plane it was cold but beautiful seeing all the fall colors. I loved it. I forgot the three things they tell you to do once you jump out because I was so scared/excited, so I was glad to have gone tandem. I later found out you can’t go alone until you’ve gone tandem so many times, and I think it’s for that very reason, your mind will go blank out of fear so they dont want you going alone. By the time the parachute was open I couldn’t stop laughing at how silly it was to be so scared.

    As a kid you think everything is about you, it’s part of your brain development at that age. It’s why it’s become cliche at this point to tell kids of divorced parents ‘it’s not your fault ‘. Good for her for not taking it so personally that she was ashamed to take the help teachers gave her, I think it might have forced me to acknowledge how bad my situation was and would make me more sad about it. Friends parents growing up offered me to come over whenever; they even gave me a housekey. I was honestly embarrased. Thankful for the gesture but honestly yeah I felt like crap that they could see how bad it was at home. I guess I thought I was faking it well enough

  14. susiecue says:

    Ooh, it’s dusty in here :’)