Viola Davis made history — like so many others on Emmys night — by becoming the first African-American to win for leading actress in a drama. Still, the How to Get Away with Murder star knows there are great strides to be taken when it comes to diversity in Hollywood.
“I didn’t know everyone wanted me to win it so badly,” she said backstage. “But I keep saying the same quote over and over, because it hit me so hard, is that stories never end. My story doesn’t end here. Yeah, it feels fantastic, but my husband and I started a production company … I just think that there is so much work that needs to be done in so many areas in the business with actors of color. So many narratives that need to be seen by people, so many stories that need to be seen and felt, that I know that it doesn’t end here.”
But the actress also wants to get past the fact that she made history by being the first African American actress to win. “Not just stop saying it, but also stop writing it,” she said. “One of the things that I admire about Shondaland is Annalise Keating was not written specifically for a black woman. I made her black because I’m black. But what needs to happen in the writing is when you put pen to paper, you’ve got to let your imagination fly.”
“When you go to acting school and study Chekhov and Shakespeare and Arthur Miller and August Wilson, you just think that the sky is the limit in terms of how you can portray a human being,” she continued. “It’s only until you get out there in your profession that people say you can only be a judge, you’re not cute enough to be a leading lady, you can only be a doctor, you can only be authoritative, you can only be what we define as black. I don’t know what that means.”
Above all, Davis was both surprised and honored to even be among the nominees on Sunday night. “You guys have to realize, I’ve been in this business 35 years and 27 years professionally. I’m the journeyman actor that you saw in one scene here, two scenes there. I’ve been eking out a living doing theater, Broadway, Off Broadway, film supporting roles, that I’m just excited to be a part of the conversation, you know? I mean, I’ve seen the unemployment line a lot, man.”
Still, being in this business for nearly three decades has also given Davis strength. “You come up against a lot when you are in the public eye,” she said. “My past has made me a stronger person, and turning 50 has made me a stronger person, being a mother has made me a stronger person, being married and with my husband for 16 years has made me a stronger person, life has made me a stronger person, because I understand failure and I understand that life doesn’t end at failure, so it’s given me a great strength. I’m like, ‘Bring it on.'”
Among the other women nominated in the category was Empire’s Taraji P. Henson, whom Davis connected with during the show. “We hugged each other three times,” Davis said. “Taraji, by the way, what people need to know about Taraji P. Henson — and it’s very, very, very rare to find this in the business — she is the most supportive actress you could possibly imagine; supportive in ways you can’t even begin to understand, and it’s genuine. I’ve been in this business close to 30 years and I would put her at the top of the list in terms of support. We just whispered to each other, ‘Whoever gets it, it’s great. It’s wonderful. And I love you.'”