The actress spoke at Cannes about creating space for women of color in Hollywood: "Why aren't you hiring a dark-skinned woman?"

Viola Davis has revealed that her mission to create space and equality for women of color in Hollywood was built partly on personal rejection and rebounding from micro-aggressions in the industry.

She recalled one specific experience when a director called her by a different name — his maid's — when she was around 30 years old while speaking at a Variety Women in Motion conversation Thursday at the Cannes Film Festival.

"If I wanted to play a mother whose family lives in a challenging, low-income neighborhood and my son was a gang member who died in a drive-by shooting, I could get that made," Davis explained. "If I played a woman who was, I don't know, looking to recreate herself by flying to Nice and sleeping with five men at the age of 56, looking like me, I'm going to have a hard time pushing that one — even as Viola Davis. Because people can't reconcile the Blackness with spiritual awakening and sexuality. It's too much — it's too much when you look like 'my maid Louise.' And I say that because I actually had a director who did that to me — who said, 'Louise!' — and I'd known him for like 10 years and he called me Louise, and I found out it's because his maid's name was Louise. So, that has not changed."

"Any rejection that I've had where people said that I was not not pretty enough for a role really gets on my damn nerves… A lot of it is based in race," the Oscar-winning Fences star continued, adding that the inequality she encountered at the start of her career helped inform her decision to launch her own filmmaking company, JuVee Productions.

"If I had my same features and I were five shades lighter, it would just be a little bit different," Davis said. "And if I had blonde hair, blue eyes, and even a wide nose, it would be even a little bit different than what it is now. We could talk about colorism, we could talk about race. It pisses me off, and it's broken my heart on a number of projects, which I won't name."

Davis also stressed the need for a vehicle like JuVee Productions, because after concluding her popular ABC series How to Get Away With Murder in 2020, she hasn't seen an uptick in the number of "dark-skinned women in lead roles on TV, not even in streaming services."

"Once again, that goes into ideology and ethos and mentality," she continued. "That's speaking in the abstract. Why aren't you hiring a dark-skinned woman?"

She felt the industry's lack of attention following her 2012 Oscar nomination for The Help, which she said didn't guarantee her a glistening career in a Hollywood landscape that still isn't structured to facilitate success for Black women — even when they have golden hardware like an Academy Award.

Viola Davis attends the screening of "Top Gun: Maverick" during the 75th annual Cannes film festival at Palais des Festivals on May 18, 2022 in Cannes, France.
Viola Davis at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.
| Credit: Daniele Venturelli/WireImage

"I thought, 'And now what?'" she added of her post-Help career. "I was getting the same types of roles, because how else are they going to cast a dark-skinned Black woman who is really not a model?"

Davis admitted that similar periods for her were a "bottom" point in her life.

"I knew that then the only sort of position I could move into that gave me some sense of worth — and the only way to reconcile that anger — was to find roles myself," she said. "That was my response to that. It was sort of an — excuse my language — a 'f--- it,' and there was value to anger, there was value to a well-placed 'f--- it.' That first represents that one moment of change that, after that, you can never be the same."

She concluded, "What it motivated me to do is, yes, get out of my life, but what it also motivated me to do in my anger is create a life that didn't spit any more Violas out like that, just spit them out and told them there's nothing out there for them — there's no rope, there's no journey, that you're the leftover. That's why my husband and I have JuVee Productions."

Davis currently stars as Michelle Obama on the Showtime series The First Lady and is gearing up for the release of her potential Oscar contender The Woman King, which is set to drop later this year.

Watch Davis discuss her career in the video above.

Hear more on all of today's must-see picks on EW's What to Watch podcast, hosted by Gerrad Hall.

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