Just four days after winning the Academy Award for best supporting actress, Viola Davis told a packed audience at the University of Kentucky she knew the movie “Fences” would gain a favorable reception.
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She said playwright August Wilson’s story of a father and son’s troubled relationship is one most people can relate to, and that its setting during the height of the Jim Crow era is important.
“What he wrote about is a universal message of dreams and forgiveness and grace,” she said.
She said she loves Wilson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for “Fences,” “because he lets people of color talk. Because people don’t usually let us talk.”
Davis participated in a moderated conversation at the Singletary Center for the Arts as part of the UK Student Activities Board’s SpeakBlue series. The Student Activities Board had worked for several years to bring Davis to campus.
Beth Barnes, professor of integrated strategic communications, interviewed Davis before an audience filled with students, who roared at the mention of her current starring role as as attorney Annalise Keating in “How to Get Away with Murder.”
She said one of the primary reasons she signed up for the series, which was recently renewed for a fourth season, is because of its portrayal of the female lead.
“She’s unapologetically a mess,” Davis said.
She said Hollywood often distorts and limits roles for women by forcing characters to be “likable.”
“That has been our narrative as women,” she said. “One of the reasons I signed up for Annalise is because I don’t think she’s likable. It makes a huge statement about women in the 21st century. You’ve got to accept us for who we are. Who we are is good enough.”
Bringing home the Academy Award for her performance as Rose Maxson in “Fences” made Davis the first black actress to achieve the “triple crown of acting” — Oscar, Emmy and Tony awards.
It was her third try at an Oscar, having been nominated in 2008 for “Doubt” and in 2011 for “The Help.”
She won the Tony for best actress in a play in 2010 for her stage portrayal of Rose Maxson. And she picked up the Emmy Award in 2015 for her performance in “How to Get Away with Murder.”
Davis said Cicely Tyson, who plays her mother on “How to Get Away with Murder,” was one of her early influences.
Davis has talked before about growing up in poverty, and she said Tyson’s performance in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” “came to me at a time in my life when I was looking for a way out. She showed me how.”
She said other actresses such as Jane Alexander, Colleen Dewhurst and Rosalind Cash also had a big impact on her.
“I never felt like it was about being pretty …” she said. “It was about getting at the truth, and it reached me.”