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Viola Davis on Health, Love, and Resilience

The actress reflects on her latest role (in "Won't Back Down"), the importance of self care, and the joys of becoming a mom later in life.
By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Whoever said, "You can have it all -- you just can't have it all at one time," has never met Viola Davis. In the last year alone, the 47-year-old actor has soared professionally and personally. Named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World, she also celebrated two Screen Actors Guild awards, a Golden Globe nomination, and her second Oscar nomination, thanks to her stunning turn in The Help last year. And she became a mother for the first time when she and her husband, actor Julius Tennon, adopted a baby girl named Genesis. 

No one could be more surprised by her success -- or stamina -- than Davis herself, who sounds just like any other exhausted new mother trying to balance family and career with a semblance of self-preservation. "I'm tired all the time," she says with a laugh. "There's no space in my brain anymore. I don't have time to be creative or to focus on myself. But I'm also more alive than I have ever been."

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She's busier, too, at an age when most leading ladies see their careers begin to slow down. Davis has completed three movies since The Help, including this month's Won't Back Down. Co-starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, she plays a teacher fighting to transform an inner-city school. "You can see the character go on a life journey," Davis says of her role. "I think she is a person we are all familiar with, especially when you reach midlife. By the time you're my age, life has gotten to you. You are at a fork in the road, and you're trying to find out what makes you tick again."

Viola Davis' Childhood

Raised with five siblings in Central Falls, R.I., by her mother, Mary, and father, Dan, a horse trainer, Davis grew up in abject poverty, much like the children portrayed in Won't Back Down. "We lived in a condemned apartment building for years. We were on the third floor, and for the first two flights you would have to find a space on the stairs to put your foot because all the stairs had holes in them. If you stepped in the wrong place, you would have fallen into the basement. By the time you got to the third floor, it was as if you had climbed Mount St. Helens. I didn't understand what having a home was about. It was just a shelter."

As a teenager, Davis knew she wanted to be an actor and was encouraged by Upward Bound, a program that helps guide underprivileged youths, emotionally and academically, through high school and into college. Thanks to its support, she attended Rhode Island College, where she majored in theater before enrolling in the lauded Juilliard School. To return the favor, Davis and her sister, Deloris, another Upward Bound graduate, began a scholarship fund in 1988 for Upward Bound students attending Rhode Island College. One of its most esteemed donors is Meryl Streep, who contributed $10,000 after she won the Oscar for best actress this year over Davis, her co-star in the 2008 drama Doubt.

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