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.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on July 15, 2012

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."

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.

"The program taught me social and academic skills," says Davis. It also gave her a perspective that altered her forever. "I always felt like my childhood was very harsh and dark, and that I had kind of a corner on the market of suffering. Then I went to Upward Bound and started sharing stories with people who had escaped the Khmer Rouge, and saw people whose families had been shattered, people who had post-traumatic stress from which they would never recover. And suddenly, I understood what it meant to define yourself in terms of the world, to live a life beyond yourself. The worst moments in life don't define who you are, and no matter what, you can still thrive."

Psychologist David Crenshaw, PhD, clinical director of the Children's Home of Poughkeepsie in upstate New York and a faculty associate at Johns Hopkins University, agrees that people can flourish despite the worst childhoods. "Children are far more resilient than we often think," he says. "Research demonstrates that resilience is part of normal adaptation of human beings, enabling people to survive and even thrive in the face of harsh conditions."

The Path to Adult Happiness

In fact, research shows that a loving, stable childhood is certainly preferable to the alternative, but it may not be a predictor of success -- or even happiness. "A relatively new term has been used in resilience studies -- post-traumatic resilience -- that describes trauma survivors with a positive post-traumatic mental health adjustment," Crenshaw says. What makes the difference between those who thrive as adults and those who don't?

Ties that bind. "The resilience research strongly points to the protective influence of parents and other supportive relationships in the lives of children and adolescents," says Crenshaw. Mentors can be family members, teachers, or members of the community, but they are crucial for children to weather turbulent childhoods.

A spiritual life. "One of the most amazing demonstrations of resilience in children is a study of former Ugandan child soldiers who had experienced unspeakable horror and were forced to witness and commit atrocities, yet 27% showed no signs of post-traumatic stress disorder," says Crenshaw. The trait that almost doubled the odds of the soldiers' emotional resilience: a belief in a spiritual force, or that God had not abandoned them.

Success at school . "Positive experiences related to school can also exert a major impact," Crenshaw says. "Some children who otherwise face extreme adversity in their home life but do well in school may show resilience as a result of their success in school."

Viola Davis' Lessons in Self-Confidence

After Davis graduated from Julliard in 1993, she went on to win two Tony awards for performances on Broadway and to star in such films as Out of Sight, Antwone Fisher, and Doubt, for which she received her first Academy Award nomination. She also worked regularly in television, with recurring appearances on NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Showtime's United States of Tara.

But even as Davis achieved stardom, confidence remained elusive. Even now, she says, "I definitely don't think I'm great at what I do. There are times when I don't even feel competent."

She has come far though, she says. Her father's death in 2006 particularly helped her focus on the things that truly matter. "Once my husband and I were evacuated from our home in California because of fires, and they tell you to take the most important things in life and get out," she remembers. "My husband and I took some hummus and a can of sardines and some chocolate, and I said to him, ‘Should we get the insurance papers?' And he said, ‘No, take the food and get out.' If you knew you had only five minutes left, you learn what's important. It was like that when my dad passed. Anything you thought was important fades away. Anything that angered you or destroyed you is forgotten, and the only thing that is left is pure, pure love. Because at the end of the day, nothing else matters."

It's a lesson that Davis has continued to learn with the adoption of her daughter. While she acknowledges there are downsides to being a parent later in life -- "I'm convinced my exhaustion has pushed me into early menopause!" -- she says the positives far outweigh the negatives. "I definitely understand why people do it when they're younger," she says. "But the good thing about having a child at this age is I've been doing what I've been doing for 23 years, so I'm on the downward swing of things professionally. I don't mean that negatively, but I'm at a precipice. That's why my husband and I have started a production company, because I'm opening my life to a whole new arena of passion."

Davis also has a new capacity for empathy and compassion. "I'm more forgiving of people," she says. "I've never been a gossipy woman, but I find that I don't go there at all anymore. Part of it is that I'm tired all the time," she laughs. "But the real reason I can't gossip anymore is I'm so aware of the person we're talking about being someone else's child."

By clearing out the emotional and social clutter, "I'm living my life with purpose, and I think when you do that things fall in line, and they fall in line in the exact order they should," she says. "I now understand the importance of love. And for me, the most important things are my husband and my daughter. Because they make me feel needed. They make me feel like the space I'm taking up on this earth is important. That I'm important."

Viola Davis on Cooking, Friends, and Love

For all the richness of her life, one thing Davis lacks is enough time alone. To take care of herself, she carves out time to exercise or relax while Genesis is sleeping. "I definitely try to work out," she says. "I like zoning out and giving my brain a break because it's constantly in motion, and I find that exercise is the easiest way to do that."

If she's making a film, Davis goes to the gym and hops on the treadmill. In Los Angeles, she prefers to take walks in the hills behind her house. "If my husband is around, he makes me work harder and do weights," she says. Davis' other favorite indulgence is sneaking away to a day spa for a massage. "And I love, love, love Jacuzzis -- late at night because that's the only time I have where I can read."

Her favorite way to relax is just hanging out at home with her husband, daughter, and friends. Lots of friends. "We love to cook, and we have gatherings at our house all the time," she says. "I just love anything that makes me feel normal and boring! We usually invite about 50 people with their kids, and we sit around and eat and talk. My husband is from Texas, so he's great at barbecue. We cook a lot of Southern food, both fattening and healthy."

One of Davis' proudest accomplishments is learning to cook Thanksgiving dinner. "We did it for the first time when we had just had Genesis," she says. "We invited 20 people, and they stayed all night and we loved it."

In these domestic moments, Davis is able to celebrate all that she's achieved and how far she has come. "I think the biggest thing is the past doesn't define who you are," she says. "And you're bigger than any circumstance in your path. Life is going to continue being what it is, and the only thing you have the power to change is how you approach it -- in spirit, in faith, and in love."

Viola's Time-Out

Any working woman is hard-pressed to find enough "me" time. Add a child to the mix, and the task can become next to impossible. As Viola Davis prepares to celebrate her daughter's first birthday, she shares her self-restoration secrets.

Get a massage. Davis' biggest luxury is squeezing in a massage. "Sometimes, you need some pampering, and you can't always do it for yourself!"

Work it out. Whether she's walking or hitting the treadmill at the gym, Davis makes sure to exercise regularly. "I still gain weight, but for me, it's the easiest way just to zone out."

Share the wealth. After growing up in a home where she felt too ashamed to invite her friends over, Davis relishes having company. "I love people coming into the house and cooking for them," she says. "It makes me feel like I'm really at home."

Embrace the good in getting older. "I don't have the energy I used to have when I was 20," she says, "But I'm on the path of enjoying things like friendships and being able to gain 20 pounds and not worry about it."

Inspire yourself. With little time to read, Davis, who belongs to a nondenominational Christian church with her husband, reaches for the Bible or the works of Joseph Campbell, whose famous sayings include "follow your bliss." "I'm always quoting Campbell," she says.

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Show Sources


Viola Davis, actress.

United States Department of Education: Upward Bound.

Rhode Island College: Upward Bound.

 David Crenshaw, PhD, ABPP, faculty associate, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore Md; clinical director, Children's Home of Poughkeepsie, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

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