Viola Davis did not hold back during her candid conversation about her career at a Women In The World event in Los Angeles on Tuesday night.
The Oscar-winning actress discussed her 30-year career, opening up about feeling undervalued and underpaid when compared to her white contemporaries.
“I have a career that’s probably comparable to Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Sigourney Weaver,” Davis tells British journalist and Women In The World founder Tina Brown, the evening’s moderator at the event which encourages women to tell their stories and share their experiences to build a better world for women and girls.
“They all came out of Yale, they came out of Juilliard, they came out of NYU. They had the same path as me, and yet I am nowhere near them,” says the Juilliard graduate. “Not as far as money, not as far as job opportunities, no where close to it.”
The 52-year-old actress, whose career has spanned both TV and movies admits her salary has not been comparable to women like Streep, her co-star in 2008’s “Doubt”. Both Davis and her friend Streep earned Oscar nominations for their role in the film.
“People say, ‘You’re a black Meryl Streep… we love you. There is no one like you,'” she explains. “Okay, then if there’s no one like me, you think I’m that, you pay me what I’m worth.”
The “How To Get Away With Murder” star reveals she’s been disappointed with the roles offered to her, admitting she got by in the past by making the most of limited screen time. But now, the actress says she’s finished with trying to prove herself.
“I’m not hustling for my worth. I’m worthy. When I came out of my mom’s womb, I came in worthy,” says Davis who encourages young actors of colour not to learn to settle for less than their white contemporaries.
“You’ll have a Shailene Woodley, who’s fabulous. And she may have had 37 magazine covers in one year. Thirty-seven! And then you’ll have someone – a young actress of colour who’s on her same level of talent and everything. And she may get four,” she explains. “And there is sense in our culture that you have to be happy with that.”
While Davis says she has no problem expressing herself now, it wasn’t always that way.
Raised in poverty with an alcoholic, abusive father in a rat-infested house in Rhode Island, Davis says her upbringing motivated her to speak out, including a stirring speech at the Women’s March in Los Angeles last month.
“I was a rung lower than poor,” she says. “People see poverty as just a financial state. Poverty seeps into your mind, it seeps into your spirit, because it has side effects.”
The actress says she was moved to speak out at the Women’s March on behalf of “the women who don’t have the money and don’t have the constitution and who don’t have the confidence and who don’t have the images in our media that gives them a sense of self-worth enough to break their silence that is rooted in the shame of assault and rooted in the stigma of assault.” Though she says the speech came at a great personal cost, it was worth it.
“It cost me a lot to be on that stage and share my personal story. The way life works is it’s got to cost you something,” she says. “That’s when you know you really made the sacrifices. If you’re dedicated to change, let it cost you something.”