Viola Davis: Casting Directors Said I Wasn’t ‘Classically Beautiful’ Enough to Play Romantic Lead

Davis recalled that even some fellow Black actors thought she wasn't pretty enough to pull off "How to Get Away with Murder," for which she's won Emmy and SAG awards.
Viola Davis arrives at the Oscars on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Union Station in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, Pool)
Viola Davis

History-making Oscar, Tony, and Emmy winner Viola Davis is as A-list as they come. However, the “First Lady” star had to fight for her much-deserved spotlight.

Davis recalled in her memoir “Finding Me,” available on April 26, that her physical appearance has been far too often the topic of debate. From being called “ugly” by childhood bullies to attending Juilliard, which tried to turn students into “perfect white actors,” as Davis penned, the “Fences” Academy Award winner has felt pressure to look a certain way.

“The absolute shameful objective of this training [at Juilliard] was clear — make every aspect of your Blackness disappear,” Davis wrote. “How the hell do I do that? And more importantly, WHY??!!!”

Davis’ start in Hollywood was rife with limiting roles for Black actresses, mostly for dramatic drug addict parts, as Davis shared in a New York Times interview. According to Davis, casting directors thought she was “too dark” and “not classically beautiful” enough to lead a romance film.

Decades later when Davis transformed into law school professor Annalise Keating for Shonda Rhimes’ drama “How to Get Away With Murder,” Davis said that even fellow Black actors said she “wasn’t pretty enough to pull it off,” the NYT reported.

Meanwhile, Davis was the first choice for mega-producer Rhimes. “I remember saying we may as well ask and let her say no so at least we can say that we asked,” Rhimes told NYT, thinking that Davis would turn down the ABC soap lead role.

Davis went on to win an Emmy and SAG Award for the series. And it was Davis’ idea to write the iconic “Murder” scene where her character takes her wig and makeup off in a moment of frustration, showing all the “ugly” sides of the complicated Annalise.

“The TV and film business is saturated with people who think they’re writing something human when it’s really a gimmick,” Davis wrote in her memoir. “But if I took the wig off in a brutal, private moment and took off the makeup, it would force them to write for THAT woman.”

Davis continued to NYT, “I think our response as Black people — and I get it, from so many years of oppression and dehumanization — has been about putting images out there that are positive and likable and beautiful [but] that image and message shouldn’t be more important than the truth.”

Davis is currently playing Michelle Obama in Showtime’s “The First Lady,” premiering April 17.

Daily Headlines
Daily Headlines covering Film, TV and more.

By subscribing, I agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

PMC Logo
IndieWire is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 IndieWire Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.