Viola Davis has a lot to say — and she’s just getting started. The three-time Oscar winner and beloved five-season lead of Shonda Rhimes’ How To Get Away With Murder has spent the past year in a whirlwind of activity. She published a children’s book, optioned Octavia Butler’s Patternist series and lent her voice to an issue close to her heart: America’s diabetes crisis. Merck’s A Touch of Sugar, which debuted on April 25 during the Tribeca Film Festival, is a documentary aimed at raising awareness about the Type 2 diabetes epidemic, and shares the stories of the lives it’s affected.
We sat down with Davis before the Touch of Sugar screening to talk about her connection with the cause, and ask her advice on, well, everything. In the interview, she opens up about making good choices, knowing your worth, and living a significant life. She also talks about the limits on advice she can give and the importance of showing up however you can. Read on for the motivation you didn’t know you needed — and the secret to how Davis got her nine-year-old obsessed with avocados.
SheKnows: I’m so excited to talk about this. How did you get involved with this project?
Viola Davis: It came to me like any project — you know, I never know. I get so many offers especially for philanthropy and civic causes. And this one came to me and I felt like I could really lend an authentic voice to it because it’s affected my entire family: my two sisters who have Type 2 diabetes, my great-aunt who — both of her legs were amputated before she succumbed to the disease, my paternal grandma. And then I was diagnosed with pre-diabetes so I said, I can give a voice to this and I can really — I have an emotional connection, and I felt it was important. It’s confronting the diabetes crisis.
The numbers are staggering: the 30 million adults who have Type 2 diabetes, the 84 million adults who have pre-diabetes and most don’t know it. You know, that’s not including children, that’s not including Type 1, and you have 324 million people living in this country, so you do the math. We are at a point where we can’t ignore it anymore. And it is a complicated disease — just like any disease, when you get a disease diagnosis, you also get information on how to handle it, except for this disease. It needs to be paid attention to.
SK: As a mother, what advice do you have for other mothers who are struggling with diabetes, or just trying to raise a health-conscious family?
VD: Well — you know, when I was diagnosed with pre-diabetes, [I had] no symptoms, so. I work out, my numbers were just a little elevated, they weren’t at Type 2 diabetes level. For me, it’s like a famous saying: “the best thing you can give your child is a good example.” I do not want to police my daughter on what foods she puts in her mouth. I’m not going to start her early with body consciousness, dysmorphia , or anything like that. But I can make choices myself where she’s going to look at me — and she’s watching me, because kids watch everything that you do — and that’s what I’m giving her. Because listen, like I said, I’m healthy. Everything in my fridge — we drink unsweetened almond milk. Now Genesis is at the point where she drinks unsweetened almond milk, slowly but surely. She said: “Mommy, I never liked avocado. Now I loooove avocado.” So, that’s what I’m giving her: a great example.
SK: What message do you hope that people will take from the movie? If they feel really passionately, what action can they take?
VD: Take some action. That’s what action to take. Atouchofsugarfilm.com is a website we created — but when you look at the staggering numbers, then what you see is that there’s a lack of support and a lack of education out there. And the silence — the people who have the power to change the narrative, especially with people living in food deserts and impoverished communities, they need to throw a rope. People need to start sharing their stories — I guarantee you, you share your story, there’s a little nugget that you could give to someone else and they could give to you in return.
We are now at the point where it has become undeniable that we need connection. That’s what I can say. You know, I’m at the point in my life where I’m living a life of significance. I’m not living just for myself. I encourage other people to do the same. And it doesn’t matter what you do, people always feel like what you do has got to be big. It doesn’t need to be big.
SK: Shifting gears a little bit — you have spoken out about issues of equal pay, specifically for women of color. I’m curious, do you think we’ve made any progress in recent years? How do we keep that going?
VD: In terms of equal pay, I — you know, it’s funny with our profession, when you get into equal pay it’s like so-and-so makes $700,000 an episode, I only make $550,000 an episode. It’s kind of rude, sometimes I feel like. But with women of color we have a ways to go. You know what, I think — I quote Shonda Rhimes all the time because I happen to absolutely love her. I don’t tell her enough. But she said something very important when she accepted the Norman Lear award at the Producer’s Guild Awards one year. She said: “I deserve this award. Because when I walk into a room, I ask for what I want.”
Oftentimes, I think that women walk into the room and they just expect to get what they want. They don’t open their mouths. And I think there’s an assumption that people already know and people already value you. You’ve got to teach people how to treat you. And you’ve got to teach people and show people what you’re worth. So, that is what I encourage women to do. Ask for what you want. And don’t edit yourself! Ask for the top and go down from there, that’s what I say.
SK: You obviously have a very close relationship with your daughter, which is wonderful to see. What advice do you have for other working moms who are trying to keep up with their kids’ lives and find that balance?
VD: I feel like — see, once again, I don’t want to downplay myself, I really don’t. I’m not — I don’t think I’m the best person to talk about working moms, only because I’m coming from a perspective of privilege now. I really am. And I’m aware of that. There are women who really are working really hard, I mean to put food on the table and to pay their rent.
What I will say is this: whatever time you spend where you can look at your child, and take them in, and listen to them so they can be seen is time that they will remember forever. I don’t think that it has to be even a long time. I think it’s like — I think Maya Angelou said it, that when you walk through the door, that a child literally changes when they know. They light up when you look at them, and you see them, and you say you love them. That’s the most I can give to a working mom, but I don’t think I can give anything else because otherwise it would be very — sort of — condescending, in my opinion. There are just too many women who are really, really working hard out there.
This interview has been edited for style and length.