Viola Davis’ philosophy is always the same, whether for herself or for the students she inspires: The future is as big as you can imagine it.The first time Viola Davis offered that advice to kids in her cash-strapped, Central Falls, R.I., hometown, she was onstage at the 2012 Screen Actors Guild Awards, accepting the honor of Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role for her turn in The Help. “What is there but a dream?” she asked, her countenance visibly shaken, her voice strong. “You can’t trade in your dream for another dream.” Finally, declaring that she had a special message for the kids in Central Falls, she urged them “to dream big and to dream fierce.” As the exit music swelled, the camera panned across a room full of tearful, cheering Hollywood bigwigs whose emotions were clearly swelling too.
Back in her hometown, Davis’ words also resonated deeply with students at the city’s public high school and her alma mater, Central Falls High School. Teachers began using the phrase on report cards. They passed out stickers emblazoned with Davis’ advice, to remind kids that if dreaming big could launch Viola Davis to the top of her field, it could do the same for them. They’ve welcomed her multiple times as a guest; this year, she addressed the school’s outgoing seniors.
Davis returns to theaters this fall in the public-school drama Won’t Back Down, and her dreams are bigger than ever. On-screen, she plays a teacher fighting to save an institution from a broken system. Offscreen, she’s using her growing visibility to develop new opportunities for minority actors, advising young people on industry pitfalls and working to discover new black talent — all of which she hopes will make the world of theater a place where more dreams can become realities.
On a sunny Saturday in New Orleans, however, Davis has her hands full with a smaller challenge: getting her 2-year-old daughter, Genesis, to stop cooing at a visitor to their temporary home so the chatty toddler can go down for a nap. Genesis is clearly more interested in showing off her toys than in saying goodbye, but she eventually succumbs to nap time.
“The other day she woke up and I said, ‘Genesis, you know you’re the most beautiful girl in the world?’ ” Davis recalls, smiling. Then, mimicking her daughter’s self-assurance and tiny voice, she gives Genesis’ nonchalant reply: “Yeah.” Davis bursts into laughter. “ ‘Yeah’?! She is just the best thing in the world. It’s so kind of trite and ?hackneyed, but having a kid does open you up to life. It’s like everything is in black and white before, and then suddenly the colors — you see all the colors and the possibilities.”