ABC News(NEW YORK) — For Viola Davis, being the face of How to Get Away With Murder has meant a lot of responsibility. But she’s embraced it with grace, thanks to lessons she picked up from fellow actress Meryl Streep.
Davis appeared with Streep in 2008′s Doubt alongside Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
“When I got that role, I thought I had won the lottery — I cannot even tell you,” Davis said. “Meryl Streep is the greatest actress because you can see so many different emotions going on in her eyes. … It’s a joy as an artist.”
She said that on the movie’s set, Streep had asked for her colleagues’ opinions and never let them hide in the background.
“I see her consciously make that effort knowing what her responsibility is from the moment she steps on. And she does it as much as she can,” Davis said. “And I respected that and honored that.”
On the hit ABC show, Davis plays Annalise Keating, a criminal defense attorney and law school professor at a fictional school.
“‘How to get away with murder’ is her way of being dramatic. … [She] takes her job very seriously and also just wants to provoke these students, wants to manipulate them,” she said. “The classroom is her stage. … She’s MY sexy.”
Davis, who was nominated for Oscars for her role in The Help as well as Doubt, said she is aware of the example she sets the moment she steps on the show’s sound stage.
“I know that I set the mood and the groundwork and foundation in which people have to create,” Davis said. “And I gotta tell you the person I learned that from is Meryl Streep.”
Davis was one of six siblings. All but one was born in St. Matthews, South Carolina, on the Singleton plantation.
She moved north in 1965 when she was just a baby. Her father groomed horses at the racetrack. Her mother worked at a factory periodically. She has been outspoken about not having enough food when she was growing up in abject poverty in Rhode Island.
“I remember always thinking when I was a kid, remember thinking when people would look at me and go, ‘Oh I know she’s poor. … I would think, ‘Just give me some food and I could take care of the rest,” she said. “Just give me some fuel, you know? But there was such a shame and stigma attached to it.”
She now works with The Safeway Foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation on their Hunger Is campaign to eradicate childhood hunger.
“It’s been cathartic to say I was hungry,” she told ABC News. “I was. I was a hungry kid who could never get at the business of being me, you know? … So it’s my joy and my pleasure to be a part of this campaign.”
Davis said her struggles had helped her appreciate the achievements.
“I just wanted to find something that I really loved and to build a life around it — and so that’s what I did,” she said.
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