Viola Davis offers the perfect response to pay gap between black and white actors

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Viola Davis has earned every bit of her success.

The Emmy-winning actress and star of How to Get Away With Murder is enjoying critical acclaim for film projects like Fences, recently signed a deal with ABC studios and her company JuVee Productions (which she runs with her husband of 13 years), and purchased a $5.7 million home in Los Angeles.

As accomplished as Davis is, she also faces another reality in Hollywood: A pay gap for black actors compared to their white counterparts. A recent report by Newsweek noted that Davis, along with her fellow ABC star Kerry Washington, are among black actors earning less money per TV episode than white actors on other (sometimes less) popular shows.

This past weekend, the 51-year-old actress and producer returned to her hometown of Central Falls, RI, with her mother and daughter to host a free health clinic with The Vaseline Healing Project. caught up with Davis at the event and discussed her humble beginnings and why black actors deserve a fair shake in Hollywood.

When I saw your Tony Awards speech from 2010, you thanked your teachers from Central Falls. Why in that moment did you think of them? How did growing up here shape you?

Well, we had a lot of teachers here who saw the talent in me when I didn’t. They say that thing that really gets people out of challenging situations and they are able to thrive, even coming from poor households, is they have someone teaching them how to master a skill, someone who teaches them how to fail, and someone who just likes them, you know? And I had all of that in the teachers from Central Falls. They saw that in me. They just thought I was pretty terrific. And I needed that at that time.

You inspired us with your Emmy Award speech about opportunities for actors of color. And it sparked a conversation that needed to be had. Recently, a story came out talking about pay gaps between black and white actors. Why do think that persists?

I don’t know. I think that that’s probably more of a question to the powers that be… What I reject is the notion that we are paid less because we’re less valued. I think that we are living in an age where we have to ask for what we want.

Shonda Rhimes got the Norman Lear Award at the Producers Guild Awards last year. And you know what she said? In her acceptance speech, she said — and I’m copying this — she said, “I deserve this award. And I deserve this award because when I walk into the room, I never expect not to get what I want.”

I know I’ve been out there for 30 years — 30 years of working in church basements, taking buses for 5 hours just to get to the theater, undergrad, graduate school, acting, Broadway, off-Broadway, TV, film — I deserve everything that I’ve gotten.

So you have to believe that whatever a Caucasian actor has, you should have. If you work for it, you should have it.

Do not wait for someone to give you your power — you take it.

This is Part 1 of theGrio’s interview with Viola Davis. Stay tuned to theGrio’s Entertainment Section to read more about the award-winning actress.