Emmy contenders Taraji P. Henson and Viola Davis spoke on how they’ve managed to handle race and sexism in Hollywood with The Hollywood Reporter.
The actresses were joined by Ruth Wilson (The Affair), Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Honourable Woman), Jessica Lange (American Horror Story: Freak Show) and Lizzy Caplan (Masters of Sex), for a roundtable discussion on women in the entertainment industry.
With Davis and Henson in respectable leading roles — Henson plays Cookie Lyon on the hit series Empire and Davis, the fierce Annalise Keating on How To Get Away With Murder — the women discussed their presence in what has been the most diverse array of actresses on primetime television in years. Davis spoke about what it’s like to play a sexual woman, while Henson discussed the social topics that Empire brings to the table, including homophobia in the African-American community.
“There was absolutely no precedent for it,” Davis said. “I had never seen a 49-year-old, dark-skinned woman who is not a size 2 be a sexualized role in TV or film. I’m a sexual woman, but nothing in my career has ever identified me as a sexualized woman. I was the prototype of the “mommified” role. Then all of a sudden, this part came, and fear would be an understatement.”
In the past, Davis has played hard-hitting roles on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and critically acclaimed films like The Help. Davis will also join Will Smith and Jared Leto in Marvel’s Suicide Squad next year. Even throughout her 20-year-career, Davis said one of her biggest struggles was the HTGAWM role, and how the audience would feel about her as Keating.
“The thing I had to get used to with TV was the likability factor,” she said. “People have to like you, people have to think you’re pretty. I was going to have to face a fact that people were going to look at me and say: “I have no idea why they cast her in a role like this. She just doesn’t fit. It should have been someone like Halle Berry. It’s her voice, and she doesn’t walk like a supermodel in those heels.” They take their wig and makeup off at night. So this role was my way of saying, “Welcome to womanhood!” It’s also healed me and shown a lot of little dark-skinned girls with curly hair a physical manifestation of themselves.”
Henson also talked about the impact of Empire and its social messages. While fans love and adore the outrageous Cookie, the actress says she’s grateful that creator Lee Daniels has given the audience the jump to talk about the topics of race, sexism, and LGBT issues within the African-American community.
“Art is so powerful,” the Oscar nominated actress says. “I felt like this subject matter [of Empire] is dealing with is something that we’d never seen on primetime network television. And if we do it well, if we handle it well, then it’s going to force people to have conversations that they are afraid to have, and that’s what art is supposed to do.”
Drawing inspiration from her father, Taraji says she’s ready to tackle more roles that African-American actresses haven’t been able to dominate.
“I want to play a super hero, I want to play a Bond girl, I want to play a man, I want to play a white woman. I want to play everything I’ve never played before.”
You can watch snippets of Henson and Davis’ discussion here. The full Drama Actress Roundtable will be aired on Close Up With The Hollywood Reporter Sunday, Aug. 2 on the Sundance TV network.
SOURCE: The Hollywood Reporter | VIDEO CREDIT: NDN
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