Viola Davis on Roles for Black Women Over 50 in Hollywood: 'It's Like a Vast Desert' (Exclusive)

·4-min read

At the Cannes Film Festival, the L’Oreal Paris International spokeswoman told PEOPLE about hoping for more opportunities for actresses: "I play a lot of moms"

Daniele Venturelli/WireImage Viola Davis
Daniele Venturelli/WireImage Viola Davis

Viola Davis recently headlined Air, playing Deloris Johnson, Michael Jordan's mom. Her playing the part was the one condition the legendary basketball player had before giving director Ben Affleck permission to make the film.

"As soon as they called me, I said, 'You want me to play his mom?' " the Oscar winner tells PEOPLE at the Cannes Film Festival. "I play a lot of moms. Everyone wants me to play their mom. I have people who hug me in the street who call me Mom."

Affleck, she says, didn't have to entice her. "I think the enticement came that it wasn't your normal mom role," she says. "He turned it on its head so that she was the one who negotiated the [multi-million dollar Nike] deal that we know today. And that intrigued me. I like surprises."

Her husband Julius Tennon is a costar in the film. "He's just the best. He's a cutie pie," she says.

She ad-libbed a key line in the film — "A shoe is just a shoe until my son steps into it" — during the negotiating scene. "I hadn't been thinking about it," she says, "but some lines are inspired by life, and I think that naturally that's what came through the line. What that whole scene was driven by is worth. And I feel like as a woman, and as a Black woman, I'm always doing that in a room — I'm always negotiating my worth."

Related:Viola Davis on Evolving Beauty Standards: 'Who We Are Beyond Male Desirability' (Exclusive)

Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images Viola Davis and Julius Tennon
Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images Viola Davis and Julius Tennon

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The scene triggered those feelings, she continues: "I didn't want to just talk about the shoe, I wanted to talk about my son in the shoe. That's what we're talking about. And I think that that's on the tip of every actress's tongue and on the tip of every actress of color's tongue. It was sort of like art imitating life, life sort of influencing art."

The actress and L'Oreal Paris International spokeswoman, 57, would like to see a wider range of roles for women over 50, particularly for women of color.

"When it comes to Black women who are over 50, then that is when [the lack of interesting roles] is problematic," she says. "That's when it is a vast desert."

But she remains optimistic. "Women are no longer begging for a seat at the table, they're creating their own. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Kerry Washington, Issa Rae, Michaela Coel, Halle Berry, Keke Palmer, we can keep going on and on — even Marsai Martin, who is what, 18? They're empowering themselves by understanding that they're the change that they want to see."

Gilbert Flores/Variety via Getty
Gilbert Flores/Variety via Getty

The EGOT winner adds, "You always feel like you're hustling for your worth, as a woman and as a Black woman."

She credits the "journey of life" for learning her worth: "After a while when you get beaten down so many times, there is something that happens that you have a God divine moment [of] seeing yourself and who you actually want to be. And you make a choice: You want to live, you want hope, you want to be that sort of ideal self, or are you going to embrace the person that you don't want to be. And I chose to embrace the hopeful Viola, the Viola that was a survivor. It just happened, but it came through a lot of bruises."

Today, she says, "I don't hustle anymore. And it has nothing to do with my age and how long I've been in the business. It's a realization. It's a self-actualization that worth is nothing to be negotiated with. I was born worthy. That's not on the table. What's on the table?" she adds with a knowing glance, "Maybe you have to see it the way I see it."

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