Viola Davis has one photo of herself as a child. It's a pretty good one — a school portrait from kindergarten — but it's the only one. Her family didn't have enough money to buy a camera of their own, so her childhood isn't as well-documented as those of many of her Hollywood peers.
"I was the kind of poor where I knew right away I had less than everyone around me," Davis told People for the March 13 cover story.
The Oscar-winning actress was born in a one-room shack on her grandmother's farm, but soon after, Davis, her parents, and her five siblings moved to Rhode Island, where the family continued to struggle with hunger, housing, and racism. Their house was literally falling apart ("the boards were coming off the walls"), and they didn't have a phone. Rats also occupied the home, eating the faces off of Davis' dolls and nipping at her and her family while they slept.
Rather than letting herself feel trapped in her situation, though, Davis said she used her childhood as motivation to envision a better life for herself.
"The thing about poverty is that it starts affecting your mind and your spirit because people don't see you," she said. "I chose from a very young age that I didn't want that for my life."
So, as a teen, Davis began getting involved with theater. It was just the outlet she needed to express herself and put her on the path toward becoming a household name. But learning to love herself and be confident in her abilities didn't happen overnight: "My confidence took time," she explained. "It really did, to come into myself."
The pressure that the entertainment industry puts on women to maintain a flawless appearance didn't help. Growing up, Davis was "overweight and very, very shy," and when she broke into the industry around the start of the new millennium, she became very aware of her appearance and Hollywood's expectations.
"At first, I just wanted to try really hard to make people see that I was pretty, that I wasn't just the drug addict from Antoine Fisher, so it was about proving something to someone," she said. "It wasn't until the last year that I was like, 'OK, I'm done with that.' I just want to look like me, good me. I just want to be satisfied with how I look."
Of course, we all know that Davis looks amazing, even if she still struggles with confidence from time to time (every stage of her career brings "another barrier and another dragon to slay," as she puts it). But even more importantly, she's officially "made it" in the industry — not to mention, in history: She not only has an impressive list of film credits, but also boasts the title of "most Oscar-nominated black actress of all time," and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as of last weekend.
At the end of the day, though, Davis still doesn't take a single thing for granted.
"[Growing up in poverty] very much has helped me appreciate and value the things that are in my life now because I never had it," she said. "A yard, a house, great plumbing, a full refrigerator, things that people take for granted, I don't."
We don't know about you, but we can't wait to see what this superstar actress does next.