Viola Davis Poses With Daughter Genesis Tennon for AARP the Magazine and Reflects on Her Life Before Turning 50

"I'm able to almost accept the old me," the How to Get Away With Murder actress says

By Zach Johnson Jul 29, 2015 5:35 PMTags
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Viola Davis turns 50 on Aug. 11, and to celebrate, she posed for the August/September issue of AARP the Magazine. But the Emmy Award-nominated How to Get Away With Murder actress didn't do it alone, as her adorable daughter, Genesis Tennon, also participated in the magazine's fun photo shoot!

Davis' life wasn't always so glamorous, of course. In fact, as her milestone birthday nears, the actress has been thinking about her tough youth. "Turning 50 is making me reflect on my life in a way that's more compassionate and forgiving. I'm able to almost accept the old me," she said. Looking at photos from her childhood, she would say, "'Look how fat I was,' or 'My goodness, look at my hair!' What I saw was dark skin, being poor and all the things that come with poverty—smelling and being unkempt." What Davis sees now is "how passionate I was, how much I dreamed, and what a good and loyal friend I was."

Until she was 18, Davis—who is one of eight children—lived with her parents, brother and four sisters in a condemned building in Central Falls, R.I. The family received good stamps at the first of each month that paid for a grocery run. "But the food soon ran out, and that was it," Davis recalled. "Most of the time, the school lunch was the only meal I had. I would befriend kids whose mothers cooked three meals a day and go to their homes when I could." Other times, Davis rummaged through garbage dumps and stole food from stores. One time, however, she was caught. "I was 9," Davis said. "The store owner screamed at me to get out, looking at me like I was nothing, and the shame of that forced me to stop."

Living in poverty made it difficult to focus in school.

"If you're hungry, you can't focus," she said. "You have no juice."

As a child, Davis dreamed of one day being able to buy her own house. That dream eventually became a reality, but success didn't happen overnight.

"When you grow up poor, you dream of just having a home, and a bed that's clean—that's a sanctuary. Having a really great husband, a child who's healthy and happy and brings me joy—all of that has been my dream," said Davis, who married fellow actor Julius Tennon in June 2003. "As kids, we often didn't have bus fare, so to have a car today—it's unbelievable to me."

Over a year ago, the Safeway Foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation invited Davis to be the spokesperson for the Hunger Is campaign. "I've been so focused on my child, my husband and my career that I never thought of the last step, which is giving back," the actress told AARP the Magazine.

Because—or perhaps in spite of—her difficult upbringing, Davis said she is "happy" to be where she is today. "I'm a survivor," she explained. "There's buoyancy and lightness in me. I'm not angry about my life. I'm not bitter at all."

Watch: Viola Davis Teases "How to Get Away With Murder" Return