Viola Davis on surviving a hungry, impoverished childhood: 'It's my way of healing'

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Viola Davis On Surviving a Hungry, Impoverished Childhood: 'It's My Way of Healing'

One in five children in America lives in a household without enough food. Viola Davis was once one of them.

The movie and TV superstar has an incredible resume: She's been nominated for two Academy Awards and three Golden Globes and has taken home trophies from the SAG Awards, the Tonys, the People's Choice Awards, the NAACP Image Awards, and many others. Her starring turn in How To Get Away With Murder drove one of the biggest breakout hits of the year.

But as a young girl growing up in Central Falls, Rhode Island, Davis lived in extreme poverty. Her house had no plumbing, no phone, and was infested with rats. She's been candid about how she was so hungry she resorted to stealing food or diving for scraps in maggot-filled dumpsters.

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As a child, the hunger would impact her basic ability to function. "I would go to school at 8 a.m., and by 8:15 I was sleepy, I couldn't wake up," Davis tells ET. "I remember I fell asleep during my SATs!"

But an "a-ha" moment that gave her something to work toward.

"I saw the [TV movie] The Autobiography of Miss. Jane Pittman with Cicely Tyson, so in the midst of all of that poverty, a dream was born," she says. "Your dreams have to be bigger than your circumstances."

Now, Davis is sitting down with ET's Nischelle Turner to discuss how her childhood inspired her to get involved for the second year in a row with Hunger Is, a joint initiative between The Safeway Foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation.

In their first year, the campaign raised $4.6 million and was able to give grants to 198 community charities that help hungry kids. Their stated goal is to completely eradicate childhood hunger.

"I like that word, 'eradicate,'" Davis says.

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Viola Davis on surviving a hungry, impoverished childhood: 'It's my way of healing'
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - SEPTEMBER 20: Actress Viola Davis attends the #TGIT premiere event hosted by Twitter at Palihouse Holloway on September 20, 2014 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - SEPTEMBER 20: (L-R) Actresses Kerry Washington, Viola Davis and Ellen Pompeo attend the #TGIT premiere event hosted by Twitter at Palihouse Holloway on September 20, 2014 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 25: Actress Viola Davis (R) and husband Julius Tennon arrive at the 66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on August 25, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Barry King/FilmMagic)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 15: Actress Viola Davis arrives at the 2014 Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour - Disney/ABC Television Group at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 15, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 15: (L-R) ABC's 'How to Get Away with Murder' actors Matt McGorry, Karla Souza, Katie Findlay, Alfie Enoch, Viola Davis, Liza Weil, Aja Naomi King, Charlie Weber, Jack Falahee and Billy Brown pose for a portrait during ABC's 2014 TCA summer press tour at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 15, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/ABC/ABC via Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 15: (Top L-R) Actors Jack Falahee, Aja Naomi King, Matt McGorry, Karla Souza, Alfred Enoch, Katie Findley, Charlie Weber, (Front L-R) Director/Executive Producer Bill D’Elia, Executive producers Betsy Beers, Shonda Rhimes, Creator/Executive producer Pete Nowalk, actors Viola Davis, Billy Brown and Liza Weil speak onstage at the 'How To Get Away With Murder'' panel during the Disney/ABC Television Group portion of the 2014 Summer Television Critics Association at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 15, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 15: Viola Davis arrives at the 2014 Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour - Disney/ABC Television Group at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 15, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
GOOD MORNING AMERICA - Viola Davis is a guest on 'Good Morning America,' 6/12/14, airing on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Lou Rocco/ABC via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 29: Actress Viola Davis speaks during Variety Studio Actors on Actors presented by Autograph Collection Hotels on March 29, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Variety)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MARCH 21: Actress Viola Davis attends the 26th annual GLAAD Media Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 21, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
WESTWOOD, CA - MARCH 22: Viola Davis Viola Davisarrives at the 'HOME' Los Angeles Premiere at Regency Village Theatre on March 22, 2015 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MARCH 21: Viola Davis attends the 26th Annual GLAAD Media Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 21, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California.(Photo by JB Lacroix/WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 22: Viola Davis arrives at the 87th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 22, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Dan MacMedan/WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 22: Viola Davis arrives at the 87th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 22, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Dan MacMedan/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 25: Actress Viola Davis poses in the press room at the 21st annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 25, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 25: Actors Viola Davis (L) and Julius Tennon attend TNT's 21st Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 25, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. 25184_021 (Photo by Mark Davis/WireImage)
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WATCH: Viola Davis Talks About Her Upcoming Role in Suicide Squad

The How to Get Away With Murder star first spoke about her difficult childhood last year the Variety Women in Power Luncheon.

"Although my childhood was filled with many happy memories, it was also spent in abject poverty," she said at the time. "I sacrificed a childhood for food and grew up in immense shame,"

She reveals to ET that it had been difficult to be around impoverished children when she was filming the PSA for Hunger Is.

"It was very emotional for me, being with kids, because it was like looking at myself," Davis admits. "And also it was when I first partnered with Safeway and Entertainment Industry Foundation, so it was really the first time I opened my mouth to share my story, and so it brought me back to that child that I was."

But she says sharing her story has also been therapeutic.

"It's my way of healing that little child that always follows me with a little ponytail, that was diving through dumpsters, it's my way of hushing her a little bit, putting a smile on her face," Davis says. "I think it's the least I can do as I'm walking down the red carpet."

Davis says ultimately, if her involvement with Hunger Is helps kids in need, her own struggles will have been worth it.

"All the hunger I went through, and the poverty, has brought me here today to speak for the Safeway and Entertainment Industry Foundation," she says. "It is a beautiful thing to live a life bigger than oneself."

HOW YOU CAN HELP

To contribute to the Hunger Is campaign, visit a Safeway or Albertson's store during the month of April and donate at the register. They are also looking for volunteers for their program.

You can also make a donation online here. Visit HungerIs.org to learn more.

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