Viola Davis on her prediabetes diagnosis: 'It’s been very hard for me' (Exclusive)

Viola Davis has chosen to live a life of significance.

The Oscar-winning actress recognizes the immense privilege that comes with being as celebrated of an artist that she has become and, as she told AOL's Gibson Johns during a recent sit-down interview during the Tribeca Film Festival, she sees that privilege as coming with an important responsibility to pay it forward.

"The absolute truth of being an artist is that nobody has a choice until you’re in that one percent," Davis explained. "I’m in rich woman territory. I’m in rarified air territory, and once you’re there you can either say, 'I’m going to stay on top and fight to stay there and to get more money and more notoriety,' or you can live a life of significance. And that’s what I chose to do."

The 53-year-old Hollywood stalwart makes sure that every single project she takes on reflects that significance that she strives for. Whether it's the characters she chooses to portray or the importance of their stories, Davis wants all her projects to have an impact, and her latest venture undoubtedly does: She's the narrator of a documentary about diabetes called "A Touch of Sugar," which is part of Merck's America's Diabetes Challenge.

In the lead-up to the film's premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Davis explained that it was her family's painful history with diabetes -- and her own diagnosis with prediabetes -- that drove her to get involved with the feature.

Check out AOL's full interview with Viola Davis below, where we discussed her diagnosis with prediabetes, her involvement in "A Touch of Sugar," supporting people who are following in her footsteps and more:

32 PHOTOS
Viola Davis out and about
See Gallery
Viola Davis out and about
SUNDAY TODAY WITH WILLIE GEIST -- Pictured: (l-r) Viola Davis on May 5, 2019 -- (Photo by: Mike Smith/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 25: (L-R) Dolores Grant, actress Viola Davis, Annabella Grant and Dianne Davis-Wright attend "A Touch Of Sugar" New York screening at The Roxy Cinema on April 25, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Jim Spellman/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 24: Viola Davis visits "Extra" at Times Square on April 24, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 25: Actress Viola Davis attends "A Touch of Sugar" New York screening at The Roxy Cinema on April 25, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Jim Spellman/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 30: Viola Davis speaks onstage at the 50th NAACP Image Awards at Dolby Theatre on March 30, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - 2019/02/10: Viola Davis and Julius Tennon at the EE British Academy Film Awards at the Royal Albert Hall, Kensington. (Photo by Keith Mayhew/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
PARK CITY, UTAH - FEBRUARY 01: Viola Davis attends "Troop Zero" Premiere during 2019 Sundance Film Festival at Eccles Center Theatre on February 01, 2019 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE! - "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" airs every weeknight at 11:35 p.m. EST and features a diverse lineup of guests that include celebrities, athletes, musical acts, comedians and human interest subjects, along with comedy bits and a house band. The guests for Tuesday, January 29, included Viola Davis ("How to Get Away with Murder"), Charles P. Pierce ("Politics with Charles P. Pierce"), and musical guest Cypress Hill. (Randy Holmes via Getty Images) VIOLA DAVIS
SANTA MONICA, CA - JANUARY 13: Viola Davis walks onstage during the 24th annual Critics' Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on January 13, 2019 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Critics' Choice Awards)
HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER - "Where Are Your Parents?" - Annalise gathers everyone together for the holidays while she wrestles over a difficult decision about her future, and the investigation into Miller's murder starts to widen on "How to Get Away with Murder," airing THURSDAY, FEB. 14 (10:00-11:00 p.m. EST), on The ABC Television Network. (Mitch Haaseth/ABC via Getty Images) VIOLA DAVIS
HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER - "Be the Martyr" - Nate is on a mission to prove he was right about the culprit in his father's murder, while Bonnie begins to doubt herself; and Annalise turns the tables in the courtroom, on "How To Get Away with Murder," airing THURSDAY, JAN. 31 (10:00-11:00 p.m. EST), on The ABC Television Network. (Gilles Mingasson via Getty Images) VIOLA DAVIS
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 05: Viola Davis attends The Hollywood Reporter's Power 100 Women In Entertainment at Milk Studios on December 05, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Presley Ann/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 05: Viola Davis accepts the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award onstage during The Hollywood Reporter's Power 100 Women In Entertainment at Milk Studios on December 5, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for The Hollywood Reporter )
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 14: Viola Davis attends the gala screening of "Widows" during AFI FEST 2018 at the TCL Chinese Theatre on November 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for AFI)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 13: Actress Viola Davis attends the discussion of the film 'Widows' at 92nd Street Y on November 13, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Gary Gershoff/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 13: Actress Viola Davis visits "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" at Rockefeller Center on November 13, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for NBC)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 08: Viola Davis attends the premiere of 'Widows' during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival at Roy Thomson Hall on September 8, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tara Ziemba/WireImage)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 08: SEPTEMBER 08: Viola Davis attends the premiere of 'Widows' during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival at Roy Thomson Hall on September 8, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tara Ziemba/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 27: Executive producer Viola Davis speaks onstage for 'The Last Defense' during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival at SVA Theatre on April 27, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 27: Actor Viola Davis attends 'The Last Defense' during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival at SVA Theatre on April 27, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 13: Julius Tennon and Viola Davis are seen on April 13, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by JNI/Star Max/GC Images)
Actor Viola Davis speaks onstage at the 2018 Women In The World Summit at Lincoln Center on April 12, 2018 in New York City. / AFP PHOTO / ANGELA WEISS (Photo credit should read ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 04: Viola Davis arrives at the 90th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on March 4, 2018 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 04: Viola Davis arrives at the 90th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on March 4, 2018 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 04: Actor Viola Davis speaks onstage during the 90th Annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center on March 4, 2018 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MARCH 02: Viola Davis arrives at the 11th Annual Celebration Of The 2018 Female Oscar Nominees Presented By Women In Film at Crustacean on March 2, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MARCH 02: Viola Davis attends Women In Film Pre-Oscar Cocktail Party presented by Max Mara and Lancome with additional support from Crustacean Beverly Hills, Johnnie Walker, Stella Artois and Cambria at Crustacean Beverly Hills on March 2, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Women in Film)
HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER - 'Nobody Else Is Dying' - Annalise and her inner circle deal with the aftermath of a suspicious death that culminates with a shocking arrest. Meanwhile, a new development involving one of their own changes everything, on the season finale of 'How to Get Away with Murder,' THURSDAY, MARCH 15 (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT), on The ABC Television Network. (Mitch Haaseth via Getty Images) VIOLA DAVIS
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 20: Actress Viola Davis speaks during the Women's March Los Angeles 2018 on January 20, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images)
HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER - 'Lahey v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania' - As Annalise's class-action case hangs in the balance, a meeting with the esteemed Washington D.C. fixer, Olivia Pope, proves to be crucial in getting the opportunity to argue her case in the nation's highest court. Meanwhile, Bonnie discovers concerning information pertaining to Simon that threatens to expose what really happened during night he was shot, on a special, TGIT Crossover Event episode of 'How to Get Away with Murder,' THURSDAY, MARCH 1 (10:00-11:00 p.m. EST), on The ABC Television Network. (Mitch Haaseth/ABC via Getty Images) VIOLA DAVIS
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 07: Viola Davis arrives at the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 7, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 07: Actress Viola Davis arrives at 2018 American Rescue Dog Show on January 7, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jerod Harris/WireImage)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

As part of your work narrating "A Touch of Sugar" as part of Merck's America's Diabetes Challenge, you're opening up about your own diagnosis with prediabetes. Can you talk to me a bit about being diagnosed and your feelings around it?

I went for a hormone test, and my doctor just happened to take an A1C test, which I had never heard of. It’s a comprehensive test that measures your average glucose levels in the last two or three months and you should take about four of those tests a year. I never knew anything about it, and my numbers were a little elevated. I remember thinking, even then, "How am I going to change my life so that I don’t get type 2 diabetes? I don’t want to change my life. I’m already busy and already exercise and eat right. What did I do to deserve this?" One of the reasons why I narrated the documentary is because I love the word "confronting" the diabetes -- the confrontation of it and the sort of demystifying it and knocking it on its head and making people feel less alone -- because the numbers are way too high! My two sisters have type 2 diabetes, my great aunt died from it after two amputations of her leg, my paternal grandmother had it, my husband’s mother had two amputations. 30 million adults have type 2 diabetes, 84 million have prediabetes and a lot of people don’t know it. Obviously someone’s not talking and obviously someone needs to talk, so why not me?

Speaking out about anything, much less about something to do with your health, is brave. Did you have any hesitation to speak out on such a personal matter? Or, when you were diagnosed, were you like, I need to address this?

Both: Of course I need to address it even though I didn’t know how to. I consider myself to be very smart about my health, but even just because of the stigma of feeling like you have a disease or could have a disease. Why is that a stigma when so many people have it? Why is that a sign of weakness? Maybe if someone opened their mouth, then there would be no shame involved. It’s like Brené Brown’s famous saying, "when you share your story in a world full of people who have empathy, shame can’t exist." I think there’s a certain shame attached to diabetes, like you caused it or didn't control your weight or had too much sugar, but it’s much deeper than that.

What did the doctor tell you in terms of changes that you could make, considering you were already so conscious of your health?

I’m 53, which is a big thing. I’ll admit, it’s been very hard for me. One of the reasons why I’m narrating the documentary, too, is that I love the fact that they have a website people can check -- that I’ll be checking myself! -- touchofsugarfilm.com -- because I felt like I already know what to do. Yet, doing it at this age, especially with my hormone levels and my metabolism and my schedule, it’s been hard. And then my genetic predisposition to it. She told me what I should be doing even though my glucose levels are fine. They’re perfect. My A1C levels were not -- they were a little elevated. 

Talk to me a little bit more about how you ended up narrating this documentary. How did you get attached to the project? What did you learn from the narration experience?

It came to me, like all projects come to me. I chose to take it because I felt that it was a voiceless condition that needed a voice and, through narrating anything, I learn about it. I learn things that I didn't even know. First of all, the numbers are frightening to me -- absolutely frightening --and how difficult it is to manage the disease, but you can manage it. You can work with it. That blew the lid off of everything for me. Also the personal connection, you know? I want my sisters to live a long life. I want to live a long life for my daughter, and to put that "disease" label on it, for me it was just like, "Can you just say ‘diabetes?’ Why does it have to be ‘disease’?" I learned all that through the narration. It woke me up.

There’s a stigma that really shouldn’t be there. I feel as though that instills a fear in people when they hear the word "diabetes."

And, once again, people don’t want it to interfere with their lives, so if they can ignore it, they will. My new favorite word is "support." Not "help," but "support," to carry people when they can’t carry themselves and that’s what we need to do with each other with this crisis.

You mentioned your daughter, Genesis. Considering that you have a genetic predisposition for prediabetes, was there any worry around passing it down to her, as well?

You really see your own mortality. I’m reluctant to say that, because it’s not a death sentence -- you can manage it and live with it. For me, in my brain, I felt like, because of everything that’s happened in my family, I saw my mortality. That’s what lit a fire under my butt. I’m always telling Genesis, "When you’re 18…" And then my next thought is, "I want to be here to see you at 18."

I’m sure people who see "A Touch of Sugar" will come up to you and thank you for speaking out. What do people say to you when they come up to you?

Everything! I hear everything. The only thing I’m missing is the long beard and the cane and I could actually part the red sea. [Laughs] But for the most part what I get, especially from women of color, is that what I’ve done for women is so valuable, which makes me feel like there’s a voice missing from our lives that I need.

Between "How to Get Away With Murder," your children’s book "Corduroy Takes a Bow," and several other recent projects you've done, do you feel as though you’ve been able to spread your wings more than before in terms of doing a wider array of projects?

Absolutely. Earlier in my career, I didn't have anything. I didn't have a profile, I didn't have any money and I didn't have any choices. I’m in a profession that has a 95 percent unemployment rate. Less than one percent of the profession makes $50,000 a year of more and most of those are stand-ins. Only four percent make enough to make plan one or two health insurance, which is $10,000 a year. The absolute truth of being an artist is that nobody has a choice until you’re in that one percent. I’m in rich woman territory. I’m in rarified air territory, and once you’re there you can either say, "I’m going to stay on top and fight to stay there and to get more money and more notoriety," or you can live a life of significance. And that’s what I chose to do with me and my husband’s production company, with this documentary, certainly, with confronting the diabetes crisis and fighting for my sister and my family. That’s what I choose to do now.

That phrase "career of significance" really struck me, because not everyone in similar positions do that. That’s a choice.

It is a choice, and what’s interesting is, just like we were talking about with diabetes, for me, it’s the only way to live one’s life. We’ve had enough testimonies from the graveyard to know that it’s the only way to live. There’s a lot of need out there. There’s a lot of people who are suffering from diabetes who are looking to be thrown a rope of information, of support and of something that’s constant and ongoing, as well as any number of other factors. Poverty: 46 million people in this country live on or below the poverty line. A lot of them don’t have access to even the information or resources to mange their diabetes. What do you do? What do you do if you have the rope or the information? Do you choose to look back and throw the rope, or do you just move on with your toney life? I choose to do whatever I can.

When you say throwing the rope back, do you mean to the people who come after you in the industry, too?

Yes, but not just people in the industry. Also people back home in Central Falls. I do it in every way I can. Any number or projects or anything I’ve ever done is about living a life better than myself. I’ve seen the limitations of the other -- of just living for my own success.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

11 PHOTOS
10 Myths About Diabetes and Food
See Gallery
10 Myths About Diabetes and Food

Remember that these are suggestions, and to always consult your doctor before changing your diet and exercise routine.

Image Credit: Thinkstock_iStockphoto

Beans

Myth: Beans are proteins so I can eat as many as I want.

Real Deal: In one-half cup of beans, there are 7 grams of protein and 15 grams of carbohydrates. This can add up if you are eating rice and beans!

Image Credit: Thinkstock_iStockphoto

Cake

Myth: I can never eat cake again!

Real Deal: Diabetes is not about deprivation, rather it is about moderation. You can eat all foods when you have diabetes. Adhere to consistent carbohydrate-counting principles and eat your cake with a lean protein and a monounsaturated fat.

Image Credit: Thinkstock_iStockphoto

Cardio

Myth: The harder I work out the better. Two cardio classes are better than one!

Real Deal: Nope — when your aerobic exercise becomes anaerobic from working out too hard, you raise your blood sugar. Wear a heart rate monitor to help stay in your target heart range and be sure you can talk to your neighbor to help stay in your aerobic zone.

Image Credit: Thinkstock_iStockphoto

Sugar-Free

Myth: You can eat sugar-free cookies, cakes and ice creams without worrying!

Real Deal: NO. NO. Just because something is sugar-free, it doesn't mean it is carb-free. Carbohydrates raise our blood sugar because they are sugar!

Image Credit: Thinkstock_iStockphoto

Fruit

Myth: Fruit is nature's gift. I can eat as much as I want.

Real Deal: Fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, beans and grains are all carbohydrates and, thus, affect our blood sugar.

Image Credit: Thinkstock_iStockphoto

Medication

Myth: I don't need to watch my diet if I am on medication.

Real Deal: Eating large meals high in carbohydrates and not exercising still affects the body. If you take insulin, you may gain excess weight if you start eating more carbs now that you can control your blood sugar with insulin. Insulin is not a free pass to eat more than your body needs or more carbohydrates per meal. Keep in mind, insulin lowers your blood sugar but it does not lower your calories. Also, if you are taking oral hypoglycemic agents that help to make your body more sensitive to insulin, recognize your pancreas is still working hard! The more weight you gain, the more muscle you lose, and the more resistant the body becomes to insulin. You must change the way you eat and start moving.

Image Credit: Thinkstock_iStockphoto

Prediabetes

Myth: If you have prediabetes, you will most certainly develop diabetes.

Real Deal: You can reverse insulin resistance and prevent diabetes through diet and lifestyle activities such as exercising for 90 to 150 minutes a week.

Image Credit: Thinkstock_iStockphoto

Weight

Myth: If I can't lose 50 pounds, I might as well give up. I am destined to have diabetes just like my father.

Real Deal: Losing just 7 percent of your current body weight decreases your risk of developing diabetes by 58 percent. Set small achievable goals!

Image Credit: Thinkstock_iStockphoto

Diet Food

Myth: It's better to eat diet food like diet soda and diet bread.

Real Deal: Diet soda and diet foods confuse the body and our hunger fullness signal. Instead, eat the real thing and just adhere to your allotted carbohydrates.

Image Credit: Thinkstock_iStockphoto

Artificial Sweeteners

Myth: If you have diabetes, you should use an artificial sweetener.

Real Deal: Say no to artificial sugars. They upset your stomach and make you crave more sugar! How could that be helpful? It's not!

Image Credit: Tetra Images

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Read Full Story

Sign up for Entertainment Insider by AOL to get the hottest pop culture news delivered straight to your inbox!

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.