The actress has gained critical acclaim during her 30-year career for her roles in movies including Doubt, The Help and Fences, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2017.
But in an interview with PorterEdit online magazine, the actress, who plays lawyer Annalise Keating in the hit show, reveals she didn't feel she had the right image to do them before she signed on to the Shonda Rimes drama."I've had a 30-year career and I have rarely gotten roles that are fleshed out, even a little bit. I mean you wouldn't think they have a vagina," she told PorterEdit. "It's been a painful journey. It costs me something, because very rarely in my career - and in my life - have I been allowed to explore that part of myself, to be given permission to know that is an aspect of my humanity, that I desire and am desired."
Viola, who has been referred to as the black Meryl Streep, admitted that she mistakenly felt that sexy women onscreen had to fit a certain beauty standard until she realised that definition was unrealistic.
"I always felt in playing sexuality you have to look a certain way, to be a certain size, to walk a certain way. Until I realised that what makes people lean in is when they see themselves," she shared. "There's no way I am going to believe that all women who are sexualised are size zero or two, all have straight hair, all look like sex kittens every time they go to bed and want sex from their man, all are heterosexual.
"I am mirroring women. I always say it is not my job to be sexy, it's my job to be sexual, that's the difference," she added.
Viola also attributed the lack of opportunity for women of colour to be sexual onscreen to the fact that dark-skinned actresses are typecast in Hollywood.
"I'm 52 and darker than a paper bag. Women who look like me are relegated to the back of the bus, auditioning for crackheads and mammas and the person with a hand on her hip who is always described as 'sassy' or 'soulful'," she sighed.