Viola Davis Acting Advice
FACT – It is always a sheer pleasure and joy to watch any mesmerising and masterful performance by the magnificent and marvellous Viola Davis. FACT – Not only is she one of the most acclaimed and accomplished actors in the industry today, but she is also one of the most inspirational, encouraging and uplifting voices in the world. I can sit and listen to this artist talk all day about craft and life and anything! But don’t take my word for it, take hers, as well as a few more facts you may not have known about this trailblazer, star, and role model.
DAVIS on HER JOURNEY…
“They say the two most important days in a persons life were the day you were born and the day you discover why you were born.”
“I would tell my younger self: ‘just be yourself—that who you are is good enough’.”
“I just look at women sometimes and I just want to ask them, ‘Do you know how fabulous you are?’ I look back at pictures of myself and I remember thinking. ‘I was so fat when I was growing up. I was 165 pounds when I graduated from high school. I was a mess.’ And then I look back at pictures of myself, and I’m like: ‘You were fabulous.’ I wish I would have known that then.”
“Your ability to adapt to failure and navigate your way out of it, absolutely, one hundred percent, makes you who you are…”
“My journey as an actor came from me just wanting to do SOMETHING. Wanting to get out, wanting to be great at something. Wanting to do the great works of Arthur Miller, and Shakespeare and Chekov and all of that. So I went to acting school and I just wanted everyone else to think that I was great, so whatever they told me to do, I did and I perfected… And then when I got out of school I just needed to work – because I hadn’t done anything. If you haven’t done anything, let me tell you something, most people will say: ‘just go out there and do it!’ And it’s true. Absolutely true… But more than likely, it’s going to be hard.”
“The happily ever after comes after you’ve done the work.”
FUN FACT: One might argue that the following facts about the brilliant Viola Davis are less than “fun”… but more phenomenal. Davis was born in the small town of St Matthews, South Carolina – not in a hospital, but in her grandmother’s farmhouse. She was the fourth of six children and “although my childhood was filled with happy memories,” she said, “it was also spent in abject poverty.” At the 2014 ‘Power Of Women’ event held by Variety magazine, Davis explains in her emotional speech: “I was one of the 17 million kids in this country who didn’t know where the next meal was coming from, and I did everything to get food. I have stolen for food. I have jumped in huge garbage bins with maggots for food. I have befriended people in the neighbourhood, who I knew had mothers who cooked three meals a day for food, and I sacrificed a childhood for food and grew up in immense shame.”
Yet, out of such horrible strife, Davis’s talents shone from a young age and throughout High School, she was accepted into several student support programs for further performing arts education. Eventually, she attended Rhode Island College earning a degree in Theatre, and then later graduated from New York City’s prestigious Juilliard School Of Performing Arts in 1993. Davis threw herself into the industry as soon as she completed her studies, which was soon recognised by Alma Mata and in 2002 Rhode Island College awarded her an honorary doctorate in Fine Arts.
DAVIS on ACTING: Seizing the Opportunity…
“You’re looking at a profession where, literally with acting, less than one percent of the people make 50 grand a year or more. Less than ONE PERCENT! The rest, MOST OF THEM, can’t even make enough to make health insurance, which is eleven thousand dollars a year. BUT, what happens when you love it, and you keep doing it and doing it, and God intervenes and all of a sudden you take off – THAT’S WHEN YOUR SHIT HAS GOT TO KICK IN! That’s when you have to be the artist and the person that you always wanted to be. THAT’S when you have to find a voice that separates you from the rest.”
FUN FACT: Davis’s first credited role in a feature film was the 1996 screen adaptation of ‘The Substance of Fire’ where she played a nurse. The small, speaking role only took a single day to shoot and she was paid a modest total of $528 for her work. Though the shoot and the role was brief, she was able to use this credit to secure herself an elusive Screen Actors Guild card, which effectively launched her into a higher status of professional actor within the industry.
DAVIS on ACTING: The Healthy Benefits of Craft…
“Sanford Meisner, the Actor’s Studio, Stella Adler, they are huge advocates of using LIFE for your work… You’ve got to be an observer of life. And a thief of life. And you HAVE to use, to some extend, yourself. And the reason why I have a degree in theatre and I went to Julliard, is for the rest of it. The thing that takes you over the hurdle, in CRAFTING – operative word: ‘crafting’ – in crafting a performance, you can leave it. You can sort of have a little shroud of protection around yourself and have a semblance of control over your work. Because you have to shape a performance. You can’t just go on the set and go: ‘OK, I’m going to go hog-wild because the character’s going wild! He punches a wall with his bare fists, so I’m going to do it!’ And then walk away with broken fingers. I don’t want broken fingers. I just want to show you that it looks like I’m breaking my fingers. So it’s technique and craft that helps me leave it behind and go home to my husband and my child.”
FUN FACT: Davis’s career began entirely in the theatre, making her notable mark on Broadway. Before she became somewhat of a Hollywood breakout star after being given well-deserved recognition and accolades for some superb screen performances, Davis had already won two Tonys and three Drama Desk Awards for the plays ‘King Hedley II’, ‘Intimate Apparel’ and ‘Fences’. She is still considered a darling of Broadway and continues to do theatre alongside her revered screen career.
DAVIS on ACTING: Collaboration…
“I have a process… one of the things I do when I collaborate is: whatever the other actor gives me, I use. I don’t go home and prepare a performance and then come to the set and use that performance I prepared at home. Whatever I work with at home I only take it to a certain extent, and then when I go on stage I prepare myself for the fact that the actor may give me something completely different. Because what has happened in the past, and I see it with actors – they’ll tell another actor how to act. And the reason why they do that is because they’ve already planned what they want to do, and that other actor, whatever they’re giving them, is interfering with that. That’s not how it works. You’ve got to say ‘YES’ to your partner. If they’re giving you a line in a certain way, guess what? You’ve got to get up off you’re ‘A’ DOUBLE SNAKES and use that. That’s my process of collaboration.”
FUN FACT: Whatever her approach, Davis has certainly earned her share of YES’s from the industry, and while she collaborates in her work, alone she has broken several award records or joined very exclusively appraised groups of the limited but brilliant company. After receiving her second Oscar nomination, she became one of only two African American women in history to have been nominated for both Outstanding Lead and Supporting Actress Academy Awards. The other African American actress to achieve this was Whoopi Goldberg. In 2017, Davis received her third Academy Award nomination, and with it, became the first African American woman ever to earn three Oscar nominations in her career. Prior to this, in 2015, Davis made Emmy history as the first African American woman to win the award for Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her role in television’s ‘How to Get Away with Murder’. “What keeps me in the business is hope,” she said, “and that’s the hope that women of colour are also a part of the narrative, that our stories are just as potent because we also have the power of transformation. We also have the power to be quirky, and sexy, and different, funny, heartfelt and all of those things.”
DAVIS on ACTING: Preparing…
“I read it (the script) over and over and over again. Just to find out, in actors terms, ‘the given circumstances’ – who you are, what people say about you, all of that. That’s the first thing I do. And then I write a bio of the character. I try to fill it up as much as possible: what are her memories? Does she have brothers and sisters? What secrets does she have? What’s her favourite colour? I do all of that work first. The character is always ever-evolving, just like we evolve based on circumstances that happen to us. There could be things that happen where we absolutely know how it’s going to affect you, BUT you really DON’T KNOW how it’s going to affect you and how it will make you veer off course at any given time. So whatever prep work you do, the next work you have to do – you leave yourself alone. You leave yourself ABSOLUTELY ALONE. And know that there could be something that happens that might be totally OUT OF CHARACTER, whatever the reaction will be, in any given scene. ALSO, and actors won’t admit this, but ALSO, whatever you’ve prepared could be wrong. There could be something that really does surprise you… Another actor might give you a certain line in a certain way and you surprise yourself in your reaction and you think: ‘wow, that’s interesting, I never thought of that when I was preparing the character. BUT it’s interesting. It’s those jewels you get when you just freefall with your acting.”
FUN FACT: Davis and close friend and colleague, Denzel Washington, performed together in the Broadway rendition of ‘Fences’, for which they both received Tony award wins. In 2016, Washington went on to direct them both in the film adaptation, for which Davis won her first Academy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress. In achieving this awesome feat, Davis entered yet another exclusive club of only EIGHT other people in the history of entertainment to win an Oscar and a Tony for playing the same role both on stage and on screen.
DAVIS on ACTING: Well Written Roles…
“Here’s what I was given for roles, I was given writing on the page that absolutely dictated where I would go. You don’t always get that. When writing is not good, you HAVE to fill in the blanks, and I always say: ‘the actors who should get the awards are the actors who have to make bad work good’ … Literally, because that’s when you have to work overtime.”
FUN FACT: Now Davis probably wasn’t referring to herself when she said the aforementioned quote, nor would she have been speaking of her dear friend and ‘How to Get Away with Murder’ creator, Shonda Rhimes. However, Davis has been issued great plaudits for a particularly raw and chilling scene in the series when her character comes home, strips off her makeup, jewellery and wig, and then calmly confronts her husband about his infidelity and his involvement with a murdered girl. Davis explained in an interview that she came up with the actions of the scene (not the show writers) in her efforts to portray a realism rarely represented of black women on screen, as the powerful protagonist sheds her metaphorical mask to face her greatest vulnerability. “I wanted to see a real woman on TV,” said Davis. “I wanted to see who we are before we walk out the door in the morning and put on the mask of acceptability…Vanity destroys your work. That’s the one thing you have to let go of as an actor. I don’t care how sexy or beautiful any woman is. At the end of the day, she has to take her makeup off. At the end of the day, she’s more than just pretty.”
DAVIS on ACTING: with Meryl Streep
“Meryl Streep. I have seen the way that woman conducts herself on the set. Her research basically is so extensive. You have no idea. Some of the questions she was asking during ‘Doubt’ – I was in shock. Like: ‘Viola, so where does your character come from? OK, so who was your father? Did he have a Union job or a non-Union job?’ It’s amazing. Uncanny. AND I see how she conducts herself as a lady on set. She understands her responsibility as number one on the Call Sheet. She creates an atmosphere that is comfortable enough for everyone to create. And I have observed that and I have used it.”
FUN FACT: In 2008, Davis received her first Oscar nomination her stunning performance in the movie ‘Doubt’ alongside Meryl Streep. Amazingly, Davis only appeared in the film for 11 minutes! Though it was brief, this single, magnificent scene was so impactful that it not only thrust Davis into Hollywood prominence but also allowed her to become close friends with Streep.
DAVIS on WHAT IS ACTING?
“… in Acting, when you create a character, you can’t judge a character. That’s the NUMBER ONE THING YOU CANNOT DO when you create. So you can’t judge a character and you can’t create a character to be likable. It’s about being private in public. So think about all the things you do in your life privately. All the things that you have done that nobody knows about. If someone were to play you, in your life, with all those private moments – imagine if they filtered all of it out because they wanted it to be pretty and likable. It’s very very important that we tell the truth as much as possible in our art, because I think it makes people feel less alone… Listen, Arthur Miller, the great playwright said, he became a writer because he wanted people to feel less alone. Acting is about exposing. It’s about taking the mask off.”
“Those things that we probably are ashamed of as human beings, certain things that nobody would ever talk about – as actors, when we transform into a character we empathise with those moments.”
“And that’s what people want to see when they go to the theatre. I believe at the end of the day, they want to see themselves – parts of their lives they can recognise. And I feel if I can achieve that, it’s pretty spectacular.”
“Acting is not rocket science, but it is an art form. What you are doing is illuminating humanity.”
FUN FACT: Davis attributes much of her passion for acting to the Emmy award-winning performance of Cicely Tyson in 1974 television drama ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman’. The film depicting a woman’s journey from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement, and Davis claimed that it was while watching Tyson’s artistry over her craft that first convinced her just how moving and powerful acting can be.
DAVIS on BEING WHO YOU ARE…
“You can’t be hesitant about who you are.”
“I believe that the privilege of a lifetime is being who you are, truly being who you are. And I’ve spent far too long apologizing for that – my age, my color, my lack of classical beauty. Now… I’m very proud to be Viola Davis, for whatever it’s worth.”
“You cannot live to please everyone else. You have to edify, educate and fulfil your own dreams and destiny.”
“All dreams are within reach. All you have to do is keep moving towards them.”
“Rebel is not a word I would describe for myself, but I feel like I was a total rebel being an actor. I think that there is a place that lives within everyone that’s untouched by everything that’s surrounding them. It’s a sacred place where they define themselves. I don’t believe that most people know it’s there, I think that we wait for other people to define us, that’s why we love compliments. We never tap into that place and go: ‘well, who are you? And what do you want?’ And it made me feel ALIVE – that there was something in me, a passion, a love. And that I didn’t just squelch it. I took it out and I let it soar.”
“The higher purpose of my life is not the song and dance or the acclaim, but to rise up, to pull up others, and leave the world and industry a better place.”
“I became an artist and thank God I did… because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.”
FUN FACT: In 2012, Viola Davis earned herself two utterly apt titles. Glamour magazine named her Actress of the Year, and then, in the company of names like Oprah Winfrey, Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, Time magazine included Viola Davis as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Thank you, Viola Davis. Whether it’s watching her perform – a master at work – or thrilled by her passionate words of wisdom, I feel lucky that I can call myself an actor… just like her.
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