Viola Davis: As ‘an actor, the first emotion is fear. Courage is fear said with prayers’

It’s no secret that I am a Viola Davis stan. I have watched pretty much every movie and show that Viola has been in except Ma Rainey because I am coming to terms with the death of Chadwick Boseman. I plan to watch it soon though. Despite my reluctance to see Chadwick’s final performance I have been following Viola’s press. Which leads us to this beautiful conversation Viola had with Netflix Queue. In this interview, Viola touches on topics she’s discussed before but manages to make them sound fresh. I was surprised to hear her say that fear motivates her because she seems fearless to me. Below are a few excerpts from that interview:

On how fear motivates her
“I’m an actor, so the first emotion is always fear… It’s fear that you’re not going to get it right, fear that you’re going to face criticism. There is an innate need in actors, in anyone, to be loved.”

“Courage is fear said with prayers… That’s what it feels like when you’re an actor. You’re putting yourself on the line. You’re using your heart, everything that’s inside of you. It’s exposing. The fear absolutely doesn’t go away. It lets me know that I’m pushing myself. I’m not always going to get everything right, but at least I’m going to run that ball. Even if I’m running it in the wrong direction, I’m running with it.”

On her research for Ma Rainey”
When you’re playing a real character, you have to rely on your research. Everything from the gold teeth to the makeup to her being bisexual, you have to rely on all that. Then you have to fill it in with what you know about life. I know women like Ma — I’ve seen them in my life and my family — and that’s where I had to work from.

“This film also reunited you with Chadwick Boseman — you’d previously done Get On Up together. When you met again on this set, how had you changed as actors or as people? Did you feel different?”
Oh, I definitely felt the difference with him. He was more confident about his work — not that he wasn’t confident before. I don’t think that he saw his work as separate from who he was. It was an extension of his authenticity.

It’s actually hard to articulate Chadwick Boseman, because he operated in a different spiritual realm. I’m not trying to elevate him just because he’s gone on. I’m telling you the truth. He lived his life with a sense of purpose, and his work was an extension of that purpose. Everything that he did was spiritually intentional — even what he did while he was waiting in between setups on the set. Working with him, it made you step up. It made you check yourself in terms of your integrity. He forced you through the sheer energy that emanated from him to be purposeful and honest.

I always say that he was a character actor in a leading man’s body. He wasn’t interested in being handsome. He was interested in being bold and testing the limits of what he could do with his art. He was an artist. Some people are just actors and some people are just entertainers. He was an actual artist.

“You, Viola, are also an artist. When you were in high school, that seems to be when you found your calling in theater and in acting. What drew you in?”
What drew me into theater was poverty and trauma — the sheer, passionate need to be somebody in response to my poverty and trauma. I needed to blow a hole into this life because my entire childhood was about just survival, fighting to keep my head above water. I don’t care what anyone says; when you’re poor, you’re invisible. The side effects of it are extreme. You have no opportunity or access to opportunity. You’re in a cloak of shame.

The thing about acting is you can channel all of what is in you into a character. The more you use it, the better you are at what you do. It heals you, because where else in life do you have permission to give all of what’s inside of you, whether it’s pain or joy or an idea or your imagination? Where else do you have permission to channel that? Art gives you that permission. It is a sacred space. So when I first performed and I literally got the applause — and this is coming from a life where people were calling me, “You ugly, you Black,” and me chucking them the finger and running and crying and showing them my tail, and I mean, I was a fighter — to go from that to getting the applause, to being seen? Are you kidding me? That’s what drove me. I loved it.

[From Netflix Queue]

Viola said she was drawn to theater as a way to escape her experience of poverty and shame. By becoming someone else she could escape life and that is saying something. It almost like she created a new world for herself. I think it is so sad that she had these experiences as child but I can relate. Despite going a different route and still ending up in the arts, I too was trying to escape dysfunction and intermittent poverty. The power of the arts can save lives and Viola is an inspiration. I also love how Viola explained that in order to embody Ma Rainey she had to pull from experiences of her aunties and women similar to Ma Rainey. The line that hit me the hardest was “Courage is fear said with prayers.” Yes ma’am. I can attest to the many times that I jumped without knowing if I would be caught or if I would make it to the other side. But my faith caught me and it carried me. Sometimes fear can definitely propel you but often it holds you back.

I have seen Get On Up several times and I am not sure why it didn’t register that Viola was in it. Now I have to go back and watch it again. Viola’s performances have always captivated me. Perhaps it is because of how raw she allows herself to be or maybe because she can relate to each of her characters. Viola deserves all the accolades and awards she has coming her way. And I stand behind her when she says Hollywood should be paying her that Meryl Streep money.

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2 Responses to “Viola Davis: As ‘an actor, the first emotion is fear. Courage is fear said with prayers’”

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  1. Fuzzy Crocodile says:

    Viola is an amazing actor. Every time she pops up on the screen, I’m just enthralled.

    And I love those photos of her smiling and laughing, for some reason.

  2. Mee yo says:

    She’s looking good. That white is 🔥