Viola Davis talks about her Michelle Obama in The First Lady

“In life you have to appreciate both crooked and straight things, a metaphor for saying that perfection is the combination of good and bad, good and evil. Use pain as a fuel, as a reminder of your strength. “

Phrases said in one go, with strength, conviction, truth, said with those wide eyes that look into your soul, which make it difficult to hold back the tears. Phrases that he says he has tattooed on his skin, which he carries in his heart, which in difficult moments become his mantra, his spiritual support. Phrases by August Wilson, the foremost African-American playwright and Pulitzer Prize winner.

Phrases pronounced by Viola Davisfirst African-American actress to win an Emmy (How to Get Away with Crime), Oscar, Emmy and Tony award winner, the most nominated in the history of the event, nominated 4 times for Oscars for films IDoubt, The help, Barriere, Ma Rainey’s black bottom and that we will see in the TV series The First Ladyproduced with director Susan Bier, which recounts moments from the lives of Michelle Obama (Viola Davis), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson), already available on Paramount +.

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How did you choose these three first ladies, because of a kind of affinity, or because of their voices, different from that of their husbands?

We started with the essential Michelle Obama (laughs), due to the social importance it had in American history. But then we wanted to find an antecedent of Michelle, and studying among the most independent candidates were Betty and Eleanor, for the strength and human impact they demonstrated crossing the threshold of the White House. Three committed, cultured and professional women who, suddenly, had to limit their role to choosing tapestries and ceramic plates. Not to mention that Betty had a sense of humor and a rather colorful vocabulary that I never expected. For Eleanor, we looked at her marital relationship and her affair with Lucy Mercer that actually broke her heart, and in a way pushed her to approach the journalist and feminist activist Lorena Hickok romantically. This, and what the three first ladies shared, even if they lived in different times, places and parties, distant in many respects, was the motivation for our choice.

What impressed you the most about Michelle Obama?

Michelle is very different from me and many people of color that I know, because she is a healthy person, stable, with a strong sense of belonging and with values ​​as strong as an old oak. Unlike mine, she grew up in an environment where she has always been valued, appreciated and stimulated, she has always felt worthy of existing; the thing that struck me about her is the absolute certainty of being someone, but not thanks to Barack. Michelle has always had her own identity, ever since she came out of her mother’s womb.

During the pandemic he wrote Finding me, where it tells its origins. Why did she feel the need to share his story?

Before the pandemic I was in the midst of a profound existential crisis, I was struggling to make sense of my life and then the situation only got worse. I was dissatisfied, I believed that fame and success, given my humble origins, could bring me infinite joy, but I was wrong. The only way to find myself was to retrace my story, a difficult and complex experience because it made me feel very vulnerable; in every word I wrote it seemed to me that I was reliving all the painful moments of my past and I could not hide. But then I realized that what I have already experienced no longer exists and no longer has the power to hurt me.

What did you learn from writing the book?

I would like everyone who reads the book to understand that there is always hope, even in the most difficult moments. Take me, for example, now I have money in the bank and health insurance, and I no longer need social assistance to eat. My clothes are clean and when I put my makeup on I’m even passable (laughs). But the lack of self-esteem is dangerous and there are many people who never recover … For years I have been ashamed of my past.

viola davis

Viola Davis plays the role of Nanisca in the film The woman king by Gina Prince-Bythewood; is a general in the all-female army protecting the African kingdom of Dahomey in the nineteenth century.


Was there anyone who gave you a hand?

Many of my teachers noticed my despair, handed me the used clothes of their daughters and invited me home for lunch. I have found people who have helped and loved me, and this has given me permission to love myself. Amazing how compassion and empathy are incredible weapons to kill shame. To them I was a precious person, to be saved, not a destitute black girl.

Do you ever talk about your childhood with your daughter Genesis?

All time. Genesis is 12 years old and I try to make her understand the importance of having compassion. I always tell her that at this age I will never buy her expensive clothes, because I didn’t have them and because she will be able to buy them when she grows up, aware of her choices. Many people probably have no idea how to live without love, home and food, but I know what poverty is, what it feels like because of deprivation; unfortunately I know the difficulties of extreme poverty and I know how difficult it is to get out of it without help. My experience made me see and experience the other side of life, not like those who talk about it at a cocktail party.

When did you decide to become an actress?

At 14, I won an acting competition. It was an important moment, also because the prize included $ 50 and I was very proud to take home the shopping for the week. I realized that thanks to acting I had a way out, I could change my life. I needed to dream, to have something to hope for. That dream wasn’t just a goal, it was my only chance.

His production company, JuVee Productions, just turned 11. Why did he start it?

To have more say, more diversity on set. Things have improved a bit today, but ten years ago no one thought black people had interesting stories to tell. And that they might even have sold! My early roles were stereotypical, poor mothers and drug addicts, they never offered me femme fatale roles, even when the producers were black. I was always the best friend of a white woman, or the assistant of some FBI chief. Honestly, I got tired of these roles where I was crying over the body of my dead son, killed in a shooting. Yes, they are real things, sad and current subjects, but there are also more complex stories. I started JuVee Productions with my husband Julius because we wanted to create character stories that were fully realized. I am not a politician or a senator. I am an artist and this is my way to create change.

Is there a woman in particular who inspired you?

Actress Cicely Tyson, beautiful and strong, who fought against racial stereotypes. And then I really admire the strength and passion for life of my mom, Mae Alice Davis, because, despite everything she has been through, nothing has brought her down or humiliated. Indeed, she still feels so much love and respect for life itself and for human beings. Her hope for a fair and better world for all will never end.

Of all the characters you have played, which role has you felt closest to?

Nanisca of The woman king, my next film that I bring to the Toronto Film festival and which will be released in the fall. Nanisca was one of the Dahomey Amazons, an all-female army from the Kingdom of Dahomey, West Africa, which existed from about 1600 to 1904. She is a liberated woman, part historical, part fictional, a leader who redefines the concept of femininity and power, a pure warrior. It is almost impossible to believe that she could have really existed.

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About David Martin

David Martin is the lead editor for Spark Chronicles. David has been working as a freelance journalist.

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