Viola Davis and Samuel L. Jackson on Becoming Black Acting Legends, Michelle Obama and Making You Squirm

·8-min read

Samuel L. Jackson and Viola Davis are both veterans of the New York theater scene, and embrace the opportunity to dig into their shared experiences before addressing their latest work on TV. On Apple TV+, Jackson takes the lead role in “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” an adaptation of Walter Mosley’s novel about an elder struggling with dementia. And on Showtime, Davis plays Michelle Obama in the dramatic anthology “The First Lady.” 

SAMUEL L. JACKSON: How do you feel about rolling around town, seeing yourself on these big old billboards? How is that?

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VIOLA DAVIS: I don’t see that as myself. I see it as something else. Michelle Obama, the other Viola Davis. I don’t marry the two because otherwise it’s too difficult.

JACKSON: What was the first time you saw yourself up on a big old billboard and it was OK to see yourself?

DAVIS: It was OK to see myself when I was doing the play. Because it’s different when you’re doing the play. That was exciting, to see yourself outside the theater.

JACKSON: When were you at Juilliard?

DAVIS: I was at Juilliard from ’89 to ’93.

JACKSON: I was just about to leave New York at that time. I think “Jungle Fever” got me out of New York. The first time I remember seeing you, you were playing this mean-ass cop on “Law & Order.”

DAVIS: I loved that role. I played a serial killer. No one else in my family liked that role. But I loved it.

JACKSON: We all passed through a “Law & Order” phase because back when I was doing my stuff, that was one of two shows that was shot in New York. Only “Law & Order” and “The Cosby Show.”

DAVIS: When you were doing all of the plays — Henry Street, Negro Ensemble — what years were those in?

JACKSON: We moved to New York Halloween night 1976. We drove from Atlanta to New York, pulled into that Halloween parade down in the Village. LaTanya [Richardson Jackson] and I both did our first play in New York at Henry Street.

DAVIS: When I got my first play at the Public Theater making $250 a week, I was like, “It’s a wrap — I’ve made it.” I always went from job to job. I never thought “I want to be famous.” The notoriety was just an overflow of the work. Now you have so many actors who are so intentional about where they want to end up.

JACKSON: People showed up to be famous.

DAVIS: I don’t really have any criticism of that. I don’t want to be vicious.

JACKSON: It’s not a criticism.

DAVIS: It’s not. It’s an observation.

JACKSON: And as you do the work, if you become a real actor, all that stuff becomes … the back of your mind.

DAVIS: Exactly.

. - Credit: Alexi Lubomirski for Variety
. - Credit: Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

JACKSON: We weren’t auditioning for stuff like that in New York anyway. I was in New York, and every now and then a movie passed through. I remember when I got “Ragtime” in 1980. That was my first time going to London to shoot and be on location. I thought, “It’s about to happen.” I came back to New York. I didn’t see another movie for 10 years. I lost it and I started focusing on the work, especially after I got sober. The work became the thing.

DAVIS: People ask me all the time, “Viola, was it hard?” I say that in hindsight : I took the hard because I thought it was just part of the business. I just said, “This is something that I have to deal with.” I wasn’t getting those roles. People always feel they mistake the opportunity for the talent.

JACKSON: Yeah.

DAVIS: They’re always like, “Viola, you just don’t play the romantic leads.” I said, “Listen, I would play the romantic lead if I got the romantic lead.” But I didn’t, so I made do with what I got.

JACKSON: LaTanya would say, “Why are you taking that piddling-ass job?” It’s like, “Well, it’s two days on a movie, and that person’s going to be a big director one day,” and sometimes that works out.

DAVIS: I’m always interested in actors who are not humble because for me it’s a very humbling profession. You actually don’t even know if you’re going to fail or you’re going to succeed.

JACKSON: How does that help you or bring yourself into becoming Michelle Obama — what you had to do to portray somebody who’s alive and will watch you?

DAVIS: Besides taking a good shot of vodka … Here’s the thing. It is very difficult playing a real-life person, especially someone who’s occupied the White House. There is a shroud of protection of liability, and as an actor, that is a nightmare. When you enter into any character, you have to be armed with as much information as possible. Not just where did you go to school, what do you drink? Do you love your husband? Do you fight with your husband? Do you fight with your kids? You have to fill it in for an audience who don’t want to see anything mar the image. And that’s exactly antithetical towards what we do. We need the mess. That’s what makes us human. I think the one thing you really have to be armed with, as an actor, is courage. When you play a character and you don’t see all the gaps being filled in, you have to fill it in with what you’ve seen in the past from other people — what I know being a Black woman — with Michelle Obama, and you have to be bold enough to go for it.

JACKSON: How do you keep out your preconceptions? Because everybody’s got a different idea of who Michelle is and who they wanted her to be.

. - Credit: Alexi Lubomirski for Variety
. - Credit: Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

DAVIS: You’re limited by the scope and the depth of the script. Always a pet peeve of mine, number one. Limited by the script. If it’s not there, you have to fill it in, and sometimes that’s almost impossible. Two, it’s not my job to give you an image of someone you want to see. I need the writer, I need the director, and then, finally, I need the audience. It’s my job to make you feel those moments that you have in private. They may make you squirm, but if you recognize it, then I’ve done my job. When you were doing “Ptolemy Grey,” I’m sure that that was your process.

JACKSON: I’ve been living with that book for 12 years or so. I read it once a year because I kept trying to get folks to do it. By the time I had an opportunity to actually portray him, I had a very solid idea of who he was. I had that freedom to just go in there and make Ptolemy who I wanted Ptolemy to be. I knew how uncomfortable the first episode would be. But I wasn’t going to run from it and try to make it easy. I’ve played characters that I know people aren’t supposed to like, and enjoyed it, like Stephen in “Django [Unchained].” That’s my job, to make you uncomfortable. People go, “My God.” And that’s satisfying for us.

DAVIS: Yes. Very.

JACKSON: I was never always comfortable watching you as Annalise, but there it is. When you’re doing a series like “How to Get Away With Murder,” did you know, the first season, where you were going to go to the end?

DAVIS: No. It’s a huge challenge. My big thing is you’re not always going to be put in a perfect situation as an actor. You’re going to get on set, and all of a sudden, you’re given a scene, it’s like, “That scene changes everything. She’s killing another person? Why?” Then you have to make sense out of it. For me, with Annalise, I was given an opportunity, especially as a dark-skinned Black woman, 47 years old. She’s sexualized; she’s sociopathic. It gave me a vessel to be an unpredictable, messy woman. And I find that when, for instance, if you see a white woman on-screen, you could say, “She looks like my mother.” A lot of studio heads would say, “She could look like my sister, my aunt, the woman who I wanted to marry.” You see the possibilities. That wasn’t me in my career. My possibilities were the crack addicts, the mothers who were in challenged situations watching their sons die, the ambiguous lawyer or the judge. And I was happy to get them — don’t get me wrong. I made the most of it. But this was the first opportunity I had to play a woman. And it was in the midst of a melodrama. We can admit a lot of the situations were fantastical, but it was still my opportunity to boldly step out and make choices that could surprise people and make people really see me as a woman.

JACKSON: That’s how I saw Annalise.

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