What I learned from Viola Davis: Lessons from the star of 'How to Get Away with Murder'
This past weekend I had the opportunity to realize one of my life goals, meeting and learning from the Viola Davis. Having the honor of working with her one day is also on my list, but for now, I celebrate and share this moment. I grew up watching Viola's stand-out performances in all of the Law & Orders and then watching her riveting and Oscar-nominated performances in The Help and Doubt, which only furthered her icon status in my eyes.
However, there is nothing more inspiring than watching her bring Annalise Keating to life every 'Thank God It's Thursday' night on, How to Get Away with Murder, Shonda Rhime's new hit show for ABC. She's strong, sexy, and intelligent, yet vulnerable, weak, and conflicted. But most of all, she's real and I see myself in her.
She fills a scene with just one look and makes choices that fearlessly pushes boundaries while giving women permission to be who they are. I don't think anyone was able to look away during her now famous 'removing of the wig' scene.
I remember thinking, “Thank you,” while watching that scene because although she was removing the physical manifestation of her strength, the wig, eyelashes, and make-up, which represented her emotional mask, to reveal her true weaknesses, she never looked more powerful than in that very moment when she was peeled back to her authentic self. It gave us permission to be who we truly are and to stand in that power when all of the masks have been removed. And for that, I am thankful.
I'm also thankful for the lessons that I learned from Viola and of course, the storyteller in me has to share them with you. I hope you find these lessons as powerful, inspiring, and humbling as I have. If so, please share with your friends and tweet, @CandyWashington, @ViolaDavis, and @ShondaRhimes. Additionally, you can visit Viola's philanthropic project to end childhood hunger here.
Lesson #1: Enough is enough.
Regarding the backlash from the controversial and now infamous, “Wrought in Rhimes’s Image -Viola Davis Plays Shonda Rhimes’s Latest Tough Heroine,” article in The New York Times, Viola simply says, “Enough is enough.” She wasn't particularly hurt by the article and even though it was poorly written, she does see how the writer was trying to make a positive statement, but it's time to move on the 'Angry Black Woman' stereotype and start focusing on the work and creating content that truly speaks to the majority of society.
She's been called everything from dark-skinned, kinky haired, and not classically beautiful. In true Viola form, she meets these potentially harmful words with grace and simply states that it's time to move on from it, and enough is enough. She quoted a writer who once said, “The reason why I write is so that people don't feel so alone.” Now it's time for TV and film to do the same and to reflect real life. Enough is enough.
Lesson #2: Be an observer of life.
Viola says that she is an observer of life and that life is vast. She takes inspiration from real people and strives to represent a large segment of society that has been marginalized. She uses what she has, who she is as her authentic self, and brings that to the character in way that is intoxicating to audiences because it is so real and raw while giving us permission to embrace who are as well.
You must think beyond the page, what can you bring to the role? She stresses not to try to be her or a Kerry Washington when you walk into the room. Know who you are and bring that.
The way she approached the character of Annalise is that she read the script and didn't buy how strong Annalise was being portrayed. She thought, “She's a liar,” because no one in real life is that strong. Brilliantly, she applies a mask of strength that Annalise wears to protect herself while displaying an equal amount of weakness and vulnerability when the walls of the mask are torn down.
This is the key to what makes her performances so engaging, because in real life, that is how people operate, we are contradictions, we are complex, we wear masks, and we possess dualities. Bringing these complex layers that exist within humanity is what makes her characters so interesting and captivating. She also noted that subtlety doesn't always fit, you have to be real. When you take off the mask, who are you at your core?
Lesson #3: If you love it, do it.
When asked about giving hope to other aspiring actors that have the potential to be great but aren't given the opportunities to showcase their talent, her guidance is that if you love it, do it. You must act and really be in love with the work and know that that is enough and that is the wave that you have to ride. The pay-off is taking the journey with the character and doing the work.
Viola said that she used ride the bus for hours just to do a play in Massachusetts and then one play led to another which led to Broadway which led to TV which led to film and so on. But mind you, she has been acting for 34 years, 26 of which professionally. She did it because she was in love with the work, regardless of any flashy pay-off. She was inspired at the age of 6 by Cicely Tyson's unforgettable performance in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” and said that if she could do that forever, she would be happy.
Viola also advises that the more you work, the more people will see you, and your break will come. But the break may not be stardom. You need to decide where you want to land and work fearlessly toward that goal. You could start your own acting school in your hometown, work in theater, and so on, but you must decide what your end game is and how are you going to get there.
Viola once said, “I want to be the show.” She knew where she wanted to land, and luckily for us, we get to come along for the ride.