April 16, 2022  •  Ali  •  No Comment  •  Articles, Finding Me, Magazines, The First Lady

Viola is featured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine where she talks about her new series The First Lady and her new memoir Finding Me.

How she drew on a life of private hardship to become one of the greatest actors of her generation.

For a month, Viola Davis had been stuck. In the spring of 2020, in the late nights of lockdown, she set out to write her memoir. She had her routine: Get out of bed in the middle of the night, make herself a cup of tea, start writing in her movie room, fall asleep in one of its leather recliners, wake up, write some more, nod off again. But for weeks, she couldn’t figure out exactly where to begin. Should she start with her life as a celebrity, or the beauty contest she lost when she was a child, or the fact that people always wanted to hug her when they ran into her in public? Nothing worked.

Then one night, a conversation she had years ago with Will Smith on the set of “Suicide Squad” came floating back into her consciousness. He asked her who she really was, if she had been honest enough with herself to know the answer. She was 50 at the time and replied confidently, indignantly, that yes, she knew. He tried again, saying: “Look, I’m always going to be that 15-year-old boy whose girlfriend broke up with him. That’s always going to be me. So, who are you?”

A memory returned to her. When she was in third grade, a group of eight or nine boys made a game out of chasing her home at the end of the school day. They would taunt her, yelling insults and slurs, throwing stones and bricks at her, while she ducked and dodged and wept.

One day, the boys caught her. Her shoes were worn through to the bottom, which slowed her down. (Usually she would run barefoot, her shoes in her hands, but it was winter in Central Falls, R.I., where she grew up.) The boys pinned her arms back and took her to their ringleader, who would decide what to do with her next. They were all white, except for the ringleader. He was a Cape Verdean boy who identified as Portuguese to differentiate himself from African Americans, despite being nearly the same shade as Davis. Unlike her, he could use his foreign birth to distance himself from the town’s racism: He wasn’t like those Black people.

“She’s ugly!” he said. “Black f***ing n****r.”

“I don’t know why you’re saying that to me,” she said. “You’re Black, too!”

Time slowed down. The ringleader howled in fury, screaming that he wasn’t Black at all, that she should never let him hear her call him that again. He punched her, and the rest of the boys threw her onto the ground and kicked snow on her.

By the time Davis and Smith had that conversation in 2015, she was a bona fide star: She had been nominated for two Oscars, won two Tonys and was playing the lead role in a network television show, “How to Get Away with Murder.” (“Hell, Oprah knew who I was,” she writes.) But in that conversation, she realized that not only had she remained that terrified little girl, tormented for the color of her skin, but that she also defined herself by that fear. All these years later, she was still running, trying to dodge the myriad tribulations — anti-Blackness, colorism, racism, classism, misogyny — that she had faced, other people’s problems with her. Davis’s early life is dark and unnerving, full of blood, bruises, loss, grief, death, trauma. But that day after school was perhaps her most wounding memory: It was the first time her spirit and heart were broken. She had her beginning.

To watch Davis act is to witness a deep-sea plunge into a feeling: Even when her characters are opaque, you can sense her under the surface, empathetic and searching. This skill has been on display since the beginning of her film career, when she garnered award nominations for performances that were fewer than 15 minutes long. There’s an industry achievement called the Triple Crown of Acting: an actor winning an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony. Only 24 actors hold the title, and Davis is the only African American.

Davis is also, then, a member of the small troupe of former theater actors who have made the jump to movie stardom, and you can recognize that gravitas, that same finesse that makes me sit up straighter whenever I see James Earl Jones onscreen. But there is also vulnerability alongside her poise. The more time I spent with her, the more I wondered if, by embodying someone else’s tragedies, she was able to wrench her own to the surface. Reading her memoir, “Finding Me,” which is being published on April 26, you understand where her ability comes from: Only someone who has already been dragged into the depths of emotion readily knows how to get back there.

Davis told me that there’s so much vanity in Hollywood that she thinks people are afraid to take the nonpretty roles. “It’s more important for me to see the mess and the imperfection along with the beauty and all of that, for me to feel validated,” she said. “If it’s not there, then I feel, once again, the same way I felt when I was keeping secrets as a kid. But the only reason to keep secrets is because of shame. I don’t want to do that anymore.”

In one of our first conversations, Davis described the difference between method acting, which requires a performer to completely subsume herself into the life of her character, and a more technical approach that might, say, rely on breathing techniques to be able to readily cry. “I believe in the marriage of both, because I want to go home at the end of the day,” she said. She thinks that actors need to study life itself. Feelings are never simple; the mind wanders off track. “I always use this example of when my dad died, and we were devastated,” she told me. But at the wake, when people streamed through the doors to pay their respects, “it became this big reunion of laughing and remembering — real laughter to real joy, then tears. But I was observing my thoughts, and I went from being devastated one moment to thinking about what I was going to eat.” It’s like a Chekhov play: You can’t tell the story of the joy without telling the story of the pain alongside it.

“Your thoughts go every which way,” she said. “They run the gamut. There’s a wide berth of life. It’s like, as soon as you think your life is falling apart, then you’re laughing hysterically. That’s how life works.”

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