Acting Career Insights from Samuel L. Jackson and Viola Davis

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Wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall in a room where Viola Davis and Samuel L. Jackson are having a great time chatting about acting? Well, you can listen in on their conversation in a Variety “Actors on Actors” interview. The dynamic duo revisit what it was like to start out in the New York acting world, and they share advice for aspiring talent. Here are a few of their nuggets of wisdom:

“Beware the toys you step on today…”

While shooting “Die Hard 3: With a Vengeance,” Jackson recalls a memorable sign on the office wall reading, “Beware the toes you step on today, for they may be connected to the [behind] you have to kiss tomorrow.” Fortunately, Jackson already understood the importance of valuing his coworkers. “The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray” actor has long prioritized developing strong working relationships with people on set, from the director to the crew members. “When I’m on a movie set, I think everybody is just as important as I am,” he once said. When taking small jobs early on, he figured, “Well, it’s two days on a movie, and that person’s gonna be a big director one day, and the writer’s gonna write other stuff, and that works out—even amongst PAs and stuff .” Indeed, Jackson remembers being on set with kids who were trying to break into the business. “Just being nice to them and talking to them and whatever, and five years down the line, that person is a producer. And they go, ‘You don’t remember me, but you were so nice to me on that thing. I had to get you on this.”’”

Fame is a byproduct of work

Jackson touched on how an actor’s mission might evolve over time. Whatever it is that originally motivates a performer to pursue a career in the entertainment business—the love of acting, hopes of becoming a movie star, or a drive to become rich and famous—the actual work of an actor might change a performer’s frame of mind. “As you do the work, if you become a real actor, all that stuff becomes in the back of your mind,” he says. As for Jackson’s own journey, “The work became the thing … so it was about the work—and [fame] became a byproduct of what happened.” From the start, Davis was drawn to one thing only: she simply wanted to act. “I never thought, ‘I want to be famous,’” she says. “I just went from job to job because I loved it. And it just sort of was like the notoriety was just an overflow of the work.”

On confidence and humility

In his early acting days, Jackson had no shortage of confidence. The star recalls just how self-assured he was in himself and his talents: “I figured if I went to five audits a week, two of those jobs were gonna be mine. I just had to figure out which ones they were. And I felt sorry for the other people that didn’t hire me.”

On the other hand, Davis grew up poor in a small town in South Carolina, and her self-confidence grew over time through her work. She is known for being humble, strong, and full of reverence for the craft. Looking back at her career, she reflects, “I did a lot of crappy plays. And then I had some really good performances. And the crappy plays, trust me, were not intentionally crappy. I just literally did the best I could. But depending on all the other elements that came together, you don’t know how it’s going to land.”

Important lessons are learned in theater

When up-and-coming actors ask Jackson what they should do to succeed, he asks them if they’ve done a play. “You can’t learn to act doing scenes,” he asserts. “Having done something from beginning to end has been very useful in terms of this whole streaming service thing that happens now. That allows you to take something that’s episodic, and take the character the long road.”

Arm yourself with courage

On playing Michelle Obama in the television series “The First Lady,” Davis explains a definitive quality actors must have. “I think the one thing you really have to be armed with as an actor is courage. When you move through your life, and you see human behavior, that has to be put in your lexicon so that when you play a character, and you don’t see all the gaps being filled in, you have to fill it in with whatever imagination, 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 inject it into your choice, and go for it.”

An actor’s job is not to make the audience feel comfortable

Davis is very clear about what is and what is not part of an actor’s job description. “It’s not my job to give you an image of someone you want to see It’s not my job to make you feel comfortable,” she insists. “If I’m doing a Marvel movie, absolutely, that’s my job.” But, she continues, “It’s not my job if I’m playing a real person. It’s my job to give you the truth, to serve it on a silver platter, to make you feel those moments that you have in private that I’m bringing to the public. They may make you squirm. But if you recognize it, then I’ve done my job as an actor.”

“With every character you play, you’re jumping off a cliff”

Davis often describes the actor’s job as a free fall. “There’s a lot of times it’s not going to be perfect. You’re going to get to set, and all of a sudden you’re given a scene. It’s like, well that scene wasn’t even there last night; that scene changes everything … And you have to make sense out of it.” But through all the twists and turns, Davis makes sure to remain focused on one thing: “You just have to know who you’re playing … That’s all you need to know.” She can rest assured that she’s put in the foundational work of getting to know all about her character—the character’s memories, dreams, sense of purpose, etc. And so, when last-minute changes are made to the script, the actress says, “That’s where improv comes in, right? Because I did improv for almost a whole year in college. Because what they say is you have to say ‘yes’ to your partner, right?”



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