Viola Davis on Acting: “I think if it’s not costing you anything you’re not doing it right”

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“My job is to create a human being. My job is as an observer and a thief.” – Viola Davis

Viola Davis has received acclaim on screen (Emmy and Academy Awards) and on stage (two Tony Awards and two Drama Desk Awards). Because of that acclaim, one might make the mistake of thinking that acting comes easy to Davis — after all, she has all the awards gold to prove her ability.

However, in a recent interview with NPR to promote her role in director Steve McQueen’s latest, the heist movie  Widows, Davis spoke about the challenges of performing, including how important collaboration is in acting.

It takes a chunk out of your soul. It should. I think if it’s not costing you anything you’re not doing it right. My job is to create a human being. My job is as an observer and a thief. That I look at life everyday, people may be walking by someone every day on the train, on the streets, and not notice little details. As an artist, you notice everything. You notice how people look when they’re falling in love. You notice that little blink in someone’s eye when they’re thinking about what they’re going to eat. The time their parent died, to feeling like life is hopeless. And within two seconds — because that’s how we think as people. You notice those things. And what we do as artists is to create human beings so people can feel less alone. That’s what you’re supposed to do.

The audience is a part of the collaboration process. I can’t be an actor in my room. I can’t. I need the director, I need the script, all of those artists working to create the whole. But the other part that I need is the audience to come locked and loaded with all their thoughts, with all their memories, and to be able to look at the person that I’m creating on the stage and see themselves. Not a fantasy of themselves, not an extension, but themselves. So that’s what I do. That’s what sort of turns me on about what I do. And it is the most awesome way to feel empathy for another human being — to literally sit with them and to see them in their mess and their beauty.

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