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  • ‘In Ma Rainey, every body’s fighting for their value, and the thing that holds us back is being Black. I want ed people to see what lay in the heart of her being .
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    Viola Davis has a moment in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the new film adaptation of August Wilson’s 1984 play, in which without saying a word she creates an entire life. Her character, the 1920s blues trailblazer Ma Rainey, is arguing with Irvin, her white manager, over the money due her nephew for his work on her session. She’s trying to be reasonable, appealing to logic. It doesn’t work. So she smacks her hands together and snaps, “Get the boy his money!” Irvin scurries away to get the owner of the recording studio, Sturdyvant. The door closes behind him. Then, in that moment, the light goes out from Ma’s eyes. Her breathing gets heavy. Her whole being, her spirit, slumps, and it’s clear just how much she has paid for having to fight so hard and so often for what is rightly owed. Suddenly Sturdyvant barges in, and Rainey’s impervious facade snaps back into place. Those few seconds of wordless resignation were a quick flurry of notes bent blue, and Davis played them like a virtuoso. “In ‘Ma Rainey,’ everybody’s fighting for their value,” the 55-year-old actor says, “and the thing that holds us back is being Black. I wanted to show that. No — ‘show that’ is not a good term for an actor. I wanted that to be a part of Ma Rainey. I wanted people to see what lay in the heart of her being. Which is: I know my worth.”

    So many questions that “Ma Rainey” raises about the entertainment business of the 1920s still apply: Who’s really in control of Black art? How much independence is possible for Black artists in a white-run industry? And those questions raise another, which is, How much progress has been made? Well, what’s happening now in our industry is you see more Black content because you have 500 television shows. What’s lacking is autonomy. What’s lacking is agency. If you just want to work, then there’s work out there. But if you want to be on the same playing field as your white counterparts, therein lies the problem, because you have to rely on the white power structures to green-light movies, to give you funds, to accept your script. There are great Black minds out there who have figured out what the steps have to be in order to gain control, but even the people who’ve had the power to do that are few and far between.

    This article is part of The New York Times Magazine’s annual

    Great Performers issue, honoring the best actors of the year.

    This is making me think of that clip of you that went viral this summer, in which you were talking, a couple of years ago, about how people have told you: “You’re the Black Meryl Streep. ... There’s no one like you.” But they don’t necessarily pay you that way. Has that improved? I feel torn when I start talking about money, especially during Covid-19, when people are struggling. But, no. Absolutely not. You have to consider who you are supposedly on par with in terms of your age, your background, what your quote was. A lot of times what’s happening out there is the lack of opportunity. If you have 200 scripts floating around in a studio waiting to be done, the lead roles in a lot of those movies are not going to be a Black female. So, to get technical, if you’re not a lead role in a major film that has made a billion dollars overseas, and can’t then use that to go on to a David Fincher movie that makes $500 million and then can’t use that to go on to a Christopher Nolan movie that makes $600 million, then your quote doesn’t rise. Now, I’m definitely making more money than I made last year. I definitely fight for that. People around me fight for it. Which is why I see a difference with my pay. But not on the level of my white counterparts.

    August Wilson very consciously saw himself as working in the tradition of the blues. Do you at all think of your work as functioning within a particular cultural tradition? I think I can speak for many Black artists: We all do. I am almost certain that most white actors do not get asked larger questions about the political stratosphere. “Where do you feel we are in terms of race in America?” The questions that you’ve asked me, they’ve been large questions that relate to the past, that relate to the culture. Those are questions that we get, and therefore we absolutely understand our role in the larger context. I feel it. Shonda Rhimes feels it. Kerry Washington feels it. Octavia Spencer feels it. Taraji P. Henson feels it. Gabrielle Union feels it. Issa Rae. Michaela Coel. All of us. Every day.

    Would you rather I not ask the large questions? You can ask any question you want. I’ll answer it or not. I answered that question that way because I want to be honest with you.

    I’ve seen you talk about “pathologies” in discussions about acting. Why is that word useful for you? Pathology is the study of tumors. Is it benign? Is it malignant? You’re studying the origins of it. It’s the same thing with a character. Sanford Meisner would say the most powerful question you can ask as an actor is “Why?” Why is the character so sexual? Because they like sex. Why do they like sex? Well, they don’t really like sex. Then why are they having sex? Because they don’t know what else to do. Why don’t they know? Because they have a lot of anxiety. Why do they have that anxiety? Because when they were 5 years old, they got sexually assaulted. Bam. That’s pathology. That’s mapping out a trajectory to know what makes a person tick. That’s what you do. Now the frustration is when people don’t want to see what makes you tick as a character of color, and they don’t want to see what makes you tick because they don’t want to be indicted.

    What do you mean? I’ll make an example up because I don’t want to talk about “The Help”: Let’s say someone will give me the role, and the role was written nebulously. Anyone could play it. All of a sudden I come in to play the role. So who exactly am I? Who do I love? What drives me? How does being a dark-skinned woman affect me as I move through life? None of it is explored. If you push writers to explore it, they’re not going to take the parts of your life that makes them uncomfortable. They’re going to take the parts of you that they feel they already know. They want the fantasy of what they feel they know about you. They don’t want you.

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    Which of your own pathologies has acting helped you understand? It helps me explore what I live for. When you’re working on a character, the first thing you work on is what drives them. What drives me is a lot of what drives the characters in “Ma Rainey,” which is my worth. Feeling worthy with everything that I do. Lately my big thing is reconciling my past. Reconciling that little girl who was so traumatized and damaged. That’s where I am at right now. Growing up with a parent who was an alcoholic, severe poverty, what happens is, as you move through life, things catapult you back to the past. You’re there again. I’m trying to heal that. I’m learning how to forgive it. I feel like I’ve done a great job.

    Is it harder as an actor to access personality traits like sultriness and sexiness, both of which Ma Rainey has in abundance, than things like anger or frustration? Everyone has felt those emotions, but — and I don’t know about you personally — not everyone has felt comfortable in their own body. If you are a person that has not experienced that comfort, then it’s hard to access. The reason it’s hard to access is because people think that if you’re a woman and you’re overweight, then you’re not sexy and you should not feel sexy. But the people I grew up with who were big were comfortable in their bodies. It didn’t stop them from getting as many men as they could, from manipulating them, from wearing clothes that showed off their bodies. That’s what I know and what I wanted to inject in Ma Rainey. This is a woman who was unapologetic about her sexuality, unapologetic about her worth. And how do you access it? It’s hard to articulate how you access a character that is functioning on a different level than you personally other than this: Whatever it is that you feel uncomfortable about, you overdo. When I was in Ma Rainey’s padding, I touched my breasts a lot. I twitched my hips as much as I could. When you overdo it day in and day out, at some point, it does become a part of you.

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    You worked with Chadwick Boseman in 2014 on “Get On Up.” You acted with him again in “Ma Rainey.” How was he different as a performer? More confident with his choices. Unapologetic about his integrity. Yes, Chadwick Boseman had morphed into “Chadwick Boseman from ‘Black Panther,’” but you have to leave that at the door when you’re playing Levee. You have to forget about Chadwick. You know, the art and the business conversation has become one. Not everybody sees a difference. Chadwick knew the difference. On set a lot of times, it’s “My trailer had a bad odor, and no one went in to clean it” and “I’m supposed to have a vegan hamburger not a hamburger.” Actors can forget that they’re trying to create another human being. Chadwick wasn’t like that. He was a total artist. Completely giving himself over to the character. That was Chadwick Boseman at 42. I cannot tell you what a joy it is to work with.

    Do you think he knew it was his last performance? His Levee has such a haunted quality. That would be a better question for his people. But who I saw on the set was someone very much alive. When the last person dies who has a memory of you, that’s when you’ll truly be dead. So I don’t see him as gone. I see him as very much alive because his work is alive.

    You said that the art and the business conversation have become one. What has caused that? I don’t think a lot of people even know what acting is. A lot of people who want to be actors want to be famous actors. They don’t want to sacrifice anything — in a profession that has a 95 percent unemployment rate. And people feel that acting conversations are boring. I could go on about objectives and tactics — you’ve lost people. They don’t want to hear about that. That’s not sexy. And therein lies the problem. When you’re creating a character, the most important thing you can do is observe life. All the putridness and the beauty of what it means to be a human being. Your choices have to be based on that. And nobody wants that truth.

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    For the people who don’t know, can you define acting? Acting is servicing the writer and transforming into a fully realized human being that is completely different from yourself. Not just a character — a human being. That’s what you’re creating. That’s why in the Actors Studio they tell you to study life. Not study another actor — that’s what happens, too. As soon as someone sees that they’re getting a TV show, they do their hair, they start losing weight. The last thing they’re thinking about is that damn character they’re playing. But you’re creating a human being. That’s what acting is. You’ve got to look at life!

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.

    David Marchese is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and the Talk columnist. Recently he interviewed Ilhan Omar about racial justice, Mark Cuban about health care and Padma Lakshmi about eating adventurously.

    Djeneba Aduayom is a French photographer living in the Los Angeles area. Her art, which focuses on the connection between people and movement, is inspired by her multicultural background and her previous career as a professional dancer.

    Additional photo credits: Styling by Elizabeth Stewart. Hair by Jamika Wilson. Makeup by Autumn Moultrie.

    Additional design and development Jacky Myint and Shannon Lin.


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