Viola Davis’ Bold Risk to Take Off Her Wig and MakeUp

June 1, 2015

First off, don’t believe the internet hoax; Viola Davis is alive and well.

In fact, she’s doing very well! Davis recently won a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for her role in the ABC hit drama series How to Get Away with Murder. The show has almost 10 million viewers thanks to Viola’s powerful portrayal of her complex character, Annalise Keating.

Last week she told How to Get Away with Murder For Your Consideration panel that her role of Annalise was unlike any role she’d ever been offered. “When someone is described as sexual and mysterious and complicated and messy, you don’t think of me. I thought it was a really great opportunity to do something different, to transform into a character that people weren’t used to seeing me in.”

Speaking about the captivating closing scene in which Annalise removes her wig, eyelashes, and wipes away her makeup–essentially transforming her character from powerhouse defense attorney-law professor into a woman with vulnerabilities that everyone can relate to–Viola explained that this revelatory scene was her own idea. Indeed, she explained it was the only way she agreed to play the part of Annalise. She shared with the panel, “There was something I didn’t buy about Annalise in private. It felt like who she was in private had to be diametrically opposed to who she was in public. And so in order to do that, I felt like I had to physically take the wig off. I mean, I have no eyebrows. I have eyelashes that I put on, and there was something extremely vulnerable about that act–and I know it seems like a very simple act at the end of the day–but for me, that simple act really surmounted to something very powerful in the end, because what it was was someone being very, very private in public, which is absolutely the cornerstone of what we do as artists. I didn’t just want to walk in heels like I was a supermodel. Who does that? That was how that scene came about. I didn’t want to wake up in bed thinking that this is how I really look. I wanted to woman up, and I wanted to actor up, too.”

The director of the episode asked Viola, “Now do we want to take off all the makeup?” Davis made clear her position, “You know what? I want to take it off.”

Intrigued by the notion of exposing the “part of being a woman that people kind of throw in the trash heap when you see them on TV,” Viola shared with Nightline, “It’s very empowering–and for me, intensely interesting.”

Here’s one of those bold risks that actors often talk about in their determination to create layered, compelling characters. Turns out, less can really be more.

Viola has decided wear her natural hair in her personal life as well for similarly empowering reasons. She has explained her reasoning by saying, “I took off my wig because I wanted to step into who I was. And I felt like…every time I put on a wig that I was apologizing for who I was, being a dark-skinned woman, very curly hair, I felt like I was hiding it…and I felt like I didn’t want to do that anymore…and I stepped into who I was.” 

The Haven of Theater

September 29, 2011

Many successful actors say when they found theater arts they found a haven.

When you first see Crash’s Thandie Newton, it is easy to assume with her stately exotic beauty, talent, and successful career that she always had it easy. However, Newton describes the painful experience of growing up in two distinct cultures and never feeling like she belonged. Challenged with issues of identity, she was able to find peace by “plugging into” various character roles, and being in the moment when she joined the theater.

At 17 years of age, Al Pacino was bored and unmotivated in school, even to the point of flunking most of his classes. But Pacino found a haven in school plays, and this sanctuary compelled him to commit to acting classes and pursue auditions despite dropping out of school. His newfound passion helped sustain him through a period of depression and poverty. In the midst of all the turmoil of his early life, the peace he found onstage proved to be a strong foundation for his prolific acting career—one of the most successful in cinema history.

In theater, it’s not only safe but actually required for the players to fully embrace and freely express human vulnerabilities—those which the world often expects people to mask or numb. Actors must deeply expose their emotional framework without shame or judgment through the vehicle of another person’s point of view or character.

Brene Brown–who studies human connection, including our ability to empathize, belong, and love—calls vulnerability the birthplace of belonging, love, joy, and creativity.

Expressing vulnerability is critical for human connection. This is the heart of theater arts.

Watch Brown speak about her inspirational findings about vulnerability here.