Viola Davis Responds to Critics of Her Michelle Obama Portrayal

Viola Davis as Michelle Obama in 'The First Lady'
Photo by Jackson Lee Davis via Showtime

It’s a rough time to be Viola Davis. The 56-year-old Academy Award winner has been vocal about her anxiety about portraying Michelle Obama in the Showtime anthology series The First Lady for three years, despite the former First Lady making it clear she was positively thrilled with the casting decision. Alas, barring a critique from the former First Lady—who has yet to publicly weigh in on her portrayal—herself, the reception of Davis’s performance couldn’t be worse. That’s especially true on Twitter, where Davis unfortunately maintains an active presence. It’s been practically impossible not to have come across the criticism since the show premiered on April 17, to the point that Davis felt compelled to address the haters head on.

“[It is] incredibly hurtful when people say negative things about your work,” Davis told BBC on Monday. “How do you move on from the hurt, from failure? But you have to. Not everything is going to be an awards-worthy performance.” She seems to have expected some sort of criticism, adding that it’s “almost impossible” to play a public figure as familiar as Obama. “Either you’re doing too much,” Davis continued, “or not enough.” (And the critics on Twitter, who have largely been focusing on Davis’s dramatic facial expressions, most definitely feel she falls into the latter camp.)

Criticism, Davis acknowledged, is an “occupational hazard” of acting. Still, she’s of the opinion that “critics absolutely serve no purpose—and I’m not saying that to be nasty either. They always feel like they’re telling you something that you don’t know. Somehow that you’re…surrounded by people who lie to you and ‘I’m going to be the person that leans in and tells you the truth.’ So it gives them an opportunity to be cruel to you. But ultimately I feel like it is my job as a leader to make bold choices. Win or fail, it is my duty to do that.”

On the bright side, the response to Davis’s new memoir Finding Me, which she is also currently promoting, has been widely positive. In fact, it received what many would consider the ultimate endorsement: a cosign from Oprah Winfrey, who assigned it to her storied book club.