Viola Davis Addresses 'Incredibly Hurtful' Critics Of Her Michelle Obama Portrayal

"Not everything is going to be an awards-worthy performance."
Viola Davis as Michelle Obama and O-T Fagbenle as Barack Obama in Showtime's "The First Lady."
Viola Davis as Michelle Obama and O-T Fagbenle as Barack Obama in Showtime's "The First Lady."
Jackson Lee Davis/SHOWTIME

Viola Davis has seen your tweets about her portrayal of Michelle Obama in the new US drama The First Lady ― and she’d like a word.

The Oscar winner has addressed the response to her turn as the former FLOTUS in the anthology series, which follows the parallel lives of three women who made their mark on the White House: Obama, Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson).

Since the show’s debut across the pond earlier this month, many viewers have derided Viola’s performance for being on the exaggerated side, with critics expressing confusion about her decision to conspicuously purse her lips in certain scenes.

Speaking with the BBC in an interview published earlier this week, the actor spoke about the backlash for the first time, saying it was “incredibly hurtful when people say negative things about your work”.

“Critics absolutely serve no purpose,” Viola told the BBC. “And I’m not saying that to be nasty, either.”

“They always feel like they’re telling you something that you don’t know,” she went on. “Somehow that you’re living a life 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.”

Viola Davis
Viola Davis
Alberto E. Rodriguez via Getty Images

However, Viola doesn’t appear to regret signing on for the role, saying that “win or fail,” it’s her “job as a leader to make bold choices”.

Said choices have previously paid off for Viola, who is one of the few performers – and the only Black woman – to have won an Oscar, Emmy and Tony award for acting, putting her within reach of the coveted EGOT status.

In contrast to co-stars Michelle and Gillian, who have received notably better reviews for their work in the Showtime series, Viola said portraying a modern-day political figure is an “almost impossible” challenge.

“Either you’re doing too much or not enough,” she told the BBC, adding that she has not had “any personal contact with Michelle Obama”, who has yet to comment on the series.

The First Lady, which wraps up its 10-episode season in June, is just one of many current and upcoming projects for Viola, who also recently released her memoir, Finding Me.

She’s next set to star in The Woman King, a historical epic inspired by true events in the Dahomey kingdom, a former West African state in what is now Benin.

“How do you move on from the hurt, from failure?” Viola rhetorically asked the BBC. “But you have to. Not everything is going to be an awards-worthy performance.”

Before You Go