Veteran actors Samuel L. Jackson and Viola Davis recently sat down together for Variety’s Actors on Actors to discuss their experiences going from the theater scene to Black professionals in Hollywood before addressing their latest work on TV.
With Jackson taking on the lead role in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey and Davis playing Michelle Obama in the dramatic anthology The First Lady on Showtime, both are now regarded as Black acting legends.
Here are 3 things we learned about Jackson and Davis from their shared interview.
Viola Davis thought she made it big when she landed her first play.
While speaking with Jackson, Viola Davis revealed that she was convinced she had made it big when she cast in her first stage production.
“When I got my first play at the Public Theater making $250 a week, I was like, ‘It’s a wrap — I’ve made it,’ she said. “I always went from job to job. I never thought ‘I want to be famous.’ The notoriety was just an overflow of the work. Now you have so many actors who are so intentional about where they want to end up.”
It took Samuel L. Jackson 10 years to land a second movie after "Ragtime"
In 1980, Samuel L. Jackson landed his very first movie role in the drama film Ragtime.
Though he thought he had made it big at the time, Jackson didn’t see another movie role until a decade later.
“We weren’t auditioning for stuff like that in New York anyway. I was in New York, and every now and then a movie passed through. I remember when I got Ragtime in 1980. That was my first time going to London to shoot and be on location. I thought, ‘It’s about to happen,'” he told Davis. “I came back to New York. I didn’t see another movie for 10 years. I lost it and I started focusing on the work, especially after I got sober. The work became the thing.”
Both Viola Davis and Samuel L. Jackson took various acting jobs because they had to.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Viola, was it hard?’ I say that in hindsight : I took the hard because I thought it was just part of the business,” Davis shared. “I just said, ‘This is something that I have to deal with.’ I wasn’t getting those roles. People always feel they mistake the opportunity for the talent.”
Jackson agreed, sharing, “LaTanya [his wife] would say, ‘Why are you taking that piddling-ass job?’ It’s like, ‘Well, it’s two days on a movie, and that person’s going to be a big director one day,’ and sometimes that works out.”
Davis added, “I’m always interested in actors who are not humble because for me it’s a very humbling profession. You actually don’t even know if you’re going to fail or you’re going to succeed.”