Oscar winner Viola Davis knew that transforming into modern icon Michelle Obama for Showtime’s “The First Lady” would be a challenge.
The “How to Get Away with Murder” alum called the role “almost impossible” to perfect, from facial expressions and mannerisms easily comparable to the real-life former (and living) First Lady — more so than co-star Michelle Pfeiffer or Gillian Anderson’s respective portrayals of the late Betty Ford and Eleanor Roosevelt.
“People know how they walk, how they talk and how they hold their pearls, so it’s very difficult,” Davis said of playing Obama opposite co-star O-T Fagbenle as Barack Obama during an interview with BBC. She said that, when it comes to playing Michelle Obama, “either you’re doing too much or not enough.”
Amid online barbs, Davis went on to clap back at viewers on social media who have dubbed her performance “cringey.”
“They always feel like they’re telling you something that you don’t know. 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,” Davis said.
She continued, “The thing about critics is they serve absolutely no purpose. And I’m not saying that to be nasty either.”
The “incredibly hurtful” comments have forced Davis to reexamine her turn in the Showtime series, now airing.
“How do you move on from the hurt, from failure?,” the Emmy winner added. “But you have to. Not everything is going to be an awards-worthy performance. 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.”
IndieWire TV critic Kristen Lopez wrote in her review that casting Davis is “the biggest disservice to the series” as she is “let down by bizarre aesthetic choices, particularly pencil-thin, drawn-on eyebrows that leave her looking perpetually surprised.” Even worse, Davis’ talents are wasted as “she’s also given nothing to latch onto as a character.”
Lopez added, “Fagbenle is a decent Barack, and his interactions with Davis are the strongest moments of their narrative. But, too often, Michelle is presented as Barack’s inner monologue.”
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