Viola Davis & Jennifer Lawrence on Fear

“I’m always terrified, let me just say that.” – Viola Davis

I’ve been watching Variety’s ‘Actors on Actors’ interview with Viola Davis and Jennifer Lawrence from this past December, and I was excited by a few minutes of a very frank conversation they had about fear.

They’re both such powerhouses in the industry and often play strong women who literally kick ass in their acting roles. But in this interview, Viola models the power of vulnerability as she begins a frank conversation about fear with Jennifer. I’m including the interview below, beginning at the moment the fear conversation really kicks off.

It’s a revealing exchange about how fear impacts a creative career.

Fear & Art

In spite of all their experience and accolades, Viola and Jennifer feel fear during those days and moments before the first ‘action’ is called on set or when a director comes up to give them notes.

Viola also talks about how she feels ‘the scrutiny’ when she’s on set. She feels pressure and asks herself if she should try and live up to other people’s hype about her. When she actually feels like she doesn’t know what she’s doing and feels the same as everyone else on set.

Artists who are established feel pressure to perform to a certain level again and again, while artists who aren’t yet established often feel pressure to prove themselves.

That pressure isn’t an inherent part of the actual creative process though. It’s kind of a byproduct of pursuing creativity as a profession. But do we also have an innate human need to feel that the art we’re sharing is accepted and approved of by other people?

What happens if we don’t care about that? Is it even possible to genuinely not care? Let’s assume it isn’t possible, that we’ll always be a little afraid of how our art might be perceived.

It really doesn’t need to practically influence anything other than our lived experience in a moment. We feel the emotion of fear, and then we still create.

I recently heard the famous writer Elizabeth Gilbert say in an interview that it’s not her responsibility to make sure the books she writes are ‘good’. She’s just going to write them. What a cool way to relate to our art.

Fear & Age

In the interview, Jennifer also talks about how she was less afraid when she was younger, and how it changes as she gets older.

She used to train wild horses in Kentucky. Jump up and go for it. Then a few years ago she jumped on a horse, thinking nothing of it, and moments later froze in fear and fell off. She was suddenly so aware of how dangerous it was, and how hurt she could get, and that wasn’t something she’d considered when she was younger.

When we get older, but also as we experience more, no matter what age we are, we realize how much pain and potential for hurt there is.

We learn so much from our environment, from what has happened to us, and from what we’ve seen. It can change the way we orient to the world, and increase our sense of fear or caution. We begin to manage fear with whatever coping mechanism we have adapted, fight/freeze/flight/fawn. This is why therapy is so powerful, so we can bring greater emotional intelligence to our choices in moments of fear.

I believe that the more awareness you have of fear, the greater your capacity to be brave. Cause fearlessness is not the same thing as bravery, it might mean you don’t know there’s anything to be afraid of, to begin with.

I don’t want to be fearless – I want to feel the grit of fear and then take action anyway.

Bravery & Art

Viola asks Jennifer, when they have producers on set with opinions, etc… the pressures of being ‘the cog in the machine’ as Jennifer says, how can they stay true to the bold acting choice they made in preparation. Especially when that important creative choice is made to share the truth of the character they’re playing. Knowing that compromise on that may affect the impact of the performance…

“How do you, as an actor, have the bravery of your choices so that when people come into the theater, they feel less alone.”

I love that thought, that the bravery of our choices isn’t even for us alone. There’s something bigger than that individual fear we feel, and that’s the people we seek to connect with, communicate with, and affect with our art.

It’s about being brave enough to create and commit to genuine artistic choices no matter our fear, no matter the pressure, so that someone who is feeling isolated in their life, can feel seen through art, and maybe even heal just a little bit.

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