Viola Davis says criticism of her Michelle Obama portrayal is ‘incredibly hurtful’

A woman in a red dress poses for photographers
Viola Davis, seen in 2017 at the Academy Awards after winning an Oscar, is fed up with critics of her performance in “The First Lady.”
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Viola Davis would like critics to remember there’s a person behind any performance — including her recent portrayal of former First Lady Michelle Obama.

It is “incredibly hurtful when people say negative things about your work,” Davis told BBC News in an interview published Monday.

Davis had her fair share of detractors who derided her performance — particularly her pursed lips that verged on “duck face” — in Showtime’s new miniseries “The First Lady.”


“They always feel like they’re telling you something that you don’t know,” the “Suicide Squad” actor said. “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.”

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Davis continued: “[U]ltimately I feel like it is my job as a leader to make bold choices. Win or fail it is my duty to do that.”

Many stormed onto social media last month to give their opinions on Davis’ performance about pursing her lips too much and giving an overall poor performance. Fans came to her defense too, rooting for Davis and scolding those with opposing critiques.

When portraying someone who is such a huge public figure, Davis said, it’s “almost impossible” because you’re “either doing too much or not enough.”

“Not everything is going to be an awards-worthy performance,” she said.

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Davis already has scored several acting awards, including a supporting actress Oscar she won in 2017 for her performance in “Fences.” She was also Oscar-nominated in 2009, 2012 and 2021.

Obama has yet to post on social media about her opinion of Davis’ performance or about “The First Lady” in general. The show premiered on Showtime April 17.


Representatives for Obama did not respond immediately to The Times’ request for comment.