Jennifer Lawrence and Viola Davis Get Honest About Female Action Heroes, Motherhood and Press Tours Ruining Acting

Photographs by Alexi Lubomirski

Jennifer Lawrence is not someone who gets intimidated easily, but she’s a wreck when meeting Viola Davis. “This is the biggest honor of my life,” she says before paying her a heartfelt compliment. “Your performance in ‘Fences’ changed my life,” she says of Davis’ Oscar-winning role opposite Denzel Washington. 

In the past decade, Lawrence and Davis have changed the face of movies, each in her own way. Today, though, coming together to talk about their craft, they realize just how much they share. From stories about the highs and lows of motherhood to taking on an industry that believes male actors are a more valuable commodity at the box office, Davis and Lawrence are trailblazers who stand at the top of their field.

This year, both actors return to the awards conversation in passion projects they also produced. With “The Woman King,” Davis “did the weight training five hours a day, six days a week, for three months at 56” in order to play Nanisca, the leader of a group of all-female warriors in 1823 West Africa. For Lawrence, “Causeway,” in which she plays Lynsey, a soldier who comes home to New Orleans after suffering a traumatic brain injury, represents a return to her indie roots.

Jennifer Lawrence: I think that “Woman King” is the best movie I’ve seen this year, hands down, and the best movie I’ve seen in so long. I heard an interesting story about how it came to you.

Viola Davis: Maria Bello presented me with an award at Skirball Institute. And instead of presenting it traditionally, she pitched the idea of this movie, which she’d written a treatment for and was shopping around town. She said, “Wouldn’t everyone want to see Viola in ‘The Woman King’?” Everyone cheered. They stood up. And I remember that was the moment I thought to myself, “Sit down. It’s just never going to happen.”

Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

Lawrence: And why did you think that?

Davis: What I have going for me is I’m a Black actress. And I understand how people perceive that. I don’t see it as a hindrance. But when have I ever seen anything like “Woman King,” not just with me in it, but with anyone who looks like me in it? What studio is going to put money behind it? How are they going to be convinced that Black women can lead a global box office? So, yeah, I said, “That’s not going to happen, because you don’t see it.”

And, listen, it’s wonderful to sit with you. Because I see us as sort of the same type of actress, in a way. We don’t look alike, I know that.

Lawrence: I don’t feel worthy to be in the same room as you, but please continue.

Davis: But I feel that what you bring to your performances is exactly what an actor is supposed to bring, which is life. Which is the depth of human experience, the minutiae of it, the joy of it, the tragedy of it, the paradox and contradiction of it in every moment. And that’s what you’re supposed to do as an actress. Yes, there is a technical-proficiency aspect of acting. But with you, that’s what I see. And I think that’s why people are drawn to you. And I think that’s why people are moved by your performances.

Lawrence: Goodbye! I want to circle back to you being “The Woman King.” I remember when I was doing “Hunger Games,” nobody had ever put a woman in the lead of an action movie because it wouldn’t work — because we were told girls and boys can both identify with a male lead, but boys cannot identify with a female lead. And it just makes me so happy every single time I see a movie come out that just blows through every one of those beliefs, and proves that it is just a lie to keep certain people out of the movies. To keep certain people in the same positions that they’ve always been in.

Davis: But how do you feel when you are doing the bigger tentpole movies?

Lawrence: When I was doing “X-Men,” it’s hard to not have that perception of the movie that’s like, “Oh, well, it’s just one of those.” Especially when you’re painted blue with scales on your face. If you start thinking, “I look ridiculous, I feel ridiculous,” there’s nowhere to go.

In “Hunger Games,” it was an awesome responsibility. Those books were huge, and I knew that the audience was children. I remember the biggest conversation was “How much weight are you going to lose?” Along with me being young and growing and not able to be on a diet, I don’t know if I want all of the girls who are going to dress up as Katniss to feel like they can’t because they’re not a certain weight. And I can’t let that seep into my brain either.

Davis: I want to know how much of the business has infiltrated your love of the work.

Lawrence: I’ve been doing this since I was so young. When “Hunger Games” was out, I couldn’t really be an observer of life because everybody was observing me. I could feel my craft suffering. And I didn’t know how to fix it. I was scrambling, trying to fix it by saying yes to this movie and then trying to counteract it with that movie. And not realizing that what I had to do was no movies until something spoke to me.

When I read “Causeway,” I had no confidence in myself — I had no confidence in my antenna. I had lost so much of what I used to feel was instinctual. And the problem with instincts is it’s not a method you can fall back on.

Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

Davis: It’s interesting, especially what you say about instincts — that they don’t always work. But I have to say that the business is probably one of the biggest offenders of my love of the work. Because I don’t feel like I fit into the business.

Lawrence: You went to Juilliard. Or was it Juilliard?

Davis: Yeah, Juilliard. Or should I say the jail yard?

Lawrence: The jail yard!

Davis: With Juilliard, it was just about technical proficiency. It was about giving you all the building blocks to transform for classical work. The only problem with that is, first of all, I can safely say for you and for myself, no one wants to see a play or a movie and look at technical proficiency; you want a human experience. You want to feel less alone. They don’t get at that. 

When you’re rehearsing at Juilliard, they have a teacher with a pencil who follows you through the rehearsal and puts the pencil in your mouth to see where your tongue is positioned. And so when it gets like that, and you leave yourself and your soul behind, you’re not an artist. 

And on top of that, it’s Eurocentric training. So when you’re studying all those classics, it’s clear what all of those characters look like  — and that’s not me. So then what am I supposed to do with me? What am I supposed to do with my Blackness? What am I supposed to do with my deep voice and my wide nose? 

Lawrence: It’s interesting that you imply that you’re not beautiful when I’m sitting next to somebody who’s beautiful and has a full mouth and a strong jaw and big, beautiful eyes and is tall and toned.

For my experience, the biggest hindrance to my craft has been press, doing interviews. Every time I do an interview, I think, “I can’t do this to myself again.” I really can’t. I’m always very self-conscious of my intellect because I didn’t finish school. I dropped out of middle school.

Davis: You’re highly articulate.

Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

Lawrence: Thank you. And you’re very beautiful.

Davis: Thank you.

Lawrence: I don’t want anybody to know, or think they know, what I’m like. I’m supposed to be a mirror. I’m supposed to be a vessel. You shouldn’t look at me and remember that I got married in Rhode Island a few years ago and that my husband’s an art dealer. I feel like I lose so much control over my craft every time I have to do press for a movie and I’m selling this — especially something like “Causeway,” which just felt so personal.

Davis: I want to know about “Causeway.” I want to know what drew you to the story, to the character.

Lawrence: I think in working through childhood trauma, living with it as an adult, not being able to just get rid of it, and not being able to take a pill and make it go away, or have a good therapy session and have it go away. … I mean, I’m not a hero who’s risking my life to save my country at all; I’m an actor. But when I read “Causeway,” even though the situations could not be more different, the idea of carrying this invisible injury and knowing that the healing is not linear — there is so much progress and then there’s a step back. And she has this very complicated relationship with home. I also had a beautiful childhood. I also had parents who loved me as much as they were capable and did the absolute best that they could. That is also true.

And I think that us being able to rip this story apart and me being able to add some things that, if I can see another person going through it, and I can have empathy for Lynsey, then I can start to understand how maybe I could feel empathy for myself. And so it really was such a healing process. 

I think that’s why it’s still so hard for me to understand that people like it — just even that it’s a movie — because it was so personal for so long that it’s just bizarre to be talking about it. [Tears up]

Davis: It’s supposed to be personal. Listen, everything that we do as actors helps people feel less alone. We’re living in a world now where we’re so disconnected from ourselves that we can’t connect with other people. And that’s because everybody is perpetrating a fraud. I mean, everybody! I became a mom. Every mom I’ve run into, all of their kids are gifted. None of their kids have any issues. All of their kids come home with straight A’s. And I’m like, “Well, hell — really?”

Lawrence: I made the movie right before I got married. And then we had the pandemic. Two years later, I’m pregnant, we go back, and we make the rest of it. It was the scariest thing in the entire world to think about making a family. What if I fuck up? What if I can’t do it? And I was so scared that I would fuck it up. And it was so interesting to make a movie where I’m feeling so scared and feeling this mirrored in Lynsey.

Every day of being a mom, I feel awful. I feel guilty. I’m playing with him and I’m like, “Is this what he wants to be doing? Should we be outside? We’re outside. What if he’s cold? What if he’s going to get sick? Should we be inside? Is this enough? Is this developing your brain enough?”

Davis: Jennifer, I locked my kid in the car, and it was sweltering hot outside. I had 50 million things on my plate. My daughter was in the back. She’s happy, and I’m just so stressed out going to Target. I love Target. I walk out of the car, shut the door, and realize I don’t have my keys. I threw myself on the concrete, Jennifer. I screamed. You would think I was in a Greek tragedy. “My baby! Jesus!” And then I saw these two men. I grabbed their necks and said, “My baby is in the car!  My baby!” And then what do I have in my hand? My phone. So the two men whose necks I’ve grabbed, they said, “Ma’am, you just have to call 911.” And I said, “Oh, OK.” So I called 911, and I proceeded to scream at the operator. Every expletive you can imagine came out of my mouth. 

They took her out of the car. And the reason why I’m telling you this story is it literally was seconds.

Lawrence: I drove around with mine, didn’t realize he wasn’t buckled into the car seat. He was just teetering around, just flying. OK, great! Good to know that we all almost killed our kids.

Davis: I love my daughter more than anything. She’s my life. So there you go.

Set Design by Jack Flanagan