Viola Davis Was in Awe Watching Chadwick Boseman ‘Give Himself’ to His Role in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

It’s no secret that Viola Davis is a highly respected actor: she’s the first and only Black actor to win the Triple Crown of Acting (an Emmy, a Tony, and an Oscar). So when she compliments another thespian on their skills, they carry a lot of weight. Late Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman was also a well-respected actor who was known for being as friendly to the crew on set as he was to his co-stars. Together, Davis and Boseman star in Netflix’s new biopic Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Viola Davis
Viola Davis | Alberto E. Rodriguez / Staff

Viola Davis plays blues icon Ma Rainey

In a recent interview with 60 Minutes, Davis opened up about what it was like getting to play Rainey. “She was a combination of a woman from her time period, which is right in the smack dab [middle] of Jim Crow, feeling worthless,” Davis said, “but at the same time knowing who she was deep inside.”

When Jon Wertheim asked her if she ever saw herself playing Rainey, Davis was frank with her answer. 

“No, I did not,” Davis said bluntly. She described a “weird Peter Pan syndrome” feeling when she was approached to do the role. 

“I still saw myself as that 19-year-old girl going, ‘I can’t play Ma Rainey! I’m too young! You gotta get a more formidable actress who’s been out there for 40 or 50 years!’ Until I realized, ‘Viola, you’re actually a little bit older than what Ma Rainey is,’” she said laughing. 

Viola Davis reflects on Chadwick Boseman
Viola Davis | Rachel Murray/Getty Images for L’Oréal Paris

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‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is Chadwick Boseman’s last movie

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom also marks Boseman’s final performance before his death. He plays Levee, a trumpet player who’s in the recording studio with Rainey and has dreams of breaking into the music industry himself in the same vein as Ma Rainey collaborator Louis Armstrong.

It’s not Boseman’s first time playing a musician, however. He famously played James Brown in the 2014 biopic Get On Up, which was one of his breakout roles. He even turned down playing Sam Cooke, regarded by many to be the King of Soul.

Chadwick Boseman smiling in front of a green background
Chadwick Boseman | Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Viola Davis said Chadwick Boseman dedicated himself to the role

Getting to celebrate the release of the movie isn’t the same for Davis without her scene partner. Boseman was secretly battling stage 4 colon cancer behind the scenes, but director George C. Wolfe noted that he felt like something was off with the late actor.

Co-star Colman Domingo told The Wall Street Journal he “could tell with Chad sometimes, he had something on his mind.”

“He’d walk into a room and he wouldn’t speak to anyone,” he continued, adding that he would try to cheer him up with a warm welcome each day on set.

Not surprisingly, Boseman is receiving Oscar buzz for his role in the movie. Davis acknowledged the late actor’s talent and how she and everyone else on set was awestruck at his skills.

“We were just watching a great artist absolutely give himself over to a role, which is what you do: you give yourself. You sacrifice yourself.”