Courtney B. Vance’s friendship with Michael K. Williams was recent, but no less significant in her life. A longtime admirer of Willams’ work, Vance was thrilled and honored to have the opportunity to represent his brother in Lovecraft Country. The brotherhood forged in the series has also become a brotherhood formed in life. In the wake of Williams’ death, Vance celebrated the actor’s life and provided insight into the importance of making mental health a priority.
I first heard about Michael’s journey in 2019 at a Three Doctors Foundation gala where he and I were both honored. Besides the fact that this was the first time we had met, even though we had admired each other for a long time, my respect and love for this brother grew even more as he openly expressed how what people saw on their screens. television in his characters did not scratch the surface of what he, the man, faced in his own life. He moved the entire room to hundreds of people as he detailed his struggle to rid his life of addiction and how a pastor, I believe it was in Newark, New Jersey, extended a spiritual lifeline to him in the in the middle of this battle.
The support of this pastor literally saved Michael’s life, as he put it. And I knew then that he was deeply rooted in his faith, which is why I included him in my daily group scripture text. For Michael, sharing his personal story was his own form of ministry and service. He was not afraid to share his message. He clearly understood that he could serve as an example of hope, perseverance and strength for those who thought they did not have it in them. It was Michael’s true testimony. I decided to share a slice of his testimony in my tribute on social networks because it is the testimony that Michael would have wanted to share. His mission in life was to be able to serve as a guide to others. And even though he left this land, his legacy, personally and professionally, will continue to do so forever.
As for what the industry can do to help support actors and emotional trauma as they grapple with storylines and / or characters that can act as a trigger, I’d like to lean into that a bit. Mental health is such an important part of our overall health, and it should not be taken for granted. There is nothing to be ashamed of in needing help either. It is not just this industry, but all industries. If people were really a priority in this country, health insurance would be covered. Our government can make health care more affordable so you don’t have to go only to people in your network who may not be right for you. Everyone deserves to have good health insurance and to have access to the care they need.
Therapy is essential to taking care of your overall health, and therapy is like a marriage. It’s all about connecting and being able to talk to the right person so that you can get what you need fast. There is a stigma that if you are in therapy, something is wrong with you. No, something is wrong. Everyone needs a tune-up. You need to get your mental health checkup. You know when you’re not doing well. We all have our ups and downs. There is no shame in it. But the social problems make us ashamed.
Michael spoke openly about how certain characters triggered it, which is why it was so important during the filming of Lovecraft Country that HBO and the producers understood the importance and value of making sure Michael got the support and help he needed in real time. There was no waiting until the end of the shoot, maybe a little later. It was then, at the point of crisis. This is a really critical step that our industry must always take when an actor is going through a difficult period. We can’t do our best if we don’t feel emotionally strong as human beings.
Another big step could be the ability to have a mental health counselor on set for projects that involve topics that are mentally and emotionally difficult. An example that I read on was the Amazon series, The Underground Railroad. From the start, I was told that Amazon and Barry Jenkins made the mental health of the cast and crew a priority and that they had a mental health counselor on set for the duration of the shoot. It wasn’t a service people had to use, but the counselor was there for anyone who might need help and support. It’s a huge benefit to have this level of care and concern for everyone’s safety, not just physically, but mentally as well.
You are more important than any role and any money. The roles come and go. The business will continue with or without you. I want Michael here. I don’t want to talk about him like that. I want it here. I wanted him to win this award in life, talk and go up there, teach us and tell us about his struggles and encourage others who are in the middle of it. There is no shame in it. It’s just life. We all struggle with things that need to be overcome. Sometimes in the struggle we win and sometimes not. He lost. But in terms of his message and his life’s mission, he won. He passed it on and people celebrate and learn from him.
Michel was brave. A soldier. But at the same time, the softer giant. I don’t know how you get it all in one person. He was an actor actor.
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