Marchánt Davis on Pushing Boundaries and Telling Stories that Matter
To say that 2019 was a banner year for alumnus Marchánt Davis (B.F.A. '13, musical theater) is an understatement. He starred alongside Anna Kendrick in the satire The Day Shall Come—his first lead role in a feature film—which he landed just six months after graduating from the Graduate Acting Program at NYU Tisch. The film hit theaters while Davis made his Broadway debut as real-life civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael in the play The Great Society. Davis also earned Lucille Lortel and AUDELCO award nominations for his performance—which included playing five different characters—in Ain't No Mo', the off-Broadway satire that imagines African Americans’ mass exodus from the United States. Whether on the big screen or the stage, you’ll find Davis in fiercely original, provocative projects of depth and social significance. He talks to STAGES about his artistic identity and what inspires him to tell stories that matter.
How does identity play into your work as an actor and your purpose as an artist?
My identity is wrapped in where I come from but is also constantly reinformed by the world around me and the work that I do as an artist. There are some words that ring true to the core of my soul—for example, Viola Davis’s Oscar acceptance speech: “There's one place that all of the people with the greatest potential are gathered—one place—and that’s the graveyard....Exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories—the stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition.” My identity is attached to all the people that came before me. I feel I am, as well as others, a manifestation of all their wildest dreams. I’m a storyteller because of them.
Your recent projects Ain't No Mo' and The Day Shall Come are both fresh, bold satires, and you play a civil rights activist in The Great Society. What draws you to provocative works with deeper social commentaries?
If the work isn’t speaking to something greater than myself or beyond my own need and desire to “just be working,” then I can’t do it.
The Day Shall Come is your first leading role in a major feature film. How did you mentally prepare for this?
There’s always that rush of excitement when you get a call saying you’ve booked the job you’ve been auditioning for. Then there’s the moment when you ask yourself, “Can I actually do this?” For me, the key was just staying grounded and focused on the task at hand and trusting all the tools I already possessed to get the job done. Doubt is probably the biggest enemy to progress and it’ll always be there in some way, but doing the job is what I’ve trained for.
What are the biggest differences in your daily life working on a film versus working on the stage?
There’s a lot of waiting around on a film set. The saying is “hurry up and wait.” I had to learn to conserve energy when I could. On the stage, I feel like the audience is an added scene partner; on set it’s the camera and you have to know where it is at all times. Know the shot.
What's your advice for students who want to work on projects that push the envelope?
If it pushes the envelope, then it’ll probably push you, too. Jump in and don’t wait for people to write it for you. You have an obligation as an artist to tell stories. Your obligation is in proportion to your talent. “Exhume those bodies, exhume those stories,” as Viola Davis said.
Share a favorite memory from your days at Boston Conservatory.
My favorite memory will always be working for Kim Haack in the Student Affairs Office. I had a work-study job in the gigs office, and Kim always made me feel like I could do anything. She still does.
This piece first appeared in the winter 2019 issue of STAGES, Boston Conservatory's biannual magazine