Courtney B. Vance’s friendship with Michael K. Williams was a recent one, though no less impactful on his life. A long-time admirer of Willams’ work, Vance was thrilled and honored by the opportunity to portray his brother on Lovecraft Country. The brotherhood forged in the series also became a brotherhood formed in life. In the wake of Williams’ passing, Vance celebrated the actor’s life, as well as providing insight into the importance of making mental health a priority.
I first learned about Michael’s journey in 2019 at a Three Doctors Foundation gala where he and I were both honored. In addition to it being the first time we ever met, although we’d long admired one another, my respect and love for this brother grew even more as he openly expressed how what people saw on their television screens in his characters did not scratch the surface of what he, the man, was confronting in his own life. He moved the entire room of hundreds of people as he detailed his fight to rid his life of drug addiction and how a pastor, I believe it was in Newark, New Jersey, extended a spiritual lifeline to him in the midst of this battle.
This pastor’s support literally saved Michael’s life, as he told it. And I knew then that he was deeply grounded in his faith, which is why I included him in my daily scriptures group text. For Michael, sharing his personal story was his own form of ministry and service. He was unafraid to share his message. He understood clearly that he could serve as an example of hope, perseverance, and strength for those who may have thought they did not have it in them. That was Michael’s true testimony. I decided to share a slice of his testimony in my tribute to him on social media because that’s the testimony that Michael would have wanted to be shared. His mission in life was to be able to serve as a guiding light for others. And even though he has left this earth, his legacy, personally and professionally, will continue to do just that forever.
As for what the industry can do to help support actors and emotional trauma as they confront storylines and/or characters that may serve 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. Nor is needing help anything to be ashamed of. It’s not just this industry but all industries. If people were really a priority in this country, health insurance would be taken care of. Our government can make healthcare more affordable so that you don’t have to go to just the people who are in your network who may not fit your needs. Everybody deserves to have good health insurance and 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 the connection and being able to talk to the right person so you can get to what you need to get to quickly. There’s a stigma that if you’re therapy something is wrong with you. No, something is right. Everybody needs a tune-up. You’ve got to do your mental health check. You know when you’re not doing well. We all have our high and low points. There’s no shame in it. But societal issues make us feel shame.
Michael talked openly about how certain characters triggered him, 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 that Michael got the support and help he needed in real time. There was no waiting until the filming is over, maybe sometime later. It was right then, at the point of crisis. That’s a really critical step that our industry needs to always take when a cast member is having a difficult time. We can’t do our best work when we’re not feeling emotionally strong as human beings.
Another important step might be the consideration of having a mental health counselor on set for projects that involve topics that are mentally and emotionally challenging. One example that I’d read about was the Amazon series, The Underground Railroad. From the beginning, I’m told that Amazon and Barry Jenkins made the mental health of the cast and crew a priority and had a mental health counselor on set for the duration of filming. It was not a service that was required for people to use, but the counselor was there for anyone who might need the help and support. It’s a huge benefit to have that level of care and concern go into keeping everyone safe, not just physically, but mentally as well.
You’re more important than any role and any money. Roles come and go. The business will go on with or without you. I want Michael here. I don’t want to be talking about him like this. I want him here. I wanted him in life to win that award and talk and go up there and teach and talk to us about his struggles and encourage others who are in the middle of it. There’s no shame in it. It just is life. We all struggle with things that have to be overcome. Sometimes in the struggle we win and sometimes we don’t. He lost. But in terms of what his life message and mission was, he won. He has passed that on and people are celebrating and learning lessons from him.
Michael was courageous. A soldier. But at the same time, the most gentle giant. I don’t know how you get all of that in one person. He was an actor’s actor.