A version of this story first appeared in the print edition of TheWrap Magazine’s Emmy Comedy-Drama Issue.
When Viola Davis stepped on a Philadelphia set to shoot the pilot for a new Shonda Rhimes drama in 2013, strutted up to a chalkboard and said the line, “This is Criminal Law 100–or as I prefer to call it, ‘How to Get Away With Murder,'” little did she know that the show would thrust her into the Emmy race two years later. But she probably wouldn’t have been fazed even if she’d known: The veteran actress had already won a Tony and become only the second African-American actress, after Whoopi Goldberg, to be nominated for Oscars in both the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories (for “The Help” and “Doubt,” respectively).
But “HTGAWM” has also put the 49-year-old actress squarely in the pop-culture zeitgeist. In the ABC drama series, which ranked as the No. 2 rated new drama of the season and returns for Season 2 in the fall, Davis stars as Annalise Keating, a badass, unapologetic litigator mentoring a group of young law students. The thrill ride from power producer Rhimes and executive producer Pete Nowalk spawned countless jawdropping TV moments and one-liner hashtags that set social media ablaze week-to-week–including a powerful scene in which Davis dramatically removed her wig and makeup.
It turns out that scene was Davis’ brainchild in their very first telephone conversation, said Nowalk. “She came to the part with so much insight and thoughtfulness,” he told TheWrap. “She helped shape the part in ways that I can’t even describe–and every time we talk, I leave with so many more ideas I wouldn’t have thought of.”
JOSEPH KAPSCH: Bring me back to that day — you were coming off “The Help’s” critical acclaim and success — and you got a call about this show, “How to Get Away With Murder.” How did it come about?
VIOLA DAVIS: I wish I had a more dramatic story, but my manager called and said, “Hey, this is a chance for a lead in a Shonda Rhimes show,” and at first I thought, “do I put Viola Davis in a TV show?” And I was thinking yes you could put this Viola Davis in a TV show. But I read the character and it was unlike anything that I’ve played before. She’s sexy. She’s not maternal. I get a lot of maternal characters. So I thought it was a chance to step outside of my comfort zone. And also a chance to be No. 1 on the call sheet. To see what it feels like to really carry a show was very attractive to me.
Shonda has created trailblazing shows and characters. Before you booked “How to Get Away With Murder” had you watched or been familiar with “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal?”
I was familiar with them, but I’m not a TV watcher. At all. Except for, you know, like “Snapped,” which is on Oxygen, I think.
Yeah. You love them too, huh? They are addictive, but I digress. Yes I was familiar with them, but I haven’t really watched any. I don’t watch TV.
Annalise is such a flawed heroine, obviously it makes it interesting for an actress to play–but why do you think there’s still such rooting value for her?
Well I’m happy that you say that, but I just felt like in the midst of this fiction–which it is, it’s fiction, it’s a soap opera, it’s salacious, it’s tantalizing and all that–I felt like there should be something in each episode for women to look at and feel like it was familiar. To feel like Annalise is familiar. Taking her wig off, me not being a Size 2, me being obviously 49. I always say I hold it up for the regular people out there. There’s still something very human in each episode, and when I say “human,” I mean flawed. Things that we probably do in private that we don’t want anyone else to see. But when we see it in actors and when we see it onscreen, it makes us feel less alone. And I felt like which each episode I tried to at least achieve that in the midst of this kind of pop fiction. And I think that’s why people root for her.
Viola Talks Wig Scene, Keeping Women Real On-Screen ‘Saggie Titties, No Eyebrows’ And All:
The wig scene is iconic. I mean it will be one of those scenes like “Melrose Place” when Kimberly took off her wig — that we will be talking about 20 years from now and it’ll be on “Top 50 TV Moments” lists. Was that written already even before you stepped into the role? Or did you collaborate with Pete and Shonda and sort of talk that through? Or was the scene something that you said “I want to do this?”
Well, I didn’t want to be the Vogue woman. I didn’t want to be the woman who came in with the sexualized–I say sexualized, not sexy, because sexy is a certain self-consciousness to sexuality–I say that Annalise is sexual. Every time you see that sexual, mysterious, kind of cold woman, she always looks like she jumps out of bed with that blow-dried hair and that dewy skin and, you know, those Double-Zero clothes. I did not want to be that woman because I don’t know that woman. And I’ve been watching that woman in movies for several years. And I felt like this was my chance to woman up. Because I think that how we are as women, just in real life, is very interesting. And I think that in the hands of a woman–and I’d like to think that, in my professional life anyway, I have a certain braveness and boldness–I want to present women as they really are.
I remember one woman wrote me after that scene when I take the wig off, “That’s me except I still have the retainer in my mouth.” It’s not always about being pretty. But it is about uncovering and feeling comfortable with the way we are and the way we look when we’re in private. You know, as soon as you walk through the door, what do you do? You take off your bra, you let your titties sag, you let your hair come off–I mean my hair. I mean, I don’t have any eyebrows. I let my eyebrows be exactly what they are. And it’s me. And I wanted that scene to be somewhere in the narrative of Annalise. That who she is in her public life and who she was in her private life were absolutely, completely diametrically opposed to one another. Because that’s who we are as people. We wear the mask that grins and lies.
Was that wig scene a one-take shot? Or was it a couple?
Yes, because I didn’t feel like putting that makeup on again. [laughs] So yes, absolutely it was one-take.
With your “HTGAWM” character you’ve also created these iconic lines. Obviously the one that immediately comes to mind is the “penis on a dead girl’s cellphone.” But there’s numerous ones throughout the entire season — too many to count. Do you ever get the next script and go, “Oh My God?!”
You know, sometimes with the iconic lines, I can be kind of a purist and be like, “Why do I have to say, ‘Why is your penis on a dead girls phone?'” I would just say something like, “What the hell is going on?” or some other expletive. But I’ve gotten used to them, the iconic lines. I always feel the bravest and boldest choice are choices that exist in life and not that exist in fiction. I try to be as close to that as possible, but you know sometimes it’s like, I didn’t write those lines. The writers of “How to Get Away With Murder” did.
Do you feel a certain responsibility because of all the attention on you as an actress in this “HTGAWM” role? How does that spill over into what you feel is or isn’t your responsibility as Viola Davis?
I always feel it’s my responsibility as an artist to be as honest as possible. Whether people like it or not. That is my responsibility. My responsibility is not to create something that people like, that people want to sleep with. I don’t think that when women move through their life, they’re thinking every moment that, “I’m going to be who I am because I want you to sleep with me.” Now it may be that way when they go to a club, but I’m just saying 24/7. And I do feel as an artist that I want to do something that hasn’t been done before with women of color. We like women of color when they’re sassy, when they’re maternal, when they’re bold, when they are exactly who they are. You know, there’s no mystery about them. And I do feel a certain responsibility to be none of that. To be none of it.
Shonda recently said at a conference she was speaking at, “I’m done talking about diversity.” Then just last week we had Maggie Gyllenhaal for TheWrap Magazine who also mentioned that Hollywood’s facing ageism and sexism–and now you mention women of color– so I would like to touch on racism too. Why do you think it’s taken so long for females in the industry to start speaking out about all of these issues?
I don’t know why it’s taken so long. I do think it’s time, though, for people to step in to an arena where they’re not confined. Where there’s no restrictions based on their art and their voice. And I think that there’s a restriction when you label someone just in terms of their sex and their race. Because I think that there is an expectation of who you need to be within the confines of that. I just mentioned that with the black women, you gotta be sassy, you gotta be sexy, your hair has gotta be a certain way. It’s very iconic roles that have existed in the past for black women. Like I said, I don’t want to have any structure. I don’t want to have any kind of reins put on me. I want to be absolutely human in my role.
I don’t know as a person what I’m going to do tomorrow, so I don’t know what Annalise is going to do tomorrow based on the situation she’s placed in. I don’t want to necessarily be likable all the time and I think that’s what Shonda is saying. I think that she probably gets a lot of pushback on feeling like, “What is your responsibility to people of color?” “What is your responsibility to women?” And I think her whole thing is like, I just want to write. The one thing is when you put pen to paper as a writer, it’s just like when you tell a story to your kid at night. You just want the world to be your oyster. You don’t want any fences put up and I think–I’m imagining–that’s what she’s saying about diversity.
When you mention iconic roles and actresses, are there any that you can point to that when you were a little girl that made you say, “I want to be an actress.” Or you looked at those roles or those actresses growing up and they inspired you?
Ms. Cicely Tyson in everything. As Jane Pittman. In everything. Teresa Graves in “Get Christie Love!” Gloria Foster in “Nothing But a Man.” I was attracted to the craft. That’s why I got into it. I wasn’t attracted to just the clothes and the hair. That didn’t have any appeal to me. I wanted to be a craftsperson. I wanted to be great at what I did, because I think that that is impressive. When you’re given a character that’s completely different than who you are and you move into it, you transform, you get out of your comfort zone and you create a human being. That’s what we do as actors. I know that Twitter, Facebook, all that is part of what we do too, but really part of what we do, make no mistake, is to create human beings. Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice.” Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall.” General Hollins in anything.
As we were talking about challenges in the industry, I mean, you must obviously see online reports with statistics of lack of roles for women or anemic amounts of female directors, writers etc. in Hollywood year after year. Yet you are an actress that is defying every single sort of stereotype or issue that Hollywood is facing: ageism, sexism, racism. What do you say to that?
I say that that makes me happy that you said that. I’m not trying to defy odds. I feel like I just move through life doing what I do and I think that, in doing that to the best of your ability, I think that’s the most progressive thing that you could do in your life. I think that when you stifle your voice in any way to kind of meet the status quo is when you stifle your voice and that part of you that can make a difference.
Coming from film and you also have done theater, what’s the biggest difference now that you’re thrown into this crazy weekly episodic television world with Twitter and social media. Because you did say earlier it’s a soap opera, which I love that you said that. Because I grew up on and still love soaps and watching “the stories.”
[laughs] Yes the “stories.”
Some people shy away from that, but “HTGAWM” is a soap opera. Just like “Empire” is a soap opera. Is there a difference in how fans react. Are they not separating the character from the actress?
Well, you said it. They’re not separating the character from you. And they’re not separating their opinion and what they want to see in the character from art. The biggest thing that I see about TV is that network TV is about everything other than your work. It’s about how the characters feel about your hair, how they feel about the way you walk, how much they like you – that’s a big one. How much they like you, how much they like what you say. How important it is for you to have catchphrases. All of those things that cable does not put any restriction on. And how many Twitter followers you have. That’s the biggest difference I see with network television.
Is there more pressure on an actor or actress to promote the show, or just that you’re more under a microscope?
Both. It’s up to you to promote the popularity of the show. It’s more about popularity and it’s more about flash than it is about the work. In cable, you can have less than a million followers and somehow even win an award based on your work and the quality of it. You’ll have a black woman with her natural hair and no makeup of course in “Orange is the New Black” sitting on a toilet with her pants down and she’s a size 18 and she’s doing the whole scene like that. There’s no way that that’s going to happen on network TV because it’s not attractive. And I say all this in not really a positive way. That’s the one barrier we have yet to fight. I try to do that to the best of my ability. I refuse to be a Size 2 because I can’t do that. I talk about my age all the time. I definitely have had no cosmetic work whatsoever. I’m not going to be anything but who I am, because I feel that’s the most novel thing that I can do.
You just radiate this self assurance and confidence – does that come your upbringing?
I think I come off as probably more confident than I actually am, but I think it’s the lack of choice I have. I don’t fit the mold, anyway. And at close to 50, I’ll be 50 soon, that because I know that no matter how much I alter myself, that I’m not going to fit that mold, that it’s forced me to just step in to who I am. And in the stepping into who I am, I’ve realized that that was the most progressive thing that I could do. What I find is that sometimes, in this business, we create characters based on what other people have done before. Whatever the idea of a sexy woman should be, whatever an idea of a funny person should be. As opposed to taking all of our ideas from life as our inspiration. They say truth is stranger than fiction. I think also truth is much more interesting than fiction. When I created Annalise, I’m creating her from women I know. Not the women I’ve seen before on TV, because that fits the mold and shape of who Viola is. Women who are sexual, in my opinion, especially as sexual as Annalise – being thrown up against a wall, having sex with this hot guy – and as askewed and screwed up as she is, she’s been traumatized in her life.
To the point earlier of you defying odds in Hollywood: You have a starring role in broadcast network TV show where you are having sex scenes with a hot man – I’m assuming – 10-15 years your junior. You recently made a movie with J. Lo about two female vigilantes, the kind of female movie that studios barely make anymore because it’s all about superheroes right now. Again, it just adds to the list. You stand to make history as the first African-American actress to win the best drama Emmy? What do you feel when you think about that?
It hasn’t happened yet, that’s how I feel. I’ve gotten used to that with awards, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t want to walk around thinking anything is going to happen, but I do know that I always say, it’s something Robert de Niro said in his commencement speech at NYU to school of the arts, I always have in my head the three words, “And then what.” After the awards, after the red carpet is rolled up, after the show is no longer on TV – cause it will happen, either sooner or later, it will happen – and then what? My career as an actor is much bigger than Annalise Keating, it’s much bigger than an Emmy award or an Oscar. So and then what? And my job, and I will keep reiterating it, is to create people. And I always hope that people see that.
Is there one story you can point to where it really touched you and you said, “I’m doing my job” or “I’m doing what I want to be doing”?
I’ve had a lot of responses, but I have to say the response I love the most is Diahann Carroll left a message on my machine. She said she loves the work that I’m doing on “How to Get Away With Murder.” She thinks it’s unprecedented. She says it may take another 5-10 years for people to realize it, but she wanted to commend me for it. And that did make me feel special. Only because I feel that I’m bringing the real woman to the screen. And a real woman of color to the screen. And a real woman of color who’s messy and complicated and not necessarily in broad strokes and in little strokes.
When you talk about your lack of choice, have you personally had a situation when you were being considered for a role and you felt that blatant sense of them thinking you weren’t sexy enough?
Absolutely. All the time. But, and I’m going to reiterate this, this is not how I feel in my personal life. I feel sexual, I feel happy, I feel alive. I sometimes feel insecure, just like any woman, but I feel pretty good about myself at 50. That being said, when you do see a woman of color onscreen, the paper-bag test is still very much alive and kicking. That’s the whole racial aspect of colorism: If you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not sexy, you are not a woman, you shouldn’t be in the realm of anything that men should desire. And in the history of television and even in film, I’ve never seen a character like Annalise Keating played by someone who looks like me. My age, my hue, my sex. She is a woman who absolutely culminates the full spectrum of humanity our askew sexuality, our askew maternal instincts. She’s all of that, and she’s a dark-skin black woman. Some people who watch TV have acknowledged that and understand that. But I encourage you to search your memory and think of anyone who’s done this. It just hasn’t happened. I hear these stories from friends of mine who are dark-skin actresses who are always being seen as crack addicts and prostitutes.
So is it really stereotyping in casting?
In general. Just in general. And it’s not anything that is just perpetuated by White America or just perpetuated by Black America. It’s just a cultural understanding that you’re just not a part of the equation when it comes to sexuality and I think that people mistake your lack of opportunity with the level of your talent. And it’s not true. If the opportunity is not out there for you to play it, then you don’t see it. If you give someone the opportunity in a narrative to be able to show that range, I’m telling you, they’ll go for it. The people who are talented will go for it.
Now that you’re working in episodic TV, do you have aspirations to someday maybe executive produce or even direct?
Not direct. I don’t know why I’m not interested in directing. Producing, I’m very much, because I feel like you’re more empowered as a producer. You’re more empowered with casting. I just feel like – and I keep saying there’s so many actors out there, all kinds of actors who are journeymen actors. They’ve been out there for so long. And if given the opportunity, they could amaze the world and elevate the art. So to be in the position of power to be able to give those actors an opportunity would be priceless.
Which particular scenes or episodes this year of “How to Get Away With Murder” do you think are so powerful or you’re very proud of that you would like those to represent your work as Viola Davis?
Everything with Miss Tyson, everything. I forget which episode it was, and I think it was maybe “Kill Me, Kill Me,” where I’m on the phone and I’m lying. I’m leaving a message for my husband, knowing that he’s already dead so I’m lying, but at the same time it is something that’s very honest to me. I think that there is a lot of complexity to that. There is a lot of complexity because it’s a fine line between the truth and her absolutely manipulating and lying.