When Viola Davis was cast last year to headline ABC’s latest Shonda Rhimes-produced drama, “How to Get Away With Murder,” she was clear about her motivations in taking the role: Davis wanted to finally be the show. And as mysterious law professor and defense attorney Annalise Keating in the thriller from Peter Norwalk, she is most definitely that.
An Oscar nominee for her supporting film work in 2008’s “Doubt” and 2011’s “The Help,” Davis made the leap back to TV as part of the alphabet network’s TGIT (Thank God it’s Thursday) block alongside other dramas under Rhimes’ Shondaland productions, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.” (Davis previously costarred in the short-lived CBS drama “Century City.)
“How to Get Away With Murder,” which returns Thursday, Sept. 24 with its second season, opened big to 14.3 million viewers last September and averaged nearly 9 million viewers for the season.
We spoke to Davis about being part of the TGIT fold and not being concerned with likability.
[Editor’s Note: This interview took place before Davis’ Emmy win this past Sunday.]
With one season behind you, how would you describe being part of Shondaland?
Viola Davis: I feel at home in Shondaland. I feel a lot of things at Shondaland, but one of the things I feel that I haven’t felt before is at home. I feel accepted for who I am and acknowledged for who I am. I feel like my ideas are embraced. And before I never quite felt like that. I’ve always felt like I was an actor for hire. And almost apologetic for being a woman of color, trying to stifle that voice. But I don’t feel that way in Shondaland. I feel like I am accepted into a world where I’m a part of the narrative — I’m a part of it.
When we spoke ahead of the first-season launch, you said you were so excited by the opportunity to headline a show. But you were also terrified by it. Has that changed — the terrified part?
I still feel terrified. I always feel terrified whenever I put my work out there to be seen, to be scrutinized. I think it’s a very vulnerable thing that we are asked to do. But I will say that I feel a bit more confident now that the first season is under our belt. A bit more confident to just go for it. Turning 50 helped, you know, to just not be so afraid of failure that it stops you from taking risks. That’s how I feel now. Still afraid, but definitely more confident in that fear — if that makes sense?
Given all that, what does this Emmy nomination mean to you? And how are you feeling leading up to Emmy Sunday?
A: I feel better than I thought I’d feel. Awards absolutely threw me into a nervous frenzy. I don’t know why. It just feels like a mixed bag of feelings … . The thing is, you’re under a microscope and people interpret everything. They interpret your facial reactions, they interpret what other people are saying about you coming into it. They put that on you. They put a lot of things on you. At the end of the day, I mean, we really love competition in this country. We really love awards. We really love people being considered the best of anything. When really, at the end of the day, in our profession, it means everything and nothing. As of Monday morning, everyone has to go back to work, win or lose.
You made history with your nomination — along with Taraji P. Henson. It’s the first time two African-American women have been nominated the same year for lead actress in a drama series. And if either of you win, it will be the first time an African-American woman takes home the Emmy in that top category. Is it hard to be proud of such achievements, given what it says about where we’re still at in 2015?
No, and here’s why: I think you can be proud of your achievement and also be acutely aware as to how far we still have to go. The thing is, the level of your opportunity cannot be seen as the same as your talent. I think the reason why a lot of actresses of color have not been recognized in that category is because we haven’t had the opportunity to have lead roles. It’s not that we don’t have the talent. There’s a huge talent pool out there, but, one, no one is writing those roles for TV. At best, you’re No. 2 or No. 3. You’re always authoritative or whatever — there’s a certain kind of characteristic that is seen in narratives when black women are concerned. I’m always hoping this is just not a fluke — that this becomes the new norm: That it’s no longer a big deal to see a woman of color in a lead role that doesn’t necessarily scream “black actress.” That we no longer need think pieces about what it means when those shows find a mainstream audience. I continue to root for all women, of course. I always feel, too, the responsibility, even when I play Annalise Keating — you do have to teach people how to see you.
Talk more about that — the pigeonhole problem.
I’m constantly challenging Pete Nowalk — and I think he’s a terrific person to collaborate with — but I’m always challenging the boundaries to where we can take Annalise in “How to Get Away With Murder.” The boundaries of sexuality, the boundaries of just pathology. To keep her a beautiful mess, just a beautiful mess. To challenge what people perceived women of color to be in the past. Women of a certain hue too, because you can’t compare me to Taraji or Gabrielle Union or any of them. I’m a dark-skinned 50-year-old woman. So let’s challenge her sexuality. Let’s challenge what she would say, what she would do, how she might relate to the other characters. Let’s do something completely off the walls but still rooted and grounded in some sort of reality. Let’s just go for it.
Pete Nowalk speaks with Variety about his hit series How to Get Away with Murder and includes about working with Viola.
Pete Nowalk had a whirlwind TV season last year as the creator of Shondaland’s mega-hit “How To Get Away With Murder.”
Just as the second season of the twisty Viola Davis legal thriller is about to begin, Nowalk — one of Variety‘s 2015 Showrunners Impact Report honorees — looks back at Season 1, offering up his favorite moments, including tears from Davis and dance moves from Matt McGorry (who plays law student Asher).
Here, showrunner Nowalk talks to Variety about his best memories from “How To Get Away With Murder’s” big breakout season:
Best note: “When I originally pitched the show to ABC Studios, they encouraged me to go darker with Annalise (Viola Davis) to make her more of an anti-hero, which surprised me. With network TV, you’re always afraid to get the likable note, but they gave me the exact opposite. I could be more unhinged with the darker side of Annalise, which is the most fun part of the show for me to write.”
Worst note: Nothing that scarred me. I’m so spoiled because Shonda (Rhimes) and Betsy (Beers, pictured) guard me from the bad notes. I think they protect me!
Favorite writers’ room moment: We have real lawyers come and talk to us — defense attorneys and prosecutors — and this one prosecutor told us how to reenact the best way to get away with murder. He made me stand up and he reenacted pushing me off of a cliff. Creepy because you don’t really want to find out the best way to get away with murder and you definitely don’t want it to be reenacted on you, but it actually gave us this idea to do a reenactment of a murder with Steven Weber in episode two of Season 1. So that was fun just because it was so much like the show, and it was so creepy.
Proudest moment during Season 1: I was happy we won the GLAAD award because there are so many good shows on right now that have so many great gay characters, which is so new, but I was proud because Connor (Jack Falahee) is a bad person sometimes. He does bad things. So I was just happy it showed that we didn’t have to write a gay character to be perfect and be a role model. He actually does things opposite of a role model — like murder, having a lot of anonymous sex and cheating on his boyfriend. That just felt very liberating and progressive to me and surprising. I never expected we’d win those awards because they’re bad people. But as a writer, it was very liberating.
Scene that made you laugh: Matt McGorry dancing is the thing that cracked me up the most. He’s just like humping and the couch and he just improvised all that stuff and went to town. It was way better than I could have ever expected. It’s necessary. People need that comic relief.
Scene that made you cry: That’s the scene between Cicely Tyson and Viola Davis where Cicely Tyson is revealing that she actually burned down the house and killed the uncle that had sexually abused Annalise. Viola doesn’t say a word in that, but so much of it played on her face, but the first time I saw that, I sobbed.
“How To Get Away With Murder” Season 2 premieres Thursday, Sept. 24 at 10 p.m. on ABC.
Viola Davis is not letting go of her Emmy — which she won Sunday for her starring role in ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder — anytime soon: The Oscar-nominated actress (and her Emmy) appeared on Ellen following her win to talk about sleeping with the pointy award, making history, and her husband’s initial reaction to her speech.
Davis kicked off her acceptance speech with a quote from Harriet Tubman, one she loved and thought was “so progressive.” “And my husband said afterwards, ‘V, I didn’t know where you were going with that! I really didn’t!’” Davis said, laughing. “When you were saying those white women with their arms stretched out over the line, I was like ‘What is she doing?’ But he said, ‘When you said Harriet Tubman said it, I was like, ‘Oh my God, thank God.’”
DeGeneres, for her part, initially thought Davis was “drunk maybe” — and Davis admitted to drinking prosecco before the show as she was getting ready. “This past time, I drank while I was getting ready, while my daughter was jumping on my lap,” Davis said, referring to her 5-year-old daughter. “I just guzzled the glass.”
Watch both parts of the interview below to hear more about Davis’ daughter — who told her mom she would still be her “favorite girl” even if she lost — and what it was like winning her first Emmy.
Viola’s co-stars Aja Naomi King, Alfred Enoch and Karla Souza did an interview this week with Access Hollywood and spoke about Viola’s Emmys win and the new season of How to Get Away with Murder.
Here is a video clip of Viola’s beautiful acceptance speech at the Emmy Awards.
In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line. That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there,”
People.com shares how excited she was when anyone congratulated her on her win!
Sunday was a big night for Viola Davis.
The 50-year-old made history at Sunday’s 67th Emmy Awards by becoming the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a drama series. But amid the barrage of praises and well-wishes following her historic win, kudos from a certain newly-single actor seemed to stand out from the rest.
“Jon Hamm!” Davis told PEOPLE in the Emmys press room about the Mad Men star congratulating her after her win. “He’s pretty handsome.”
She said that her husband congratulated her too, before adding, “I’m excited when anyone congratulates me.”
“You guys have to realize, I’ve been in this business 35 years, and 27 years professionally … I’m just excited to be part of the conversation. I’ve seen the unemployment line a lot, man.”
Now, to celebrate, Davis said she has two things on her mind: calling her daughter and eating.
“Bread. Desert,” she told reporters before adding: “You know, if you eat bread in Hollywood you’re subversive.”
The actress won the Emmy for her portrayal of Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder. She delivered an emotional acceptance speech, highlighting the struggles black actresses face. She thanked other actresses of color including Kerry Washington, Halle Berry, Gabrielle Union, Meagan Good and Taraji P. Henson, who was nominated for the same award.
But The Help actress had more to say about Henson off the stage:
“Taraji P. Henson, and it’s very, very, very rare to find this in the business. She is the most supportive actress you can possibly imagine, supportive in ways you can’t even begin to understand, and is genuine.
“I’ve been in this business close to 30 years, and I would put her at the top of this list in terms of support,” Davis continued. “We just whispered to each other, whoever gets it, it’s great, it’s wonderful and I love you.”
A giant congratulations to Viola! She is the first African American winner for the Emmy in the Leading Actress category! So proud of her and so happy she is recognized for her role as Annalise Keaton on How to Get Away with Murder.
Here are some images from her big night!
Viola Davis Online > September 20 | Emmy Awards – Audience
Viola Davis Online > September 20 | Emmy Awards – Ceremony
Viola Davis Online > September 20 | Emmy Awards – Backstage
Viola Davis Online > September 20 | Emmy Awards – Press Room
Viola Davis Online > September 20 | Emmy Awards – HBO Party