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.