Last year, Viola Davis made history with her Emmy – she was the first black woman to win for lead actress in a drama. This year, she’s celebrating another Emmy nom, and another season of Shonda Rhimes’ show How To Get Away With Murder. However, she points out that roles like these are still all too rare and that she is working hard as a producer to effect industry change. As she says, “We’re trying to pick a seat at the table and be a part of the solution.”
Davis talked to AwardsLine about the new season of HTGAWM, the freedom of turning 50 and finding lots of fans at the White House.
Looking back, how has last year’s win changed the way you feel about your job and your career?
You now feel there’s an expectation of your work that wasn’t there before, because it’s not just the award, it’s the fact that you made history, you know? So, there’s a level of understanding that your work has got to be on par, which is not such a great thing. I just don’t think that you should have an awareness of what people expect from you when you’re working, because what it does is it limits you, it makes you too self-aware, which is the kryptonite of acting–too much self-awareness as Viola the actor. You have to have an unlimited imagination, an unlimited restraint on your inhibition when you’re working. You have to even dare to fail, even in a scene, whatever it is. You have to dare to make a choice that may be considered unorthodox in a role, but when you’re working as if there are tons of people watching you that’s not necessarily a good thing. But I probably feel, on a smaller level, which I think is growing, is it’s given me more of a freedom to not be so concerned with what people think, because at the same time I got the award, I also turned 50, and with 50 comes a real, real awareness of your life and your mortality. And you know, that’s freeing in and of itself. It definitely is more freeing than an award, turning 50.
With regard to the roles that you’re being offered even now, what do you feel Hollywood could improve upon?
I mean, there’s always room for improvement, and listen, I feel that the one thing that Shondaland does right—and Fox does it right too with Empire—is they are pushing women of color in the lead role. So, they’re leading the narrative, which is a great thing, because I think that what’s happening, or what can happen, when you talk about the room for growth, is that we have an idea of what a leading lady should be. In terms of looks, in terms of how she should be written, in terms of who would root for her, the kind of money that a female-driven narrative would even make at the box office. I mean, that’s the case even with Ghostbusters, which I loved, by the way. But I think the room for growth is to redefine that, so that we’re included in the definition of that.
Even when Caucasian women talk about pay and how we definitely are not paid the way men are paid, it’s just completely, absolutely the truth, and we should [talk about that]. You have people like Robin Wright, Jennifer Lawrence, and Meryl Streep, and just a number of women out there who are equally as talented and equally as important in the narrative, and what they’re paid, should reflect that. I would add to that, that women of color don’t even get paid even half of what Caucasian women are paid. There needs to be an awareness that we’re just there, that our presence is there, that we put in the work. We have Taraji P. Henson, who’s been out there for well over twentysomething years. I’ve been out there for 30 years. You have people like Alfre Woodard who have been out there for 40 years, S. Epatha Merkerson who was on Law & Order, she’s probably been out there for well over 40 years. You know, there are people who’ve been putting in the work. They trained, they studied the classics, they’ve done the theater, you know? But they need to be challenged. They just need to be thought of. That’s really the question for me too. I need to be put to task, and that’s why I started my production company, for exactly that reason, that we’re somehow on the periphery a lot of times. I think television is starting to get it though, you know, because there’s so much volume on TV. But we need to keep it up.
You’ve been producing a Harriet Tubman project with your husband for HBO. What can you say about that right now, or other projects you’re producing?
There are a lot of different projects. We’re working on Harriet Tubman, of course, the Barbara Jordan biopic, of course, American Koko with Diarra Kilpatrick, who I believe is just the next big thing. You can’t compare her to anyone else, because there is no comparison. She’s a race detective, and she goes to different communities, and she deals with sticky racial situations. It’s both hysterically funny and poignant, and satirical, and she is just the new kind of rising comedic star. She’s also the writer of it, and my husband and I, along with Andrew Wang, with our production company, we’re producing that for ABC Digital. We have a great project called Amazon, which will be a movie. That’s a major motion picture loosely based on a true story of an Ashanti tribe of women in Africa who fight colonists–they’re basically female warriors. I guess you’d call it Braveheart meets Mad Max.
We are trying to just serve a set of people that have been under-served, who are seeking their own images on screen and in narratives, but I don’t think it’s exclusive. I think it’s inclusive to do that. We continue to work on a number of different television projects that are too numerous to name.
Can you talk about Murder Season 3? Pete Nowalk has said there will be a new mystery.
Yeah, he’s presenting a new mystery, and it’s going to be presented very quickly in the first episode, which, by the way, we cannot figure out on the set. I mean, last year we could figure it out; we actually did. We got together and figured it out. This year we’re totally stumped. But with that new mystery, he explores the relationships in a much deeper way. And then I guess I’m dealing with the Keating Five, but I’m also dealing with other students in Middleton University. So, there’s going to be a whole different classroom where they’re dealing with pro bono cases. All of it will be solved within the season–a lot of questions will be answered.
What’s some of the best fan feedback you’ve had from this role?
I think the thing I’m always amazed at are the number of lawyers who like the show. I mean, literally, when I went to the White House for the Kennedy Center Honors, I spoke to a lot of the people in Obama’s administration, and they are addicted to the show. These are people who went to law school. They love it, and I think maybe because Annalise represents someone they want to be, with women, but men too. I’m always shocked when men like Annalise, but especially with women, because I think women have a fantasy of stepping outside themselves, stepping into their power in a way that’s completely uninhibited, like Annalise does. I think that’s why we all are secretly attracted to the bad girl a little bit. So, that, for me, has always been my most surprising interaction with fans.
You’ve got Fences coming up. Can you talk about what pulled you to that role, and how it was making that project?
Fences is under the headline of the project of my lifetime. It is the most perfect and undeniably developed narrative that I’ve ever worked on. It was a joy in every way, from the cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, to working with Denzel [Washington] once again as an actor and a director, to working with the same cast—except for a couple roles—that I worked with on Broadway. Here’s the best thing about Fences, and it’s for me what makes it a revolutionary project and a game-changer: from start to finish, you are watching a story unfold, and you are sitting with people of color; just sitting with them. And you’re involved with their life in a brutal way, without giving away any kind of storyline. It’s not about what they did. There’s no magical soundtrack. There’s no one who did something extraordinary that contributed to the culture, and that’s why you’re watching the story, because you’re waiting for information. You’re just watching them live their lives. That is what makes it revolutionary. And along with that, it’s everybody’s story; even though there are people of color, it is everybody’s story. It is, for me, a tremendous achievement for August Wilson, who is the greatest American playwright. He shares the same chair with Arthur Miller, as far as I’m concerned.