It’s become an infamous TV moment: Two-time Oscar nominee Viola Davis removed her wig and wiped away her make-up as Annalise Keating on ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder, and the show took on a whole new edge. That scene was something Davis insisted upon, saying, “I don’t know how to work if I don’t have input and I think (creator) Pete Nowalk has been great in understanding the power of collaboration, that’s it’s not taking away from his power, but just adding to it.” So far, Davis has won SAG and Critics’ Choice awards and a Globe for the role. Now, with another Emmy nom to her name, the hotly awaited film Suicide Squad coming up, and currently filming a new season of HTGAWM, Davis is at the top of her game playing Keating, a role she says she waited “27 years” for.
You’re on your way to set– how’s Season 2 of HTGAWM going?
We’re in our third episode. One thing I can share with you is it starts off with a bang. A lot of the mysteries will be solved and answered, and then absolutely a new one will be presented. It’s just so complicated and fascinating, and that happens in the first episode. Then you’re going to get a lot more insight into the past of every character. And so, you can understand why these people have been put together in some kind of weird cosmic way, because I’m a person that actually believes that people find each other, like minds find each other.
What’s happening with Suicide Squad–have you wrapped yet?
I have one more day, which I’m flying out for this weekend. I’ve been working on the film since April 1st. It sounds like a lot, but I haven’t been working every day. I haven’t done a lot of comic book movies, actually I’ve done none! DC Comics have a tendency to have darker characters. You know, Batman is a darker character, Harley Quinn, the Joker, and what David Ayer has managed to do is humanize them. I think that you see it in the trailer too–just something different about it that makes you lean in. What he’s explored is the pathology behind all of these characters, so you just get that extra spin that gives you the flavor and a look which is very different. And at the same time you get all the stuff that you’ve gotten before, which is the action, the special effects, the great makeup. I’m blown away by the movie. Once I saw the trailer, I was like, “Oh, my God. He really is a magician.” I mean, I had no idea. So, it’s been a real pleasure working on it with David Ayer.
You’ve talked about having some creative input into your HTGAWM role, notably the wig scene–when else have you pushed for something?
In several episodes. It’s understanding that if you present a character that is sexually messy, but is emotionally unavailable then you have to explore the why. And that’s why I came up with the contentious relationship with her mom. With sexual abuse in her past and the secrecy over the course of generations of sexual abuse, that trauma can be the explanation behind Annalise’s pathology. I continue to have that input and even this season, now, I feel like my brain and my creativity has been unlocked with a number of things. There are things that I can’t tell you of course about this season, but I continue to email Pete, to talk to Pete. He comes down to set all the time. We sit down in the corner. We talk about just how to continually make Annalise three-dimensional. He and I are constantly coming up with things. And his mind is absolutely very dramatic. That’s how I’m going to describe Pete Nowalk’s mind–it’s very dramatic and bold.
Shonda Rhimes has said she’s “normalizing TV” with diversity. This show has two African American actresses nominated – how do you feel about TV as one of our most powerful diversity platforms?
My dark skin might damage how I look, has been the cause of people limiting their imagination when they write for me. It just limits it. They put me in a box that is so specific, but has nothing to do with women who look like me in life. It has stopped them, literally stopped them. And how I interpret normalizing diversity, it’s to show people the full spectrum of humanity who we are, our sexuality, our pathology, is like anyone else’s. I am just as sexual, I am just as much of a woman, I dream as much as anyone else. I am as complicated and messy as anyone else in this body. I became a professional actor when I was 23. I’m now 50 years old. I have waited 27 years for a role like Annalise. For someone to have an imagination to just write, not to just write color, not to write age, not to write sex, to just write. I think that is what is catapulting television into the 21st century, because I don’t think it’s happened in the past. There is nothing about Annalise that you can define as just black. Lots of things will happen even in the coming season that I guarantee you, you can search your memory, you could sit down and you can never find anyone who looks like me on TV or even on screen. If it looks like me it’s being written like this, it just hasn’t happened. I feel like it makes Shonda and Pete Nowalk progressive in that way. They’re introducing you to characters in a narrative that reflects life, but doesn’t reflect television.
You asked for Cicely Tyson to play Annalise’s mom–why was she so perfect?
Because me and Ms. Tyson have the same work ethic, in terms of, we will get at the truth and we will sacrifice our vanity in it. We will do whatever it takes to get at the heart of the scene. And I kind of feel like we favor each other in terms of skin tone, and I feel like her age is perfect. I didn’t want them to cast a black woman who was 60 to play my mom and I’m 50. I felt like she was age appropriate, I felt like she was talent appropriate and also it’s an emotional thing because I always say that I grew up in very challenging circumstances. Every once in a while I will have a nightmare about one of the apartments we grew up in. But I always say, that even in the midst of that poverty and all of that, that that was the time that I saw The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman. And so, I saw Ms. Tyson for the first time in that apartment on 128th and Washington Street in Central Falls, Rhode Island, and that’s when I decided that I wanted to be an actress. That was the moment. You can’t always pick a moment that you decided to dream big and that you decided this is what I want to do with my life. But I can pinpoint that moment to exactly when I saw her, so, I felt like it was apropos for her to then play my mother. I just felt like it was in perfect alignment.
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