Pete Nowalk on Creating How to Get Away With Murder, Growing Up in ShondaLand, and Portraying Gay Sex on Network TV

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Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

In our recent interview with Tom Verica, who appears on How to Get Away With Murder, the latest addition to ABC's ShondaLand block, and has also directed many episodes of Scandal, Verica describes Shonda Rhimes's overarching message to her staff as the following: "We have a phrase — it doesn’t come from Shonda per se, but I know it’s a philosophy she has: 'Don’t be boring.'" Pete Nowalk, creator of HTGAWM, has surely internalized that, as his show is one of this fall's genuine smash hits. John Horn, host of Southern California Public Radio's new daily arts and entertainment show, The Frame, talked to Nowalk about his show and what it was like to come up through the ranks of Shonda Rhimes's empire. (Listen to part of Horn and Nowalk's interview below, and subscribe to The Frame at iTunes or Stitcher.)

You co-wrote a book called The Hollywood Assistant’s Handbook: 86 Rules For Aspiring Power Players. You are a power player yourself.
That is so embarrassing.

In the introduction to the book, you wrote that “In order to make it in the entertainment business, you have to start from the bottom up.” What was the bottom like for you?
Oh, the bottom was rough. I moved out here knowing one or two other people, and my first job was that cliché working in the mailroom thing where my job was to dub videos. The fact that there was still VHS tells you how long ago it was. I had to basically sit in a little closet with about 20 VCRs and press record on actor demos and screeners and all that stuff for about three months. It was an eye-opening [introduction] to Hollywood.

Do you remember any of those people? Did they go on to have great stardom? Were you watching Benedict Cumberbatch at age 12?
Oh my God, I wish. No. The only thing I do remember is we also had to deliver scripts. After work, we would have to drive scripts around because they did not email them then. All over town. So, one time I locked my keys in the car, left the car running, and had to go into one of the actors’ houses and use their phone because I didn’t have a cell phone. I’m old is basically the point. So, it was rough, but also very educational.

I want to ask you about one of your first jobs in television in 2008, where you worked as a story editor on Grey’s Anatomy. Do I have that right?
That is sort of right. I actually got my first job on Private Practice, when they spun off Kate Walsh’s character. So when that show started, I had never been in a writer’s room; Betsy Beers and Shonda Rhimes were very nice to read a script of mine and hire me on that. And I worked there for a few months, and then Grey’s Anatomy was short on writers, so I got moved. Then we went on strike about a month later. So I had a very tumultuous first year, which probably saved me because it’s so intimidating to be in the writers’ room, and I’d never been a writer’s assistant or anything like that, so it was all very new to me. I got culture shock. I went into one writers’ room and then another writers’ room. And they’re all so different. And then the strike, good or bad, allowed me to take a breather and to absorb all these things I’d learned and sort of gain my confidence, because in a writers’ room, you just want to feel confident in your gut and be able to speak it. And to be able to pitch well is just to have confidence in your pitches.

You mentioned Betsy Beers, who is Shonda Rhimes’s partner. How important was working with Shonda and Betsy in your evolution as a writer, and what were the lessons you took away from them?
They are pivotal to my growth as a writer. I had never had a writing job. Just that book.

That’s a writing job. You wrote a book.
Yes, [but] I feel like I grew up in ShondaLand University, if you want to call it that. The best thing they did for me was encourage me and give me confidence. For someone as successful as the both of them to say, "You know what? You are good at this and you can do this," that helps a lot when you’re very insecure writing your first script, and when you turn in your first script and they’re like, "Oh, we need to rewrite this page one," which happens all the time, and it happened to me. So, all the writers out there, don’t beat yourself up too much because you get rewritten. It’s a learning experience.

And how important is it in Shonda’s view of the world that the writer, the creator, has a very strong authorial voice in the creation of the show and yet is also working in collaboration with other writers? Can you talk a little about what that particular part of her process is like?
What I’ve learned from Shonda is to trust your gut and to really stick to that, even if the nine other writers around you are saying, "We don’t know if we get that," or "We don’t understand that." It’s very important that you listen to those people and take the spirit of their note, even if you don’t agree. But she has always been so confident in her vision and willing to put herself out there and to take a risk with story lines that might seem to other people just not right. But they’re right in her head, so she does them, and it’s really paid off. She’s taken these huge risks in all of her shows, and she’s reinvented TV because of that.

So, I have tried to mimic that just in my few months doing this. This is a brand-new job for me, where I’m the authorial voice, as you call it, which makes me sound much more important than I am. So I’ve tried to just keep my blinders on and, my first instinct, I still like that the best, and I'm going to do it. It’s really the only way that you can keep this machine going because it just moves so fast. Every two weeks, you’re writing a new episode and filming a new episode. So, you just got to move forward and do your stories the way that you [planned] them. And if they turn out a little wrong or not exactly as you pictured them, you can adjust along the way.

When you first started pitching How to Get Away With Murder, did people say, “Well, there’s Law & Order, there’s Boston Legal, The Practice, Damages, there’s The Good Wife.” Did they say there are a lot of law shows out there, and what was your response to that?
Shockingly, no one did tell me that. I felt that there was a lack of the legal thrillers that I would watch in the '80s and '90s. I loved Presumed Innocent and Jagged Edge, with those crazy twists and those forbidden romances. And the frothy, fun legal thrillers that they just don’t make in the movies much anymore. So, my take was I wanted to do a show that took advantage of that and re-created those movies I used to love growing up.

Was the pitch of the show what the show became?
It was almost exactly what it became. It started with the four students screaming at each other in the woods, and it came together pretty quickly after that. We did not have Viola Davis playing the part when I was pitching it, which makes all the difference. Her performance adds so many layers to Annalise and just deepens the entire show.

How did you get her in the part, and did you imagine it as a black woman when you wrote it?
I didn’t imagine it as a black woman. I don’t imagine any of my characters as any ethnicity. I think that’s something that Shonda has always done, but I did that before I started working with her. I never wrote race or descriptors like “blonde” into my characters because you audition actors and they surprise you in so many ways. So, Annaliese was not black, nor white, nor Asian, nor anything. I just knew we needed a very talented actress, and the way we got her was pure luck and a lot of prayer. The minute her name came up, it was like, well, she’ll never do TV. And I, as a first-time person making a pilot, wasn’t going to be like, But my script’s is really good! This Oscar-nominated actress would probably want to do it. I’d sound really arrogant and naïve. Deep down, you want to believe that someone will see the possibilities in your script. When Viola finally got the script, we waited on pins and needles for her to read it. Then we talked to her on the phone, and she had so much insight already into the character, and because she’s such an intelligent and emotional actress herself, she was able to already pitch things that added so much to the character.

From the beginning she said she would love to see Annalise in private moments, where you see the mask come off. She loved the idea that she was wearing this mask and was a very formidable and intimidating woman, but she wanted to also see the other side of her. She had pitched the idea: Every black woman, before they go to bed, takes off their hair or deals with their hair in some way. And she really wanted to see that, and I, as a white man, did not have any experience or personal knowledge of that. But instantly, when I heard it, I was like, that’s such a cool, interesting moment, and it was just about finding the right [time] to do it on the show.

You say that you didn’t write that character specifically as black, and yet clearly, you’re writing characters in terms of having diverse sexual orientation. Was that something that was very important to you from the beginning?
Definitely. The character of Connor was described as gay in the pitch. But when you read the script, it wasn’t “Connor, 28, gay.” It was, “28, sophisticated, sexy, smart.” And so, then you can write the discovery of his gayness into the script as the audience discovered it. [Connor] happens to be gay, is what I like to say, but there are many interesting things about him. [There] was an instinct to have a gay, young male character on the show. One, I don’t think there’s that many of them out there on network. But even on TV in general. And this whole show is based on the fact that these students are all so different from one another. So, of course one of them’s going to be gay. I definitely wanted to write a diverse cast, and that just happened that Connor was our gay character, and maybe there’ll be more in the future. He’s just one character. He doesn’t represent all gay people. I’m a gay man. He definitely is not similar to me at all. What makes it very fun to write him is that he’s so different and bold and out there. But he’s not perfect, and none of these characters are perfect. In fact, they’re screaming about a dead body in the woods. So I just want people to remember that so they don't put too much expectation on any one character.

But as a character, he’s bold and out there in the way that you’re showing him in his sexual life, which, for a heterosexual character, nobody would notice. Was the network at all concerned about that?
No, the network was not concerned about it at all. Shonda and I have talked a lot about this question because we’re getting it a lot in a way that surprises me. I have grown up writing a lot of sex into ShondaLand shows. It’s just part of what the characters in a ShondaLand show do. And, like we all do in life, people have sex. So to write another character having sex wasn’t a big deal to me. I think it’s just the fact that people are saying, “Oh, it’s two men that are having sex,” just like we’ve seen and just like I’ve written scenes of a man and a woman having sex. It’s the same thing to me. So I just don’t want people to marginalize that part of the show or make too big a deal about it. It’s not a big deal. It’s part of life, and if people want to call it progressive, that’s fine. It worries me a little because it puts a lot of expectation on the show and the character, and it wasn’t meant to be progressive. It’s just literally we’re writing what we’ve always written in these shows.

From your book, I'm curious about Rule No. 54, which is “Fake it 'til you make it.” Have you made it, or are you still faking it?
I’m still faking it. Anyone who tells you they’ve made it, I want whatever confidence pill they’re taking. I think that's a general rule for life. I think it’s actually a very interesting theme in the show. That they’re all, and we all, as people, wear masks and fake it.