Tom Verica signed on to play Viola Davis’s soon-to-be-late husband on How to Get Away With Murder knowing that his character was, quite literally, a dead man walking. This is not a spoiler: Since the show’s pilot, viewers have also known, thanks to a series of flash-forwards, that Verica’s Sam Keating would end up dead a few months in the future. Now that the Pete Nowalk–created and Shonda Rhimes–produced Murder has exploded in the ratings — it’s currently broadcast TV’s No. 1 drama among viewers under 50 — one might expect Verica to be bummed about Sam’s expiration date. But the actor, perhaps best known for his work on NBC’s early-2000s drama American Dreams, is actually quite sanguine about the situation. That’s because Murder is a secondary gig for him. His full-time job: in-house director and producer on ShondaLand stablemate Scandal, where he’s been helping guide Olivia Pope and her gladiators since season one. In advance of next week’s fall finale, in which we (may) finally find out who killed Sam, Vulture rang up Verica to discuss working with Davis, juggling two sets, and his time on a legendary legal drama of another era: L.A. Law.
So we in the audience won’t know who killed Sam until next week, but you obviously already do. Were you surprised when you found out who murdered you?
I have to say I was. I can’t risk saying anything more. But I was impressed with how it came to that point. And looking back, I can say it was well designed on [the writers’] part. It’s very clever.
Did knowing Sam was doomed alter how you play the character?
It doesn’t impact my acting. But it does — I was going to say it takes away the guessing game, but it really doesn’t. I know A and Z, but how we get there was truly a mystery with every script that I read. We know certain elements about the night it happened, and we’ve seen certain flashes. But you’re still trying to fill in the blanks. Up until the table read for [episode] nine, I [didn't] really know who [the murderer was]. I was going around to every character going, "Did you kill me?" "Did you kill me?" But none of the actors knew! They withheld that from us.
Your main job was, and is, serving as a director/producer on Scandal. How did you end up back in front of the camera?
Last spring, as they were prepping the pilot for How to Get Away With Murder, I was prepping the finale for Scandal. The casting director called me up to feel me out and let me know what [the part] was. I hadn’t read the script, but I said, "Look, if it’s to play Viola Davis’s husband, I’d be very attracted to that." But I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it because of [the Scandal finale]. The next thing I know, a couple hours later, Shonda comes into my office and says, "I want you to play this part. I have you in mind for it, and if we can make it work, I’d like you do it." And when your boss asks you to do something, you kind of have to do it. It was a scheduling nightmare, but to get to flex my acting muscles opposite Ms. Davis? I didn’t see many downsides to it.
It also probably made it easier to commit since your character dies in the pilot.
There was a bit of a relief because I [would not have to] give up the reigns of my Scandal position. So I knew there was an endgame. Pete told me originally there’d be some flashbacks, a couple episodes, coming back around to the murder mystery. Now here we are, nine episodes into it, and I’ve been in every episode. I don’t know if he anticipated that, or if I anticipated that, but it’s been a blast and I’ve enjoyed it.
You mentioned before that the chance to work with Viola Davis was a key reason to take the role on Murder. What’s it been like so far?
It was a bit intimidating initially. She’s such a powerhouse. She has so much strength in her performance. It’s kind of like a tennis partner — you want to stay up with her, and as she’s giving it to you, you want to hit it back. As soon as you get into a scene, you strip away that outside knowledge and experience of who an actor is and what they’ve done before … you have to be present in that moment. Who she is and what’s she’s done has to go out the window. You have to commit to this relationship and who she is with me in that moment. But I’m so impressed and blown away with how dialed in she is to the character. She just elevates everything. I don’t think there’s any other character like hers on television.
I was looking back over your acting credits, and I’d totally forgotten that you were on a blockbuster legal show from another era — L.A. Law.
It was actually what brought me out to Los Angeles from New York. It was quite intimidating to jump into that because it was a juggernaut at the time. I came in toward the end of season five, when Jimmy Smits and Harry Hamlin were leaving and they were looking for some fresh blood. Not too big of shoes to fill! Most of my work had been in theater, and I was jumping not just into television but L.A. Law, which had all these megastars in it. I remember the first scene I shot was in the conference room …
The McKenzie Brackman conference room! That’s like being in the bar at Cheers or the operating room on M*A*S*H.
That’s it. I was 26, and here I am, sitting at the table with these people. I had watched the show, and it was completely surreal to see these characters. It felt a little bit like a Charlie Kaufman film, where suddenly I had just dropped into this world and I’m around the table and one of their colleagues.
When did you decide to expand into directing?
I’ve been an actor for 30 years, and that has never waned or gone away. It’s the foundation of how I came into this industry. But I hit a point around 2000 where something switched in me. Having spent a lot of time on sets, I was really interested in the overall storytelling aspect of shows and projects. I’m a horrible writer, so I knew I couldn’t do that. But I was really drawn to the visual style of things, why something was shot a certain way. Right before American Dreams, I started to pursue these avenues, like short films and getting into a couple night courses to really study photography and cinematography, and the language of visual storytelling. I immersed myself into that and started the journey toward directing. I was fortunate to have some people let me tag along and observe.
Who were those mentors?
In the industry, there were two pivotal ones: David Semel (Madam Secretary) and Bill D’Elia, who’s the producer/director on How to Get Away With Murder. Semel I met during American Dreams, and he’s the one who really gave me my first crack at directing television. He really taught me the ropes and showed me the way in terms of television. And then right after American Dreams, I was fortunate enough to [be cast in] two films back-to-back: One was directed by Clint Eastwood [Flags of our Fathers], and the other by David Fincher [Zodiac]. I went from one to the other, and I stole it as a master class to see these guys work.
How did you end up in Shondaland?
I started directing on Grey’s. The very first episode I directed of Grey’s, I sort of went outside the box of what they normally did with some of the shots. I did things a little outside the norm for them, and Shonda and [producing partner] Betsy Beers latched on to that. They invited me back, and I did a number of episodes of Grey’s, and then Private Practice. And then with Scandal, they had seven episodes the first season, and I was asked to direct the sixth episode. It was titled “The Trail,” and it was the origin story for Fitz and Liv and their relationship. It was such a great script, and it defined what they wanted for the show, and after that, they asked me to come back the next season to come on as producer/director. That’s when I pledged my oath full-time to the Shonda camp.
How do Shonda and her producers, like Pete Nowalk, work with directors? Are they hands-on in guiding them?
There’s a shorthand where you see what’s on the page and you get their aesthetic. Oftentimes we’ll be sitting in tone meetings, and I will know just from how Shonda explains something what she’s looking for. We just get each other. I understand what she wants, storytelling-wise, and my execution of it — I guess she approves of what I’m doing.
As much attention, rightly, gets focused on the way Shonda’s shows are written, Scandal and now Murder have not been afraid to take some chances visually. That’s no doubt by design.
Audiences have become so much more sophisticated, and they’re looking for different eyes and different ways to tell a story. And Scandal certainly gives us the freedom to take those chances. Shonda has been a tremendous supporter in that. We’ve got a director of photography who’s fantastic, Oliver Bokelberg. He comes from the indie world and did The Station Agent and The Visitor. We’re constantly checking each other and making sure we don’t get too safe or too secure. We push each other’s buttons and try to find different ways to stay away from the safe and the conventional, and push the envelope whenever we can. The network hasn’t had any problem with it [because] they let [Shonda] do what she wants. She’s given us free reign, and we’ve taken that and run with it.
Is it at all a challenge doing acting and directing work simultaneously, and on two different shows?
It’s actually very freeing. I enjoy not having, for a brief moment, any of those responsibilities that [come with] directing and producing. I’m happy with just memorizing my lines and hitting my mark.
We’re coming up to a point on How to Get Away With Murder in which the flash-forwards will catch up to the present day, and Sam will be dead in both timelines. Does that necessarily mean, however, that we won’t see you on the show in some way?
I’m actually hearing potential of me doing more via flashbacks. I don’t know for how long, but I’m enjoying it for as long as I’m asked to be a part of it.
Is there a central rule, or a mantra, for working in ShondaLand?
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.”