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Viola Davis on the Importance of Being Annalise Keating and Why She’ll Do Anything If She Can Fail Greatly

Viola Davis acknowledges that How to Get Away With Murder isn’t a perfect show. But it’s doing a lot of things right. “The fact that they cast a woman who’s dark-skinned and 50, who’s my size, my everything,” she points out, for one. “[Can] you name an example of anything like that on network television?” Davis recently sat down with The Vulture TV Podcast to discuss the importance of Annalise Keating, the role that’s still on her bucket list, which trope she’d like to send to the TV graveyard, and why young people are so damn entitled. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation, which you can listen to in full here.

Your character on How to Get Away With Murder, Annalise Keating, is unlike any character I’ve ever seen. Was the Annalise we see today on the page when you got your first script?
It was the beginnings of that, [but] you never know how it’s going to be developed, you just see the pilot script. I did [know] there were going to be as many sex scenes. I saw the beginnings of someone who probably would be a no-holds-barred type of character.

Did you imagine any childhood or upbringing for her?
Absolutely. I envisioned everything. Usually, I write a whole biography that lasts for dozens of pages. But I think I stopped at maybe 30 pages for her because I realized I was writing everything, and then they changed her name — it was Annalise DeWitt, they changed it to Annalise Keating. I had all kinds of things, I had brothers, and this and that, and then I realized none of those things were true. I was married to certain things and I had to let [them] go. I had to understand that TV is a very different process.

What kinds of things have you held on to that you envisioned early on?
One of the things I held on to is, the reason why I feel a lot of women get hard is because of hurt. So I had to envision a past for her, which I can’t tell you, because it could spoil — see, you almost got sneaky there! [Laughs.]

I was trying real hard!
I was going right along with you. But I’ve been at it for 30 years, professionally, and one of the things I’ve learned is to leave yourself alone. When you think about what you’re going to do too much, it loses its spontaneity. There is no way you could tell me exactly what you’re going to say when you walk out of this door and go back to your life. Your kid, your wife, whoever, your spouse will get angry with you, maybe it will spark some kind of pain, and the vomit will come out, which is your pain. You don’t know what you’re going to say. So there’s a certain amount of leaving yourself alone and not planning it that is really the sweet spot in acting, and that’s exactly how I have to operate in television.

Is it physically exhausting playing some of those scenes?
Absolutely, and there’s a lot of that in the coming episodes. It was very physically challenging because it’s very emotional.

Is there a point where you’re like, “I wish we would just do a musical episode and let loose” because on the show you are so tense? Is there any time where it’s like, “Let’s have a little more fun”?
It’s like when Sam came back, and we just had a couple scenes where he was rubbing my belly. I was like, “This feels pretty good.” [Laughs.]

Recently we’ve been seeing Annalise in these flashback scenes, and it’s interesting to get a little bit of her past. Do you imagine that she had a point in her life where she was a more idealistic lawyer?
Absolutely, and you’re going to see that. Way more idealistic in terms of really helping people, really being great at what she does, really being more grassroots, really being more of a teacher. You have to believe when someone is that hard-core that something happened to flip the switch. And that’s what [creator] Pete [Nowalk] is going to explore in these coming episodes, and that’s why you’re going to keep getting more of those glimpses and exploration into the past. It’s the only way to get it. If you keep dealing with the present and going forward, you’re not going to get it as much. There’s got to be a nucleus to it, to her and Sam, that connection, and her and Frank.

What are you conversations like with Pete? He’s noted that you’ve made him a better writer in that your input is really helpful to him.
One of the things I say [about] growing up in poverty is that people don’t have as many filters. When you’re in a neighborhood that’s impoverished, you know who the town drunk is, you know who’s beating their wife. Everything is out in the open. It’s a smaller space that you’re operating in. So it’s ripe ground for you to be an observer. One of the things I always tell Pete is, there are times when people write television based on what you’ve seen before on other TV shows. For instance, she’s a lead character, she’s sexual, it’s got to be someone like Vanessa Williams. She’s got to be someone who has the body, she’s got to be someone who’s desirable. And my experience with that is, says who? That’s not the people in my life. I know women who are black widows who are probably a size 26. And they’ve had lots of men. And they have lots of secrets. I just feel like I’m always, at least in my way, forcing him to take more chances with story lines like that. “Why can’t you do that? What are you going to sacrifice? You’re going to sacrifice an OMG moment? What if it’s an OMG moment that’s a smaller OMG moment? Maybe it’s just something that moves people just a little bit, gives people just a little bit of a glimpse of her pathology.” I’m always just trying to do that. I try to as best as I can with TV.

Talking about those OMG moments, that’s something that network television has really gotten very good at — those kind of shows where more happens in an episode than might have happened in a whole season of a show ten years ago. Do you ever worry the audience will get worn out? That they’re going to run out of ideas?
I absolutely do. It’s not within my control. I’m an actor. I try to do my part to the best of my ability, and I try to influence to the best of my ability. The rest is left up to the powers that be. You are a certain link on the food chain. I remember I saw this show when I was younger, a musical on Broadway, and I loved it. And the reviews came out and they kind of tore it apart. There were some things they really loved about it, but they tore it part. And I thought, Oh my God, were they looking at the same show? I remember someone saying, “Viola, all those things are true that they said in that review.” The bad things are true. But it’s still great. And that’s how I feel about How to Get Away With Murder. I know people say there’s a lot going on or whatever. But what it does right cannot be ignored. Listen. Me being cast as Annalise alone, stop, exclamation point, is OMG. And people just kind of nod their heads and I’m like, “Okay, you name an example of anything like that on network television?” The fact that they cast a woman who’s dark-skinned and 50, who’s my size, my everything, taking off a wig in an episode, doing all of those things. What it does right is worth a whole lot. At least we’re trying to reach a ten. You might fall short, but at least you’re trying to reach a ten — you’re not trying to reach a two and doing a really good two job. So I think they do a lot of things really, really well.

In terms of the broader industry, things have changed a lot in the past few years and now we have you and Kerry Washington and Taraji P. Henson leading your own shows. Do you think that’s indicative of some sort of sea change?
Absolutely. Shonda Rhimes got the PGA Award this past year, and her speech was fantastic. I always feel like most of the revolutionary speeches get ignored because people haven’t caught up to it yet. But one of the things she said was she deserved the award, that’s No. 1, and the other thing she said is, “the reason that I deserve this award is because I ask for what I want. When I walk in a room, I say this is my vision, this is what I want.” And she got it. Most people don’t even do that. They say a closed mouth doesn’t get fed, and I think that’s a lot of times what happens with women. She certainly is a woman of vision, and she was the first person to put Olivia Pope out there. Once again, people can have a lot of criticism, but Olivia Pope is the only black woman on TV since Diahann Carroll.

This has become a big part of the conversation around people prioritizing diversity in TV and film. Is there anyone you think is doing a good job of that? Or who’s been doing it over the years without this pressure from the culture?
Shonda’s been doing that, Lee Daniels has been doing it, BET is definitely doing it with Being Mary Jane, Gabrielle Union, that’s definitely a revolutionary role. I tell people, “Be a part of the change you want to see. Don’t just make diversity a hashtag.” Those are the people I know. And I know there are a lot more people out there who have a vision of what they want to see. My vision, in terms of what I want to see, is I don’t want anyone putting any limitations on me. When I went to Juilliard and I saw the work that was being done at that school, I saw people who were given permission and freedom to make mistakes, to just go out there, to be bold — that’s what I want to be with Annalise. I don’t care if people think it’s messy. I don’t think people even think it’s messy storytelling. The one thing you can admit is it’s brave, and it’s bold, and people are not putting limitations on Annalise in terms of her pathology. [They’re] not saying, “You’ve gotta be likable. We wanna hug you, so can you be warm and fuzzy? Why can’t you be heroic? Why can’t you be a mentor?” Why do I have to be a mentor? Why do I have to be heroic? You say that to James Gandolfini?

One thing I’ve been struck by on the show are your scenes with Wes. My heart stops every time you have an interaction. What’s it like between you as actors?
It’s great. It’s fantastic. My scenes with Liza are great. Frank, I love all my scenes. I’m always surprised afterward when people say, “You have such chemistry.” I’m like, “We do?” I don’t know what chemistry is. I mean, I feel like it’s good and everything. He’s cute. [Laughs.]

His new facial hair has been working for him.
It’s a woman thing, right?

You’ve talked about growing up with shows like Sanford and Son and Good Times, when there was an abundance of black sitcoms, but they also kind of made caricatures of the stars. I’m curious what those shows meant to you as a kid? 
They meant everything because they were people who looked like me who represented the world that I knew, and that’s what art or entertainment does at its best — it tries to include you in it, so I love that. But one thing that made me know I wanted to be an actor is I knew the difference between entertainment and real craft, and I wanted to do the craft. I knew the difference between Esther Rolle and Jimmie J.J. Walker or Isabel Sanford and Jimmie J.J. Walker. I knew the different with Miss Tyson when she came on and did The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. I knew the difference, and there was a difference, and you all know what I’m saying. That we weren’t just caricatures. We weren’t just shucking and jiving or just people who had swagger. They were actors who dared to be different and craft a performance of real palpable human beings. [There was something] different about it that made me lean in and wake up. 

Can you talk about the production company you run with your husband?
JuVee Productions. It’s a play on both of our names. 

And you’re producing a Harriet Tubman biopic …
With Amblin Entertainment, Kirk Ellis is writing that. Tony Kushner’s writing a Barbara Jordan biopic based on the great Texas congresswoman out of Houston. We have Custody coming out. James Lapine directed that with Catalina Sandino Moreno, Ellen Burstyn, my husband’s in that, too. We like working together.

How do you choose these projects?
We’re in our first stages, so it could be anything. I’m interested in crafting a performance that’s different from who I am. I always say I want to do what Meryl Streep does. That’s why I went to school. Barbara Jordan to me is an interesting character. She was a closeted lesbian, she was probably one of the greatest congresswomen to ever serve, and I think that it would be just tremendous to bring her to life. And Harriet Tubman, I mean not only did she free a lot of slaves, she was involved in the women’s suffrage [movement], she was the first women who served in a military raid, she basically started Red Cross. She’s a highly interesting individual, even on a personal level. And I don’t think anyone knows who she is. They just see her as a black woman with a rag on her head. That’s it. That’s all the pictures of her. That’s what she’s reduced to.

I’m not trying to play someone who’s just representative of something that’s very “Kumbaya.” I’m trying to play real human beings.

When young actors of color talk about your career and your success and say, “I wanna do what you do,” what practical advice do you give them?
I try not to give advice anymore because I know people are not listening. No, seriously. But the first thing I want to tell them is it’s a hard balance to do this now. To dream big, but also to be realistic. I think that what young people do is entitlement. I’m sorry, I will say it and I know this is horrible, but I don’t understand people who turn down work who haven’t done anything. You can turn down work if you’re CEO of a company. Meryl Streep can turn down a job. Julia Roberts can turn down a job. Sandra Bullock can turn down a job. You can always turn down a job if it interferes with something morally that’s challenging to you. But I don’t understand actors who want to be Denzel and they haven’t even been out there for a year. They have nothing on their résumé. I don’t get it. I have a 30-year career. This show has come to me after being on Broadway three times. I don’t know how many plays I’ve done regionally. I don’t know how many TV shows and movies I’ve done. I’ve lost track. Work begets work. That’s how producers choose how to hire you. If you have nothing there, they’re like, “Okay, I don’t know who that is.” And I get so many young actors who want to be superstars from the very beginning. They want to get that Oscar straight out of the gate and they want to be on the A-list and that’s it.

You said you’ve been working 30 years before you got this role. Was there ever a point where you were like, “It’s not worth it anymore.”
No, it was always worth it. As long as I was working, it was worth it. If I was doing a play Off Broadway, it was worth it because I was working as an actor. It wasn’t about making it, it wasn’t about celebrity, it was about being an actor. And that’s what’s interesting to me — do you want to be an actor or do you want to be a celebrity? Now, if I were pushing burgers somewhere, then I would have said, “Is it worth it?” But I’ve been working as an actor all of these years. I’ve been actually making a living. I’ve been making as much money as I am now. I was doing what I loved to do, so it was always worth it.

Are there roles now that are on your bucket list still?
I’d do Nora in A Doll’s House on Broadway. Are you kidding me? I would love to do that. It’s a beautiful role. It’s tremendous. Hedda Gabler. Anything that’s tremendous and big and bold. Anything where I can fail greatly I would love to do because here’s the thing, and this is where I show my shortcoming — I’ve always wanted to be great. I’ve always wanted to be really good at what I did. That’s why I love Meryl, that’s why I love Miss Tyson, because they’re really great at what they do. They move people with what they do. I want to do something big. And I could really stink at it, but at least I know I did it, and I’ll be a better actor for it afterward. Other actors know what I mean when I say that. You’re a better actor after you’ve done a really big thing and you’ve screwed it up. But at least it was bold.

Are there big things that you look back at like, “Whoa, that was one I really messed up”?
I played Isabella in Measure for Measure and there were some things I really got right and some things I really screwed up. I’d like a second chance at that. Not a lot of people saw that, thank God. But I came out of it a better actor.

We’ve talked a little bit about this on the podcast — are there any TV tropes that you’d love to see retired?
I can really retire the good-hearted, maternal, strong, I don’t need Buddha, Jesus, black woman. She can go to the graveyard. I’ll pay for the burial. [Laughs.]

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Viola Davis on the Importance of Being Annalise