Emmys Q&A: Viola Davis Takes Control of Her Character

Pete Nowalk is at the helm of ABC’s Shondaland hit “How to Get Away with Murder,” serving as showrunner, but although he oversees the day-to-day creation of the drama, star Viola Davis lends much of her talents behind the camera, influencing integral storytelling choices.

“This season, we’re taking it to another level. I’m always asking him questions,” Davis says of her working relationship with Nowalk, explaining that her main priority in portraying law Professor Annalise Keating is “to keep her real” — something that she discusses often with the creator and writers.

Nowalk tells Variety that the Emmy-nominated Davis has given him notes and ideas that result in highly influential TV moments, such as the now-infamous scene in which Annalise takes off her wig and makeup, baring her true, damaged self. Revealing a moment that made him cry in the first season, thanks to Davis’ creative touch, Nowalk adds, “There’s the scene between Cicely Tyson and Viola Davis where Cicely Tyson is revealing that she actually burned down the house and killed the uncle that had sexually abused Annalise. Viola never said a word in that but so much of it played on her face.” That very dialogue between mother-and-daughter was Davis’ suggestion.

Davis explains why she wanted to include that scene with Tyson, plus more creative decisions, and her method behind her award-winning work on “HTGAWM.”

Why was it important to you to include an emotional scene between Annalise and her mother (played by Tyson)?
Not to take full credit because you have Pete Nowalk who will take it and run with it, but I felt it was really important for her mother coming in, in an episode. If anyone was a mystery before, when they’re with a family member, you know exactly who they are, even if they don’t say a word. And you especially know who they are when they have a mother who talks a lot because when they talk, they give away a lot of secrets. And I also wanted there to be a conflict between them because I always feel, especially with different generations when there is sexual abuse, it’s generational so it becomes a secret and it’s not acknowledged.

How about the wig scene? Why was it important to you to depict Annalise in that raw moment?
That’s what we do when we’re at home. The first thing we do when we go home is take our heels off. You’re thanking God that no one can see you at home. I felt like all of those elements were very powerful in terms of “womaning-up” — I give that term because I always feel that no matter what, as actresses and as women, we always feel like we have to look pretty even at the expense of what is really going on with our character. I don’t think that there’s a trade-off there. I think that there’s no negotiation as part of that concern. I feel that whenever possible, vanity has got to be the first thing that goes. That’s why those moments are very, very important to me, just as an actor, just to keep my integrity, but also because I think it makes the audience lean in. I think it makes them see themselves.

How do you and Pete collaborate together on storylines?
With Annalise, I think that whenever she walks into a room and whenever she speaks, the quality is that she always wants to be in control. She always wants to be the central focus. Pete is always very interested in keeping those qualities, but what I haven’t seen is the exploration of where those qualities are coming from. With showrunners and executive producers, they may have answers that you don’t have.

Do you know why Annalise is the way she is?
I think because I haven’t done TV in such a long time and certainly not on this level, I made something up. But for me, as an actress, whatever I make up is going to be something rooted in reality. I don’t want her to have any structure.

What is your process for getting into character?
I’ve written a bio, I’ve done all of that work, but I don’t know her. I don’t know Annalise. I’ve been with myself for close to 50 years now and there’s still things I don’t know.

What does the Emmy nom mean to you?
It means a lot because this is not a role I usually play. It’s not that I haven’t played anyone who has that kind of angst and is authoritative, but there are so many adjectives in there that are in Annalise that I haven’t played all of them together. I haven’t played someone who’s sexualized, messy, probably this layered. I’m honored that someone nominated me for a role like this — it means I affected them in some way. That’s what you want to do as an actor. You want to transform and step outside of your comfort zone. I am definitely not comfortable in this role all the time.

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