Mind for MURDER
Viola Davis talks television’s messiest and most loathsome criminal lawyer
PROFESSOR Annalise Keating is a formidable force. The lead character of US hit drama
How To Get Away With Murder is charismatic, fiercely intelligent, manipulative, sexy, contradictory and unapologetic. It’s a compelling and terrifying mix.
So when Viola Davis, the acclaimed actress who plays Keating with such clarity, strides into an interview, it’s hard to not feel intimidated.
Between scenes on the set of the show, Davis oozes every bit of the charisma of her alter ego. She’s hypnotic, eloquent and brutally honest about the unlikeability of her character. Keating catches her acolytes – the five students handpicked from her Criminal Law 100 class dubbed ‘how to get away with murder’ – off guard with her brutal assessments and insights.
In person, Davis catches you equally off balance. One minute it’s intense eye contact as she speaks, entrancing with her answers. The next she unleashes a very unKeating-like guffaw. It’s a magnificent laugh – deep, genuine, a touch dirty, and delightfully self-deprecating.
Of the role that has recently seen her add a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Award for most outstanding actor in a drama series to her dual Oscar nominations for The Help and Doubt, Davis revels in Keating’s loathsome persona. She was determined, upon reading the script, to show what was behind Keating’s cool mask.
“Her quality of turning her vulnerability off so fast is the thing that stuck out the most,” Davis says.
“I can’t do that. Personally, I am together but I do have my moments of weakness. If you cut me I do bleed. I can get hurt. I am human. I am not made of Teflon – that’s a huge contradiction with my character.” Upcoming episodes of HTGAWM reveal Davis’s determination to take off Keating’s mask.
After a day of her standard coiffed, biting, uncompromising lawyering and teaching, Keating ditches the sleek clothes, and calmly removes her wig and every trace of make-up. It’s a brave scene, and retelling it exposes both Davis’ intensity and that booming laugh.
“I wanted her to look like a real woman,” says Davis. “In the midst of all this fiction – and I understand it’s fiction – I wanted there to be something about her that’s still familiar – a woman who is sexy and who is messy and who doesn’t necessarily know how to walk in heels, because women buy heels all the time that they don’t know how to walk in and they hurt their feet.
“I wanted her to feel like the women that usually are marginalised on TV. Because all the women that I know who are sexualised and mysterious and messy and all of those juicy things, they could be anywhere from a size zero to a size 22 and they do indeed take their makeup off at night and their wigs if they’re wearing one.
“At one point before we did the scene they said, ‘OK, wait, wait, wait … how much make-up do we want to take off ?’ I had the wipe in my hand and I thought ‘OK, all of it. Let’s take it all off ’. They said, ‘Are you sure”’ and I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go for it’.”
Davis takes a breath, cracks a smile and delivers the next line with a rumble of laughter. “After I took that make-up off I said, ‘Well maybe I shouldn’t have gone that far’.”
Serious again, she confesses it’s liberating not to “filter the truth”.
“I don’t know how to fit a square peg into a round hole. I don’t know how to be that woman who is a size zero because then I would have to not eat and I just can’t do that.
“You need a challenge – and the challenge for me is Annalise Keating.”
HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER
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Intimidating: Viola Davis is uncompromising as law professor Annalise Keating.