GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER
Viola Davis on her role in the legal thriller B. MAGAZINE
Back in 2013, when producer Shonda Rhimes offered Viola Davis the lead in her new series, How To Get Away With Murder, it didn’t take long for the actress to respond. “I said, ‘Hell, no’,” the 54-year-old Davis recalled with a laugh. “When the offer happened, I did not like television. I’m just being honest here. I could always tell what was network TV. There was a prototype of the leading lady.”
Davis didn’t think she fit that cookie-cutter mold. On the other hand, neither did Annalise Keating, a high-powered lawyer who is also a professor of criminal defence, the protagonist on How To Get Away With Murder, streaming on Netflix.
“She’s not a size 2, she doesn’t always walk gracefully in heels,” said Davis, who has played Keating for the past six years. “She has a vagina and a history. She may or may not have had trauma in her life. She’s complicated, and you needed to take the time to get to know her.”
Viewers have had that time, but it’s almost up. The second half of the sixth and final season of How To Get Away With Murder will debut on April 2 on ABC. Davis was careful not to offer any plot spoilers about the final episodes, which pick up after the explosive midseason finale last year in which Asher (Matt McGorry) died. Fans also will want to know why Tegan (Amirah Vann) was working with Laurel (Karla Souza) and also keeping secrets from Keating.
The show has been good to Davis, earning her rave reviews and, in 2015, the first-ever Emmy Award for an African-American actress as Best Actress in a Drama Series.
“I’m so proud because there are few shows that explore the black pathology,” Davis said, speaking by telephone from her home in Los Angeles. “Here you had a show where she was an endless array of things: She’s an alcoholic, she’s pansexual, she’s a sex-abuse survivor. I loved the fact that you never knew why she did some of the things that she did. I’m still wondering — and that’s beautiful.”
Prior to How To Get Away With Murder, Davis had established herself on the stage and in movies, with two Emmy awards and Oscar nominations as Best Supporting Actress for her work in Doubt (2008) and The Help (2011), but hadn’t had much luck on the small screen.
“I had done nine failed TV pilots,” she recalled. “Nine! And the last one I did was a job where I worked an average of 21-hour days, plus I had to drive 53 miles one way.”
Early on, it was rumoured that Diane Lane and Jennifer Connelly were being considered for Keating.
“The role was not originally written for an African-American woman,” Davis said. “When my name was thrown into the mix, they wanted to screen-test me, and my manager was a little bit resistant. I was a little resistant.”
This was a different kind of gig, though. “On this show, I was told, I would say words like ‘sexualised psychopath’,” she said. “I’m used to wearing aprons and holding babies in roles.
“The turning point was when I spoke to Shonda and said, ‘I want this to be a real woman. I want to take off my wig. I don’t want to always walk around in heels, because real women don’t do that in real life,’” she continued. “But the wig was big, because I said, ‘I want to take off my wig and have to deal with all the [garbage] that goes on underneath it.’”
Rhimes had no issue with any of the above.
“I was told, ‘Yes, we can write a real woman for you,’” Davis said. “I was in.”
Then she had to figure out how to play a part unlike any she’d ever played before.
“I didn’t see myself as her at first,” the actress admitted. “I believed everything everyone said about me — that I’m not sexual, my voice is too deep or that I’m not this or that. But I felt like Annalise was sitting right there going, ‘Allow me in and I will unleash all of this stuff in you.’
“And she did.”
One of her favourite moments came the first time she removed her wig onscreen.
“Taking off the wig was a metaphoric moment of me shouting out to the rafters that there was a human being here,” Davis said.
She won over an audience that hadn’t initially been on her side.
“When the show first came out, articles were talking about my looks and how I wasn’t right for the part,” Davis said. “They wrote that I wasn’t vulnerable enough. I read that I wasn’t a classical beauty. I read, ‘Oh my God, I can’t see her in this role. I’d rather watch Kerry Washington than her.’
“Friends called me and said, ‘I had a conversation with somebody and they said, No way is this show going to work. Not with her in the lead role.’”
Her Emmy, which Davis called “a testament to daring”, quieted the naysayers.
“I was daring myself to say that literally all the things I had ever been told about myself since I was six years old — about being ugly, dark, not smart and not sexy — I could literally reject all of that,” she explained. “I felt that I could make choices and they would land.”
What does she remember the most from that Emmy night?
“It was my chance to say that we, as people of colour, can be humanised and complicated when we tell our stories,” she said. “We don’t have to be metaphors.”
Lately Davis has been thinking about what she shares and doesn’t share with her television alter ego.
“I don’t think I’m that much of a mess,” she said. “What she did do is give me permission to embrace whatever I feel is a flaw in me. There is something about Annalise that is brave, and even brave in her messed-up-ness. She’s brave in the fact that she just goes for it.
“Sometimes she’s a whirling dervish of a mess, and I’ve always been afraid of being like that in life.”
Davis grew up in South Carolina, where her father was a horse trainer and her mother a maid, factory worker and homemaker. First in South Carolina and then in Rhode Island, it was a hard life.
“There were rats in the closet and breakins in our building,” she recalled. “It wasn’t easy. I grew up in a messy environment and always felt the need to straighten things out.
“They always tell you, especially if you grew up in poverty, as I did, that you have to be three times as good or twice as good,” Davis continued. “I always wondered, ‘How are you twice as good as who you are? Shouldn’t you just try to be as good as you are?.’”
The arts were her salvation. Drawn to the stage, she attended the Young People’s School for the Performing Arts in West Warwick, Rhode Island. She majored in theatre at Rhode Island College and then attended the prestigious Juilliard School in Manhattan.
Success found her first on Broadway, where she won a Tony Award as Best Supporting Actress for her work in August Wilson’s King Hedley II (2001) and another as Best Actress for her performance as Rose Maxson in Wilson’s Fences (2010) — a role which would earn her an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for Fences (2016).
Movies proved trickier. Davis made her screen debut in The Substance Of Fire
(1996), but was limited to small roles in
Out Of Sight (1998), Traffic (2000), Antwone Fisher (2002) and Disturbia (2007), Doubt
Eat Pray Love The Help, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011), Suicide Squad (2016) and Widows (2018). She will resume her role as the Machiavellian Amanda Waller in a Suicide Squad sequel scheduled for 2021. At home in Los Angeles, Davis spends her time with her husband, actor Julius Tennon, and their eight-year-old daughter, Genesis.
“I love to have a big house of people with their kids just sitting around and talking,” she said. “That makes a house feel like home.”
Davis and Tennon run a production company, JuVee Productions. One of their projects is Showtime’s upcoming First
Ladies, in which Davis will play Michelle Obama. Tennon is executive-producing.
How To Get Away With Murder will end this season, but Davis hopes its impact is longer-lasting.
“After this show, anyone willing to write for a black female who has [a bottom], thighs, wide nose and big lips should be allowed to do it,” she said. “She doesn’t have to be a hero, she doesn’t have to represent some social change. She just needs to be human, so you understand, when you watch her onscreen, that she’s just like you.
“That’s the most revolutionary thing we can do right now as artists,” Davis added. “What does your life look like? Maybe you could see it on the screen.”