“Can I tell you the truth?” actress Viola Davis poses. “I had decided to never do TV again.
“I had done nine failed TV pilots! Nine,” the 54-year-old says. “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. So, I got this offer and I said, ‘Hell, no!’ ”
That offer was for a Shonda Rhimes show called “How to Get Away With Murder.” Davis, a Rhode Island native, eventually did say yes to the offer and in 2015 made history as the first African American actress to win a best actress Emmy for a lead role in a drama series. Now, after six years of being an ABC hit, the show returns April 2 for its sixth and final season.
The series follows the lives and cases of law students and their criminal defense law professor, Annalise Keating, who get involved in things bloody and complicated. After so much strife, it follows that Davis, who also owns an Oscar and two Tony awards, unwinds with a nice soak and some contemplation.
Review-Journal: What is your idea of an ideal Sunday?
Viola Davis: It’s spending time with my husband (Julius Tennon) and my daughter Genesis. We go to church, make a great meal and have people over to our house. I love to have a big house of people with their kids just sitting around and talking. That makes a house feel like home. Maybe I’ll try to work out later because it’s healthy and I like zoning out and giving my brain a break. At night, I go into the Jacuzzi, which is the most relaxing thing on this Earth.
Why did you eventually say yes to “How to Get Away With Murder”?
I think they went out to Diane Lane and Jennifer Connelly. The role was not originally written for an African American woman. 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. On this show, I would say words like “sexualized psychopath.” I’m used to wearing aprons and holding babies in roles. The turning point is 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. But the wig was big because I said, “I want to take off my wig and have to deal with all the (expletive) that goes on underneath it.” I was told, “Yes, we can write a real woman for you.” Then, I was in.
It was a powerhouse moment on the series when you removed the wig. Why was that so key to you?
It was important because before this 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 — and I had concluded that this was not me. Frankly, I don’t know who that woman is. Taking off the wig was a metaphoric moment — me shouting out to the rafters that there’s a human being here.
What defines a real woman for you on TV?
She’s not a size 2. She doesn’t always walk gracefully in heels. She’s complicated and you need to take the time to get to know her.
You received some tough feedback when you were cast.
Articles were talking about my looks and how I wasn’t right for the part. They wrote I wasn’t vulnerable enough. 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.”
In 2015, you won the Emmy. What did that mean to you?
It was a testament to daring. I was daring myself to say that literally all the things I had ever been told about myself since I was 6 years old — about being ugly, dark, not smart and not sexy — I could literally reject all of that. I felt that I could make choices and they would land. I also want to say that you’re only as good as the people around you. We have incredible actors on this show who put their vanity aside. They are also absolutely authentic about making brave choices. It keeps me authentic.
What is the legacy of “How to Get Away With Murder?
Few shows explore the black pathology. There are any number of announcements of yet another terrific black actor signed on to a great project as a detective. But 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. That’s beautiful.
How are you like Annalise? Or not like her?
I don’t think I’m that much of a mess. What she did do is give me permission to embrace whatever I feel is a flaw in me. … 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. I always wondered, “How are you twice as good as who you are?” You should just try to be as good as you are.
You’ve said that this character gave you permission to play her.
She gave me permission to feel like I could play her. She allowed me to step into her life. I didn’t see myself as her at first. 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. I felt like Annalise was sitting right there going, “Allow me in and I will unleash all of this stuff in you.” She did.