In case you haven't heard, Viola Davis is coming to TV next season as the star of Shonda Rhimes' latest bananas thriller “How To Get Away With Murder.” While we've passed the point of a two-time Oscar nominee signing on for a TV show qualifying as any kind of surprise, we're not over journalists asking those actors why they're doing TV.
Davis was ready for the inevitable question at the 2014 TCA press tour. “The day of choosing TV over film and TV somehow diminishing your career as an actor or actress I think has changed,” she began. “People migrate toward material, especially when they reach a certain age, or [are] a certain hue, certain sex.”
“I've gotten some wonderful film roles, but I've gotten even more film roles where I wasn't the show — It feels like I've been invited to a really fabulous party only to hold up the wall,” Davis added. “I wanted to be the show. I wanted a character who took me out of my comfort zone. That character happened to be in a Shonda Rhimes show.”
She was also attracted to the mysterious nature of her character, distinguished and intimidating Criminal Law professor Annalise Keating who teaches a first year class literally called “How To Get Away With Murder.” “I love that she's messy and mysterious and you don't necessarily know who she is,” Davis said. “She's not nurturing like 'come sit on my lap.' She's not the kind of person who needs God, Jesus or Buddha, because she knows all the answers. She's sexy, she's vulnerable.”
The mystery surrounding Annalise has left some critics confused after watching the pilot, a feeling that creator Pete Nowalk insists is purely intentional. “Whether she's morally questionable or not it goes to the heart of the character: Who she is and what she's been through,” Nowalk explained. “The adventure we're going to go on is the peeling back of the onion and what drives her to this place. What's her perspective on justice? It's not so black and white to her. The justice system is much more corrupt than you think it would be.”
“That's why psychologists and therapists make a whole lot of money, because I think as human beings we're a mess,” Davis added. “That's the challenge of any writer, to match the art with the mess we call life. I spent too much time in my career trying to force writers to write for me in a way that's bold and then…” At that point she reached over to pat Nowalk on the knee with approval.
Despite Davis' enthusiasm at getting the chance to “be the show,” the panel included no fewer than 10 full-time cast members — an expansive ensemble that tops even the first season casts of “Scandal” and “Grey's Anatomy” — and that understandably raises concerns about how much of Annalise we'll see in any given episode.
“Having written in the Shondaland universe for a long time I've always worked on shows with an ensemble, but there's always someone at the center,” Nowalk, who worked his way up as a writer and producer on the staff of both “Grey's Anatomy” and “Scandal,” observed. “Annalise is someone who we see through these students' eyes. She's a mystery and she does thing we sometimes don't have perspective on. [I wanted to] create a star vehicle where she's the center of a mystery. Audiences will wonder what her real motivations are throughout the season.”
And perhaps beyond. Nowalk promises to answer major questions throughout season one, but he's also ready for more. “I don't think the show's gonna go the first season where you expect it to go,” Nowalk teased about the central murder mystery. “We've always had a plan to launch it into season two with a really cool storyline. I wouldn't want to do it if I didn't feel it could go many seasons. We have a plan.”
As for that unwieldy, and social media unfriendly, title, Rhimes shot down any concern with a terse: “We don't consider a hashtag when we're writing a title.”
“[The title] was always our first instinct,” Nowalk clarified when the question resurfaced later in the panel. “That's what [Annalise] calls her class because she loves to push buttons. In terms of the Twitter audience I think the audience will decide what they want to call the show. If they want to call it #Murder…”
“Twitter makes its own decisions. We don't decide what people are going to call things,” Rhimes added. “It's a very new notion that networks are trying to push hashtags on the community of Twitter. Twitter has its own ideas and that's very exciting.”