Guest of Honor

Viola Davis Pulls the Mask Off Her ‘How to Get Away With Murder’ Character

The actor shares how an interview with Oprah set the wheels in motion for her Emmy Award-winning role and why she pushed for a scene to take her wig off on-camera.

Play
Pause
0:00 0:00
(Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images for Backstage Creations)

It’s not a stretch to say Viola Davis one of the most celebrated actors working today. She won two Tonys and earned two Oscar nominations for “Doubt” and “The Help.”

And just to round things out, she became the first black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama for her starring role on the show “How to Get Away with Murder.”

Davis plays Annalise Keating, a tough-as-nails professor and criminal defense lawyer who recruits students to help her crack cases. The actor recently became an advocate for the Vaseline Healing Project, which provides medical supplies and skin care to people in crisis. Brendan spoke with her at an event for the organization.

Below she shares how her “How to Get Away with Murder” role is outside of her comfort zone and how a childhood accident with her sister inspired her to work with Vaseline.

Interview Highlights:

On how her interview with Oprah inspired “How to Get Away with Murder” executive producer Shonda Rhimes

Brendan Francis Newnam: In an interview in 2012 — with my former employer, Terry Gross, by the way — you said, “I don’t see a lot of narratives written where a woman who looks like me gets to be beautiful, and sexualized, and upwardly mobile, middle-class, funny, quirky. They’re very seldom written.”

And then, this role from “How to Get Away with Murder” comes along. Was Shonda Rhimes — the show’s executive producer — was she listening to you when she heard that interview? How did this come about?

Viola Davis: You know, that’s so interesting that she did listen to an interview that I did with Oprah where I said the exact same thing, and that’s what sparked, you know, her imagination. She said, “Well, why not? Because when I see Viola, I see all those things.”

So, it’s kind of, like what they say, you know, when you want something or you’re seeking it, that you put it out there and the universe somehow opens and finds a way.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Also, Oprah helps, too.

Viola Davis: Yeah. Oprah always helps.

On breaking out of her comfort zone to star on the show

Viola Davis: I have to say that [playing Annalise] been the highlight of my career. But there’s a part of me — and, see, this is where a lack of opportunity can do a job on your brain — that a part of me felt like, “Can I even do it? Do I even deserve it?”

And then, all of a sudden, it plops on your lap, and my first instinct, as an actor, is to go for it. And the reason why it’s been a highlight is because it’s been transformative for me. It’s not a role that is within my comfort zone. It’s not a role that I’ve seen often with women who look like me, so it’s been groundbreaking on a personal level and an artistic level.

On fighting for this wig-free, makeup-free scene

Viola Davis: One of the agreements I had with Pete Nowalk, who is a creator, and Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers [the show’s producers], is I said, “I want to take my wig off.”

Now, that, in and of itself, is like, “OK, she’s taking her wig off.” But I knew what I could achieve with that would be something much greater, which is: I wanted the feeling of being unmasked.

And the reason why is because so often I see women on the screen, and I don’t recognize them. They’re not women that I know. It’s like a woman who’s been through a filter, and then she comes out, and there’s pieces that I recognize, but mostly it’s a Mr. Potato Head of male desirability.

And I just felt like, if I’m going to sign a seven-year contract, I didn’t want to just see the mask. So, I knew if they wrote a scene where I took my wig off, it would force them to write the other side of that woman because it’s such a bold act of me taking off my lashes, and my makeup, and my wig, seeing my hair underneath.

You positively would not be able to ignore that.

On her mother’s activism

Viola Davis: My mom was involved in the Blackstone Valley Community Action Program. They were just a group of women who were working class poor or just poor who wanted something better for their children’s lives. And they were instrumental in bringing a health clinic to Central Falls, and having extracurricular activities for the kids that were free. And I watched that growing up.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Did I read this correctly — and it landed your mom in jail a few times, right?

Viola Davis: She always says, “Viola, your mama was not in jail! I was in a holding cell.” So, I have to correct it because she was…

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh, OK. Only a holding cell.

Viola Davis: Yeah, she was speaking at Brown University, and I was with her, too. So, we were in a holding cell for a few hours.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And this is based on her activism for…?

Viola Davis: Yeah, because she was very much into welfare reform. We were on public assistance, but we didn’t want to stay on public assistance. So, she wanted more job opportunities, she wanted more educational opportunities, and so she was really instrumental in just fighting for that in the 70s.

On supporting the Vaseline Healing Project

Viola Davis: I still do my speaking gigs across the country. So, I do a lot of that with women’s groups, but the Vaseline Healing Project, in partnership with Direct Relief, it’s just a sheer number of people that it’s reaching.

And then learning about Direct Relief — which is an international medical aid organization — the sheer number of people that they service every year, and now this whole initiative to give medical aid to people on the front lines of disaster and crisis, it appealed to me.

You know, the poor girl from Central Falls absolutely sits with me all day long in good ways and bad ways, and this is one of the good ways.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, and I think I heard you tell a story about how, you know, one of your sisters was injured, was burned as a child, and kind of…so, skin issues, actually…yeah.

Viola Davis: Yeah, she was. She… because we were making sugar candy, which is a Southern delicacy with grease and sugar, and she… the flame was on too high, so the grease literally sprayed her face. Her whole skin blistered, and my mom put Vaseline on it.

And it was a salve that gave her a lot of relief, you know, before we sent her to the emergency room. But Vaseline is… listen, there’s no African American, especially, that can’t tell you about Vaseline. We put it on our scalp, we put it on our skin because our skin can get very dry and ashy, as we say. But the fact that most people in the front line of disaster and crisis complain about skin infections. And if they had petroleum jelly, it would make all the difference in their lives.

The question she tired of being asked

Viola Davis: “How do I prepare for red carpet?” I don’t want to say that but, yeah, I’m tired of that one.

She tells us something we don’t know

Viola Davis: I think that I would love people… for someone to ask me more about what makes me tick, about what makes me get out of bed in the morning, about what I live for or what’s keeping me from getting to what I live for. I like questions like that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: What is getting you out of bed and excited right now in your life, in 2016?

Viola Davis: You know, what’s getting me out of bed is the fact that I just feel like I’m a part of this renaissance with how people are seeing women of color. Especially, that playing Annalise Keating is giving people a different viewpoint into the pathology of women of color, which is that we’re just as vast, just as messy, just as beautiful, maybe just as dynamic as anyone else.

That’s exciting for me because people don’t realize that Jim Crow laws are over, segregation is pretty much over. So is slavery, but what’s left is a perception. What’s left is a mindset. You can’t gauge that. But in some ways, I mean, in just being a part of ShondaLand, is that you’re changing people’s perception. You’re forcing them to come into a world that… where there’s someone who you may not necessarily have even thought of, you know, in that way.

And I love that because that’s exactly why I became an artist. It’s exactly why.

DPD-Banner

IT’S A PARTY IN YOUR INBOX…

…when you subscribe to our weekly newsletter. You’ll find all sorts of good stuff there like bonus audio, musings on culture from our staff, photos of our guests and co-hosts being ridiculous, and new cocktail recipes. Sign up below!