Viola Davis On 'How to Get Away with Murder'

The Oscar nominee heads to the small screen this fall in a provocative new series: 'You haven’t seen a character like this on TV before.'
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Tracy Phillips
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The Oscar nominee heads to the small screen this fall in a provocative new series: 'You haven’t seen a character like this on TV before.'

You’re going to be seeing a lot of strong, powerful female characters on new TV shows this fall — from Katherine Heigl’s State of Affairs to Tea Leoni’s Madam Secretary to Kate Walsh’s Bad Judge — but Viola Davis’s turn in the legal thriller How to Get Away with Murder is sure to stand out.

The actress, who turned 49 this August, stars in the high-profile ABC drama from executive producer Shonda Rhimes, joining the “Shondaland”-dominated Thursday night line-up at 10 p.m., beginning Sept. 25th. (Rhimes’s other two hit series shift time slots, with Grey’s Anatomy leading off at 8 p.m. and Scandal moving to 9 p.m.)

In Murder, Davis plays a sexy, tough — and morally questionable — criminal law professor named Annalise Keating, who strikes fear in her law students, wears a lot of leather and has, shall we say, a very complicated love life. Before long, the four students she selects to mentor at her law firm are entangled in a web that involves Keating’s professor husband and her cop boyfriend … and a deadly twist in the final seconds of the series premiere.

How to Get Away With Murder Photo

A publicity still from 'HTGAWM.' (Photo: ABC)

A two-time Tony winner and a two-time Academy Award nominee who’s probably best known for her role as housekeeper Aibileen Clark in 2011’s The Help, Davis admits she isn’t your stereotypical seductress.

“There is no way in the history of film or TV that you’ve seen a character like this, played by a black woman who looks like me,” Davis told a small group of reporters last month in Los Angeles. “This is progressive. This is a first.”

“Not even Kerry Washington, or Halle Berry, not anyone — [but] a black woman who looks like me — a dark-skinned black woman, with the nose, the age, in every way, like me,” Davis said. “No one has taken my look in that way and put that on the screen. I think Shonda’s been the first.”

For Rhimes, there was never any question whether or not Davis was right to play this sort of femme fatale character “because I happen to believe an actress can do anything.”

But it was an episode of Oprah that planted the seed for the idea.

“I was literally flipping the channels one summer,” Rhimes explained to a crowd of journalists at an ABC party, “and I caught Viola on Oprah’s Next Chapter saying, ‘Nobody’s going to put me in a love scene with Bradley Cooper,’ and everybody laughed, and I remember going, why not? And that was always in my head. Because I think she’s gorgeous and sexy and interesting and fabulous, and that seemed ridiculous to me.”

Viola Davis Photo

(Photo: ABC)

So when it came to casting How to Get Away with Murder and Viola Davis’s name came up, Rhimes says they were thrilled to get her. “I was like, YES, I think she’s fantastic – she will never do this – but she is fantastic. And then we sent the script to her and she was like, ‘yes.’ So it was great to have that.”

For Davis, who grew up in Rhode Island reading Agatha Christie mysteries and watching Kojak, it’s also a chance to explore the whodunit genre that she loves so much: “I’m excited to be a part of a show that has tons of secrets.”

“And I love the fact that [Annalise] is messy and mysterious and you don’t know who she is,” Davis continued, teasing that her character isn’t quite what she seems as the series goes on. “She’s messy. She’s a woman. She’s sexual. She’s vulnerable. And I feel extremely fortunate that I am alive and still active, and this role came to me at this point in my life.”

It’s a return to television for Davis, who had a string of guest appearances early in her career in everything from NYPD Blue to Law & Order: SVU before moving on to such films as Traffic, Antwone Fisher, and Solaris. But, like many celebs flocking to the good material found in TV land these days, she believes the stigma that once faced “movie stars doing TV” is gone.

“I think the day of choosing TV over film and [the perception of] TV somehow diminishing your career as an actor or actress has changed,” said Davis. “I have gotten so many wonderful film roles, but I’ve gotten even more film roles where I haven’t been the show. It’s like I’ve been invited to a really fabulous party, only to hold up the wall … I wanted to be the show.”

And now she is.

How to Get Away with Murder premieres Thursday, Sept. 25th at 10 p.m. on ABC.