The latest Emmy winner talked to us in the Beverly Hilton Hotel about her amazing year, her fascination with Shonda Rhymes, creator of the show, and her interest in other cultures. Seriously, who wouldn't want to be Viola Davis?
The Tony Award–winning, twice Oscar-nominated (Doubt; The Help) actor has been burrowing deep into our psyches for nearly two decades. Now she does it week after week as Annalise Keating on ABC's How to Get Away With Murder. "It's hard not to be inspired by her," says executive producer Shonda Rhimes. "The level of work, the game she's playing, is so high that everybody wants to rise to it."
QUESTION: Hi. And I want to know which are the biggest challenges for you in this season of your TV show?
VIOLA DAVIS: I think the challenge for me is to not allow my character to be completely dictated by the audience, to the point where I stop taking risks, that I forget why I walked into it to begin with. To be bold, to be messy, to always challenge myself, that I don't, like, get kind of swayed by being likeable
QUESTION: what does it mean for you to be in a show of Shonda Rhimes, and what has it been in your careers?
VIOLA DAVIS: Well, obviously, it's changed my life. No one was writing like this for me in movies. I feel like this is the first time that I'm fully a woman. That people -- Pete has dared to write something that pushes the boundaries, that's bold, that's dramatic, that's sexualized, that's messy. And I always feel like I'm all of those things, or I know women who are all of those things, I just have always had a hard time convincing people.
(Laughter.) Yes. But, you know, no matter what your age and your sexual orientation is, or your color, you feel like you're included in the narrative of Shondaland. And that's how it should be, because it is like life. I feel like I'm always saying that, but, you know, there you go.
QUESTION: Do you follow your show in other languages?
VIOLA DAVIS: I’ve seeing it in Spanish, I found it fascinating listening my interpretation in another language. In fact I can understand a little bit as I do have the basic Spanish that I learnt at school.
QUESTION: What do you think of the Spanish that is taught at school?
VIOLA DAVIS: I’m not an expert in that, but Spanish is often taught as if it’s a uniform language. Finding the unique features in the way a particular culture uses Spanish means students will be better prepared for their study abroad. The more quickly a student feels comfortable in a culture, the more he or she will take away from their experience. I’m very limited in Spanish, very. (Laugther)
QUESTION: What is the best "Oh, my God" moment of your show? (Laughter.)
VIOLA DAVIS: Well, you know what, I mean, yes, taking off the wig. But my favorite one was when Ms. Tyson put me in the middle of her legs and parted my hair, and was scratching my head. Because, for me, it's so familiar in my life. And any African American can say that they grew up with that moment. I used to do it for my mother, growing up. My mom came from the Deep South; so did I. And I would part her hair, and I would scratch it. And it's so specific, you know, and it's so simple. But I always say the simple moments are always the most revolutionary. And there was something about playing that moment that, for me, made me feel, like, proud of our show. And I of course, I hope that it landed on people. But that would be the moment for me. And the fact that Ms. Tyson is the first person who gave me permission to live my dream as an actor. I think that that was -- that was it. That was it; the moment.
QUESTION: Viola is there something that impresses you from other shows?
VIOLA DAVIS: It's pressure. It really is pressure. I barely watch my show. (Laughter.) Only because it's -- you have no time. I wonder if people understand how you have no time. And I have a five-year-old at home and a husband. I said that in the same breath.
QUESTION: What it means to win an Emmy for this show?
VIOLA DAVIS: I mean, if you are in this business for awards, you are in the wrong business. I mean, really, it's like being in the business for money. I will say this, because I remember a friend of mine was talking about Peter O'Toole and said at that point, he had been nominated for ten Academy Awards, and he had never won. And someone said, "Isn't that a travesty." And how she looked at it was at least whatever roles he was given were so great on the page that they were worthy of awards attention. And it speaks to the quality of the narrative, that people who give awards are woken up because, I say it all the time. Oftentimes I'm the third girl from the left. You may have the talent of a Meryl Streep or a Julianne Moore but, you know, the role of the spear carrier. And when that happens, nobody can see you shine. And, you know, Shonda is very modest, and Pete is equally as modest, but they let us shine, and I appreciate that.
QUESTION: And Viola, for you, how is that experience of being so vulnerable in How to get away with Murder?
VIOLA DAVIS: It felt good. Sometimes you have ideas that, kind of, just, are not so good, you know. But I wanted to be private and public. It's what we do. And I felt that if I played a woman that it was all about this, that I would fail miserably, that what I do as an actor is to give you a glimpse of what this person's life is like when the doors are closed. And I say this all the time. It was my way of womaning up. And I knew it would make an impact, too, you know. Lord knows, when I actually took the wig off, I thought to myself, "Why did I have this idea?" But yeah.
QUESTION: A lot of actors on long-running TV shows like at least a couple of yours are complaining year after year that working nine or ten months out of the year on the same part, on the same TV show, it's grueling. What would you say is different for you and is it different for you?
VIOLA DAVIS: And I am also grateful, but I am also tired. I mean. I do find it grueling. But I have to say, and I have said it, and I will say it again I think the most difficult part of doing television is becoming a Mr. Potato Head character. That all of a sudden people start saying, "Uh, she's not likeable. Why did she say that to him? Why did she sound weak? She's strong in the courtroom. Why isn't she strong in life?" And then, when you get tired, what happens is you want people to like you. You just want to plug into something that you feel is going to work immediately, and then that's when you start compromising your soul as an artist. And I came into this because I wanted to create a human being. Not a personality, not a gimmick, but a human being, in this body, with this face, with this everything. And I think the challenge year in and year out is to continue doing that. Then, it's up to me to do my job, and I find that the biggest challenge when I'm tired and aggravated