How to Get Away with Murder: Viola Davis on following in the footsteps of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal

The latest addition to Shonda Rhimes' empire talks to RadioTimes.com about portraying a 21st century woman and boosting multiculturalism on TV

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Shonda Rhimes – the woman behind Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and new drama How to Get Away with Murder – is breaking new ground in America. Thursday evenings on ABC are entirely devoted to her work with one after another glossy series rolled out to an eager viewing public. 

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Both Grey’s and Scandal are stalwarts of the US telly schedule, the former currently airing its eleventh season, coining the moniker “McDreamy” thanks to Patrick Dempsey’s dishy Doctor Shepherd, while the latter stars Kerry Washington as professional Washington “fixer” Olivia Pope who has viewers transfixed by her character’s on-off affair with the president. Hospitals: tick, politics: tick. 

Now for law… This autumn brings us How to Get Away with Murder – the latest output from Rhimes’ production company Shondaland, created by her long-term collaborator Peter Nowalk and starring double Oscar-nominee Viola Davis. 

The premise? Davis plays hot-shot defence attorney and lecturer Annalise Keating who tasks her brightest students with helping to defend her clients. But flash-forwards to three months in the future show that very same bunch of bushy-tailed, bright-eyed ingénues scrabbling to cover up a murder – the victim remaining a mystery to the viewer until the closing scenes of episode one.

From that moment, you’ll be hooked – we certainly were – so we caught up with Davis to hear all about working with Rhimes, multiculturalism in TV and why it’s important to challenge your viewers. 

What do you love about working with Shonda Rhimes? 

Her reputation for creating characters that are dynamic, that are different, especially really strong messy characters for women. She brings women into the 21st century. The reason why I say 21st century women is the women are totally together in their professional lives and a complete mess in their personal lives and I think that’s a very truthful reflection of how women are today. A lot of women decide to get married late. They want to have their careers and lives so they spend a lot of time being successful and independent but they don’t spend as much time with their personal lives and I like that duality, that dichotomy because that really is how it is – that’s how life works in 2014 with us gals. 

Shonda’s leading women – Meredith in Grey’s and Olivia in Scandal – always seem to be desperately juggling the two…

It is very difficult because you’re going to fail at something. You can’t do everything perfectly. You’re going to fail and it’s that need to be perfect and on top of it that drives you completely insane until you begin to learn how to forgive yourself and let go of that. You want to be perfect – that’s what we’ve been told in life. You can have it all and then all of a sudden you’re professional, you’re a wife, you’re a mother and you’re a person too and you want to do it all great because you’ve been reading the books and it doesn’t happen that way.

How does it feel to follow those two shows? 

It’s always daunting to be the new kid on the block – Grey’s Anatomy is in its eleventh season, Scandal its fourth. I always have to remind myself that my past counts for something. I’ve been working as a professional actress for 26 years and to rely on your experience to teach you something and that’s what I had to rely on – years of theatre, TV and film. All the challenges you face as a professional actor in the business –you have to take all of that into every experience you have and it helps with the fear.

Shonda took to Twitter recently to respond to a fan who took issue with the homosexual scenes in How to Get Away with Murder and Scandal – did you follow that? 

I did. I thought she was great and as a leader I think you have to be that strong. I think that, as any person who moves through life, at a certain point you have to be very strong about your convictions. You have to protect your integrity and your character and I thought she did it beautifully and I stand in solidarity with her. 

Her series have also been celebrated for the multiculturalism they promote on TV…

I think that what she is dong is she is creating shows that reflect life, that reflect America – the way America looks, the way we operate. We are a multicultural country, we always have been but even more so now. We are a multi-sexual country and that’s got to be reflected in art and Shonda always says that the people that need to be questioned are the people who don’t do that. The people who when they do a show or a movie, everything is homogenised. That’s more unrealistic and I think what she’s doing is reflecting the way her life is. When I was younger I never saw that. Anything that had any person of colour we flocked to but it was few and far between and now she’s changed the face of TV and I think she’s doing a great service to people who’ve been marginalised. 

How to Get Away with Murder has two storylines three months apart and challenges the viewer in a way we don’t see all that often in TV… 

I definitely feel like they want to have a different approach to the procedural drama, even introducing characters. At first it can be jolting to the average viewer but I applaud the fact that they’re once again trying to do something different. I always want to be a part of something like that. 

Would you be keen to do a second series if the opportunity came up? 

These questions are so hard for me because I live my life on a day-to-day basis… I’m happy about certain things, there are certain things I want to change. For this series I haven’t had a long term goal yet – I’m on survival mode. 

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How to Get Away with Murder continues with episode two tonight at 10:00pm on Universal – here’s why you should be watching