It’s safe to say Viola Davis has had a pretty successful run in her first lead in a network drama. After one season, she became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama for her role as the brilliant but tortured Annalise Keating in “How to Get Away with Murder.” But it hasn’t all been easy. Davis says she’s heard criticism that Annalise isn’t likeable enough, which isn’t what she wants to hear.
“It frustrates me a little bit because I feel that people don’t understand what it means to be an actor. I don’t think James Gandolfini or, I don’t know, Robert DeNiro in ‘Taxi Drive,’ or ‘Dexter,’ or James Spader, I don’t think they get asked that. I think that people just accept the character, they accepted what they’re being given, and they actually reward them because they feel like it’s complicated,” says Davis. “It’s only women that you want to be pretty and likeable.”
And that kind of thing isn’t just random commenters on the Internet complaining.
“I remember I read a review, too, where someone wrote that ‘I don’t think I don’t think I’ll continue to watch “How to Get Away with Murder” because she’s not pretty and she’s not likeable,’ and I thought to myself that nobody will ever address that as being their stuff,” says Davis.
“They’ll put it on the actor. And me as an actor, that’s not my responsibility. If I make her likeable, then I’m pushing an edit button and that’s not what you’re supposed to do as an actor. You don’t press an edit button.”
But the likeability problem extends beyond just asking that Annalise be more charming. People seem to really like the villainess characters that Gandolfini and other male actors have brought to life, and Davis says that affection is influenced by gender.
“They will forgive their mess. We understand that men at the end of the day are flawed. A man can have 50 affairs, but still there’s something charming about him. But a woman, like in ‘Fatal Attraction,’ who’s having sex with a married man, is a bitch. There is something about women that we want to stay virtuous,” she says.
It’s the first time Davis has stayed with a character this long, since she’s generally been known for film work before this. Asked if she’s enjoying the long term work on Annalise, she says, “I am,” before adding with a laugh, “Ask me that in another three years.”
Davis has also had some influence on what ends up on the show — it was her idea, for instance, to have Annalise take her wig off onscreen in the first season, and she says she hopes to see more things like that happen in the future.
“I think the most revolutionary things that you can do are the most simple. And I think taking the wig off, having a scene with a mother talking about sexual abuse, a mother [and] a woman of color, putting me between her legs and doing my hair, all those things, no matter what people say, you’ve never seen it on TV. You just haven’t. You haven’t seen me on TV. And that’s what excites me, that [creator] Pete [Nowalk] is willing to go there.