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Viola Davis on Finding Her Sexy: 'It Feels Really Good to Embrace Exactly Who I Am'

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The How to Get Away With Murder star was the ultimate lady in red. With ruby lips, dark-rimmed eyes and pink eyeshadow, Viola looked simply stunning.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

No one puts Viola Davis in the corner. 

The days of her blending into the background as a best friend or coworker on the big screen have been eclipsed by the 49-year-old’s game changing role as Annalise Keating on ABC’s hit drama How To Get Away with Murder.  Sexy, corrupt and ruthless, Annalise does whatever it takes to win cases and cover up the homicide of her philandering hubby. 

During a recent set visit in Hollywood, Davis—who was born in South Carolina and raised in Rhode Island—talked to ESSENCE.com about embracing her femininity and sexuality as an actress, inviting Cicely Tyson to appear on HTGAWM, and her inspiring SAG Awards acceptance speech.  

Oh, and if the midseason finale blew your mind, Davis said brace yourself. The season-one finale Feb. 26 will daze and dizzy you all the more. 

ESSENCE.com: How do you keep up with what happens on the show?
I have to read the script 50 million times and I’m always asking the kids. Because they have brain power. My brain cells are dying. So I always have to say, “OK, but what happened in episode two that would explain … ?” Then I’m like, “OK. I remember now. I remember.” 

Really? You need that? I thought it was just us.
Yes. I do need that just to keep up because it’s such a fast pace and we work at such a fast pace. At least you can re-watch an episode. For us, there’s just no time – at least not for me. 

The character is so messed up and fascinating. How do you prepare each day?
I just do it. I did all my work beforehand and I think that served me well. My craft served me well. Then I just step into it. I always have a quiet time right beforehand. Some scenes are only about passing a bottle. They’re not all sexy or dark. I just feel very dedicated to her mess. I’m holding onto the mess and the reason I’m holding onto the mess is because I just feel in TV, that the characters that sometimes people connect to, are characters that even if they are complicated, we want to overly simplify them because we want to like them. We want to be like them. We want them to be the fantasy. And I think in essence, people are complicated and I don’t think you know who they are until they’re faced with a situation. I was just talking about this with someone else. A friend of ours did something completely out of character. I mean, completely out of character. We sat there for about five minutes going, “So and so did that?” And that really is human behavior and that to me as an actor is very, very exciting. It’s more exciting than playing the prototype. 

How about when you don’t know the answers and it’s not in the script yet?
You just have to make a decision. That’s my big thing. You just have to jump. You have to take a leap of faith.  Hopefully, whatever you do is going to inspire the writer to continue on that path. But that’s all you can do as an actor. You don’t have a choice. It’s not like you can just stand there and make no choice. 

Do you feel like some of those decisions help shape the story?
Absolutely. I mean, listen. Like I told them, “I want to take my wig off.” Because I’m not going to lie in the bed with full makeup and hair as a sexy character because what it’s going to force me to do as an actor, if I have to do that, is it’s going to force me to do really bad acting. I’m going to go – it’s like watching a Barbie episode – how can I pretend to be Barbie? Because that’s the only way to play sexy. That’s just not it. That’s not human. Human is, “I have to take this hair off at night.” African-American women, we wear a lot of wigs. We take our makeup off. We don’t walk great in shoes. We’re not necessarily likeable or always a size two. Some of us have deep voices and then you’re just going to have to deal with it. And you don’t always know who people are. You can’t get ahead of them. 

But it was liberating. She’s wiping off this makeup, and we’re just like, “I know her.” She’s taking off her makeup and her wig off and that’s who she has to be to do this job.  You didn’t have to say this is war paint and armor you just did it, right?
Absolutely. That was my idea. Episode 13 is my idea. I’m claiming it. Bringing Ms. Cicely Tyson onboard is my idea. I’m sorry, Pete (Nowalk). I love you, but it’s my idea. I’m a woman. I like to see women on TV. I like to see real women on TV. That for me is what’s inspiring and that for me is exciting. When I see an archetype of womanhood on TV, it depresses me. That’s the thing that makes me want to go back home and eat and binge and eat a lot of bread, because I know the truth. 

On Oprah’s Next Chapter, a couple of years ago, you said Hollywood didn’t want to see you rolling around in bed with Bradley Cooper. Can you talk about getting to explore the sexual side of Annalise and taking a role that you haven’t been able to in movies?
It feels awesome. It really does. I love it. I went to Julliard in New York and I always tried to be the 90-pound White girl. Only because we did a lot of classical training and all of the ingénues in Shakespeare were very small women. So I tried to make myself small. Literally. I don’t know how I did that. I was like thinking, “Small. Light.” I would try to have a higher voice, which sounds ridiculous right? But I felt like there’s only one way to be sexy. It’s almost like I felt like I had to disappear. But it feels really good to embrace exactly who I am and be my sexy or be my sexualized. To be my woman, you know? And it’s been the joy of my life. It really has and I think it found me at the right time of my life. When I really am very unapologetic for who I am. That helps other women, too. I think women want to see themselves on TV. I really do. I think we’re in the 21st century, I think we have to woman up. I think a lot of women have womaned up and we want to see ourselves and it feels great. And Shonda Rhimes, too, is the one who is fearless with it. You see it with Chandra Wilson, with Sandra Oh, Kerry Washington. She does it. She walks the walk. 

Would you say this show goes places network TV shows don’t typically go?
Absolutely. Just in terms of the casting. Just in terms of where it goes. I think it feels like a cable show. They push the button. This is an extraordinary circumstance that they put in the narrative. You have to push the buttons in order to be somewhat honest with it. I love it. Shonda always says, “It doesn’t feel unusual to me. It feels like Tuesday morning.” Putting a mixture of people who look like America. They look like the day to day. And to see moments played out that don’t beat you over the head. They’re just strong in the thread of the narrative. They make you go, “Oh, my God. That’s so familiar.” Then they keep going. It’s really good TV. 

What has surprised you while doing this show?
Some of the sexy scenes – the scene with me and Billy Brown (who plays Nate). There were a lot of takes. [laughs] I’m surprised I just dove in it, too. And he really goes for it. Billy likes taking off his shirt. He takes off his shirt 10 minutes before the scene starts! He likes it. He likes it. And it’s liberating. I feel a huge sense of responsibility to be honest and risk taking with Annalise. With certain parts, you have to think about your audience. I get it. But then, most progressive people who have moved anything forward, are the people who acknowledge that but then say, “I’m not going to kowtow to it 100 percent. I’m going to take a risk. I’m going to go in that one alleyway that hasn’t been explored and see how it lands.” And Shonda Rhimes, Betsy Beers, Peter Nowalk, Bill D’Elia are willing to go there. You’ll see in episode 13, I think. I just thought it was just brilliant writing. 

Can we talk about the midseason finale? What was it like to shoot it and how did you feel being there to tell Wes not to be sorry. 
I was like, “Man, why I gotta be there?” [laughs] Why couldn’t I have been at a burger joint? 

But it made sense. It was a total Usual Suspects moment, right?
It all connects. Even though you may have a hard time keeping up with it, it all connects. And by episode 15, we’re shooting it now, it just is fantastic. It’s another kind of blowout like episode nine. They top it. But along the way, there are some very touching moments as we move along – very touching and honest.  People feel like whatever is touching has got to be soft. Everything has got to be in a box. But it is touching in very unusual ways as we move along. I think. You’ll see. 

Who is Annalise most worried about cracking?
Connor. Connor is like I don’t know. He’s the most willing to crack as we move along. He probably wants his life back. 

Let’s talk about your SAG speech. How prepared were you, because it was so beautiful and eloquent?
Part of it was off of the cuff but part of it I have to say I thought about it. I did think about some of it because I just wanted to show that with actors, everything starts with the material. You can’t shine if you have two lines in the background as a bus driver. You can only shine if you’re included in the narrative and narratives start when you put pen to paper and you use your imagination. You just tell a story. That’s all you do. You tell a story. You don’t put any boundaries on it. It’s infinite and that’s the only way we can do what we do is that people use their imaginations so that we can be included in it.

How To Get Away with Murder airs 10 p.m. Thursdays on ABC.