Viola Davis is far more approachable than her portrayal of "How to Get Away With Murder's" cunning and complex defense attorney Annalise Keating would have you believe. If anything, she was tentative as she moved into the polished dark wood expanse of her Grenada Hills home with her buoyant little girl, Genesis, at her side.
It was a bright Sunday morning, and the venerable Cicely Tyson — "Miss Tyson" to Davis — was due to call any minute to discuss their Emmy-nominated performances as mother and daughter on ABC's much-heralded legal drama. The anticipation was palpable.
"I hear she walks the Santa Monica stairs," Davis said of Tyson, settling in to her compact upstairs office to wait. "When I heard that, I said, 'I can't put my finger on that woman.' [In one scene,] she had to pick me up from the bed. I thought, 'I hope she doesn't hurt herself.' It took everything in my power not to roll off the bed! She lifted my entire body."
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As Davis waited, the newly minted 50-year-old marveled at finally being "No. 1 on the call sheet." Playing Annalise, she said, has been the most invigorating experience of her career because she challenges all expectations of what it means to be an African American woman in the 21st century.
"It's very important to explore a woman who looks like me," she said, surrounded by walls crowded with framed nominations and shelves of statuettes. "It's very important to explore a woman who doesn't know how to walk in heels. Who's not a size 2. Who wears wigs and eyelashes and has painted-on eyebrows. A woman who is not who you want her to be. But is everything you say she's not."
And then the phone rang. It was Tyson calling. At the sound of the elder actress' voice, Davis, a two-time Oscar nominee and two-time Tony Award winner, was suddenly squirming like a girl.
Davis requested Tyson to play her mother on the show, Ophelia, a steel magnolia if there ever was one. They'd never worked together before, though both appeared in the 2011 drama "The Help."
Yet when "HTGAWM" creator and show runner Peter Nowalk first discussed the role with Tyson, she had the same ideas for her character that Davis had.
"It was like they were in a mind meld, just as actors and as black women, who really understood Annalise," he said. "From watching the show, Cicely could feel the pain and secrets that Annalise had experienced as a child. They really brought so much of themselves to that scene. They bared their souls."
Tyson, with an Oscar nomination and two Emmys of her own, who famously endured a tumultuous marriage to Miles Davis, said she welled up with tears when she heard that Davis had requested her. Yet, the moment the women met, Tyson was already in character.
"When I walked in and I saw her standing at the door to greet me and this beautiful smile on her face, I knew if I broke that moment I would be finished," said Tyson. Rather than embrace Davis, she said, "I totally rejected her."
"When I was met by that big wall," Davis replied, "then I thought to myself, 'OK. Maybe I need to get working!' I really felt like a child being reprimanded by a parent, that kind of smallness you feel, which I felt was appropriate."
The actors shared just a few scenes on the show. The one African American bloggers declared the "blackest" moment on TV depicts Annalise on the floor as her mother Ophelia combs her hair. In a lilting Southern accent, Ophelia acknowledges the sexual abuse her daughter suffered as a child and makes a life-changing confession that echoes the title of the show.
Tyson, 90, still gets emotional recalling that scene. She said she's routinely stopped by fans to talk about it.
"I don't know a black woman on the face of this universe that did not identify with that particular scene because that's what our mothers did with us," she said. "They snapped us between their legs and combed our hair. Any problems that existed between the two of them, they tried to work out that way."
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Davis said it was the naked human emotion they shared that has resonated with audiences. But Tyson felt her costar was short-changing herself. She referenced Davis' impoverished upbringing in 1960s South Carolina, living in a rat-infested, condemned apartment building, hungry most days. Davis is now a spokeswoman for Hunger Is, a charity to end childhood hunger jointly sponsored by the Entertainment Industry Foundation and the Safeway Foundation.
"The thing I believe makes her instrument so great is what she herself has gone through during the course of her life," said Tyson. "That is something that enriches your being. That allows you to give what you do."
Davis nodded, embarrassed. Then the fan in her finally burst forth.
"It was in that apartment that I saw you for the first time in 'Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,'" said Davis. "Me and my sisters just sitting there. It changed all of our lives. There's always a place in your life for a dream to be born. I remember the day like yesterday. You gave me permission to dream."