While the Viola Davis-starring series “How to Get Away With Murder” is officially a part of the Shonda Rhimes TGIT empire, it is officially the domain of creator Peter Nowalk, whose strategy for the show includes a fast and loose approach to the show’s plotting. During a visit to ATVfest in Atlanta, GA, Indiewire got a chance to chat with the show’s large ensemble cast about adjusting their performances with the show’s twists and turns — and how their performances ended up shaping the show.
“We’re told very little. We find things out at table reads, sometimes the day before we start shooting. But I think we’ve been trusted though some of our own characters and we adapt to whatever the twist may be.
“Pete is always thinking, always writing. It’s a very collaborative show. I think it’s just as surprising to us as it is to the audience. It’s all really organic and it all just sort of took shape with our performances and their writing.
“How we played our characters helped them know what to do with them in a lot of ways. Pete always had a plan, but he had shaped it a million different ways over the course of the season.
“But yeah, it’s a very collaborative show. I think it’s just as surprising to us as it is to the audience. It’s all really organic and it all just sort of took shape with our performances and their writing. How we played our characters helped them know what to do with them, in a lot of ways. Pete always had a plan, but he had shaped it a million different ways over the course of the season.”
“That’s what’s great about being on air almost at the same time, because for example Pete would have something for one episode and if suddenly that twist isn’t congruent with something that happened in another episode, he’s able to then switch, take it out and replace it with something that works. He says we feed his decisions as much as he does.
“I think Michaela’s ring, Pete thought about it being lost in the pilot, on his feet, in the woods. Like, oh, it would be really interesting if Michaela’s ring got lost.
“As an actor, you have, let’s say, five takes and you want them to choose the one you want, so you do the same choice all five takes. But when the show started going, I started feeling more liberty started saying, OK, I’m gonna try three different things, which is very terrifying — but once you start really trusting them they can choose the one that fits the show best.”
“Especially on this kind of show there is temptation, as an actor, to play the end because you always want to anchor yourself in something. So there is a lot to be said about the depth of your performance in being prepared, but there is something quite nice about that being taken out of your hands, so you can just come and exist naturally in this space with these people and know that you’re taken care of and know that it will work out. They’ll help you understand what you’re doing, step by step.”
“I think the older I’ve gotten, I’ve become more comfortable with not knowing. Nobody really knows when they wake up how their day is gonna go, so I’ve gotten more comfortable embracing that. With our show it’s taken a little bit of getting used to. You just try to play the beats that you’re given to the best of your ability. And I think that Pete, our creator, is sensitive and there’s a nice collaboration there. I think he’s sort of seeing how it’s played and what everyone brings to it, and then that may inform how he writes the next bit of it. So it’s nice. There’s a lot of trust there. When we do see that he’s informed from something we do it’s something that we’re not even aware of.
“There is a moment in the pilot, where there’s news footage about the body of Lila being found, and there’s a look on my face reacting to that. Later on, there was a whole thing about my character meeting her later on and I do feel like he sort of used the way that I responded to that footage as a more personal connection that wasn’t necessarily in the writing.”
“I think when you’re dealing with very tenuous scenes and difficult and heavy subject matter, it’s important to be close intimately with your cast as friends, and be able to diffuse a lot of that tension and trust each other with the work.
“I think that last minute rewrites on our show and other Shondaland shows are viable because everyone who does the casting has done such a good job that I trust my castmates completely when I walk onto set. And even if there is a last minute change I believe in our process as a unit, and the directors and editors and everyone who is collaborating to make this final product. Yeah, it throw us off momentarily but we’re confident that working together we can achieve the end goal.
“I find it really exciting, especially to be working with somebody like Matt McGorry, who plays Asher. The writers are really doing a good job of writing to his abilities now. Early on the season he would take the written dialogue and the scene as is and he would expand upon it and sort of elaborate within certain boundaries, and that’s sort of the beauty of television is that yes, there’s sort of this crunch for time but if you take a risk then beautiful things can happen and the environment is conducive to that creative process. So I myself have been trying to learn from people like Matt where he comes prepared, but he brings options. Which I think is emblematic of how collaborative the writing of TV really is.”
“I love not knowing where it’s going. I think it’s too easy to subconsciously play the ending of something you’re gearing up for it. It’s better sometimes to not necessarily see it coming. An example is, for a lot of the pilot when Bonnie would come in the room Asher would just be grilling her, and clearly attracted to her, and they didn’t use any of that in the pilot. It’s probably a good thing because I think they saved it for later on but it at least put an idea in their heads.
“If I knew that was going to be a thing, I might have tried to pepper it in too much and hint at it. In these storylines you want the right angles and I think that makes it more appealing to the audience, because they tend to come out of nowhere.”
“You’ll get those last minute scenes sometimes and you’ll have one idea about something and they’re wanting to go in a completely different direction or they’ll have no idea what direction they want to go in. You just have to make a really strong choice and jump in with both feet and pray to God it all makes sense.”