In one of the more compelling sessions at Cannes, three major talents in the TV business discussed the necessity of creative risk. The moderator, Scott Roxborough of The Hollywood Reporter, tossed a few softballs but mostly listened, while the intense and complicated actor Viola Davis, cute-as-a-button series creator Peter Nowalk, and powerhouse producer Betsy Beers (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Private Practice) held forth about their critically acclaimed show, How to Get Away with Murder. They talked about overcoming the fear of failure.
And they talked about being part of the exclusive club whose Grand Poobah is Shonda Lynn Rhimes, who has been kicking the ass of the television world since 2005, when Grey’s Anatomy first steamed up the flat screen. These are some of the best people working in TV right now, and their wisdom deserves to be heard in their own words. So here they are:
Roxborough: “It doesn’t seem that the problem is getting content anymore,” he said, “the problem is getting content that people want to watch.”
And so, what’s a producer to do? Create a compelling drama, with a great lead actor, and screw formula.
Viola Davis, on her lead role as attorney Annalise Keating: “There was no doubt I needed to take the role. Because Annalise is described with adjectives applied to characters that I never get—messy, mysterious, and sexy. Once I saw myself in the role, I thought, I don’t look like the idea of what a sexy, mysterious woman is supposed to look like on TV. I saw my lashes, and I saw the wig, and I saw that 15 pounds I tried to lose but didn’t lose. [It] goes into the whole arena of failure. When you are liberated from that, that’s when you find your voice as an artist…. But whenever you are different you have to be OK with failure.” Roxborough drew Davis out on the point, which was really about race.
Davis: “I’ve never seen a woman of color, a black woman, like me on television. I always bring it up because I think it’s important to bring it up. To unmask the big white elephant in the room.”
Roxborough pivoted to Nowalk, asking about the inspiration for How to Get Away With Murder, and what it was like to pitch the show. Nowalk: “[It] came from the simple idea of what would it be like for me, as a very normal person, to throw myself into an extreme situation, like a murder. Obviously, there’s a very escapist, fun quality to the show. I’m a normal person. I lead my boring little life. What would make it crazy and exciting? That’s what I want to watch on TV.
Roxborough: Did you get much resistance?
Nowalk: “No. Luckily, I had Betsy there, and my other mentor, Shonda Lynn. The pitch was actually the pilot. It was all my initial instincts. And that’s one thing I learned: What’s your first answer? Go with it. The script was the script. But Annalise didn’t come alive until Viola played her…. [On] the first call she told us [she] wanted to see Annalise take her wig off. It opened up my world.”
Foxborough to Davis: “Why would you do that? It seems to go against your idea of being the most attractive woman you could see on TV.”
Davis: “Because I very rarely see a real woman on TV. All of the women I know in my life who are sexual, and who are anywhere from a size 0 to a size 24, we take our wigs off, we take our makeup off, at night.”
Foxborough, paraphrased: There is a certain persona that you’ve created, from Grey’s Anatomy to Scandal, and now How to Get Away With Murder.
Beers: “[Shonda and I] both came from movies. I’d never done television before. and and she was a movie writer. I really sucked at making movies. Everything I touched bombed. I was the Typhoid Mary of movies. Shonda Lynn came in [to the office where I used to work], and we hit it off.
We thought, what if there’s this world…with messy, confused, twisty women, and strange relationships, and people who are competitive but still can be friends. So, we pitched it, and they bought the script. We were the last show to get picked up for pilot, because people really didn’t know what they were looking at…. The women were kind of puzzling. They were having sex a lot. But they picked us up and people liked the show. So it turns out our instincts were not so shitty.
Foxborough: Was there pushback from the channel (ABC)?
Beers: “We did run into a certain amount of conflict. Shonda and I went into a meeting and there was this person [who] said: ‘How could you possibly take a doctor seriously who, the night before she goes to her first job, she goes out and gets drunk and has sex with a stranger?’ Shonda said, ‘Actually, that’s me. Right before the first day of my first job, I went out, I got drunk.’”
Nowalk to Beers: “I remember, before I ever knew you, I was a fanboy [of Grey’s Anatomy]. It was revolutionary to start the show the morning after a one-night stand. I was like, really, this is on TV? It felt shocking.”
Beers: The great thing about Pete Nowalk is that he’s worked on the trifecta of Shonda shows [Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal.]
Nowalk: “I’ve grown up in the Shonda Lynn world. I’m lucky … I write a lot of the show in the morning, at my kitchen island, in my little house with my dog sitting there, and it doesn’t feel ‘big.’ For me, it’s just, keeping my own bubble.”
Beers: “Shonda and I talk about the bubble a lot. We spend so much time at work that it actually creates this kind of safe environment where you just keep asking yourself, Do I really like this? Because you have a choice between fear and passion. You can be super-terrified all time that it’s not gonna work, or you just keep coming back to, Do I love this? We try to make only stuff that we really love.”
Foxborough: Since this session is about fear of failure, I’d like to close with asking you. What are you still terrified of?
Nowalk: “I’m terrified about the next episode—always.”
Beers: “I’m terrified that I’m going to stop growing…. I’m terrified of repeating myself, of repeating ourselves. I’m terrified about losing my curiousity, so I’m hyper-vigilant about that.”
Davis: “I’m absolutely terrified to not have the courage to be authentic. I remember I said at one point to a manager, I don’t care if anyone thinks I’m not pretty. I don’t have any of that fear. And she said, ‘Yeah, but as you go along, it’s going to get harder.’ I said, ‘Enough of that!’ But it does get harder…. You have to find new ways to be OK with having the courage to have a voice.”