As season one of ABC’s hit series, How to Get Away with Murder, draws to a close, creator Pete Nowalk can’t help but feel awed by all the excitement surrounding the show. Yet, he credits much of the success to his actors, namely Viola Davis, who has earned endless amounts of praise and a SAG Award for her turn as Annalise Keating, the tough-as-nails lawyer and professor trying to find a balance between justice and skirting the law to protect her clients and her students.
“I just feel lucky. [Viola] is the best collaborator ever,” Nowalk gushes about Davis. “She has such good instincts about the character and really helped create her every step of the way. She just makes it so much fun to write for. And the show works because of that.”
Those instincts included pitching two now-iconic moments on the show. The first is when Annalise removes her wig and wipes away her makeup exposing a raw, unshielded woman at the end of episode four. The other being last week’s episode when Cicely Tyson guest starred as Annalise’s mother, Ophelia Harkness, who delivered several intense moments, which brought fans to their knees with excitement and adoration.
“I felt like an audience member being able to sit back and watch those scenes as well,” the creator says of last week’s powerful episode, which even involved Shonda Rhimes in the writers’ room. “It was all hands on deck to make sure we were giving these two powerhouse actors material that was worthy of them.”
Rhimes even called on a real-life experience to help script Tyson’s VIP one-liner. “That’s her story so I definitely don’t want to tell that,” Nowalk reveals not wanting to divulge in his former boss’ secrets. “But I will say that a few years ago she told us the story. It’s hysterical. When we were all working on the script, we put it in. It was just too perfect.”
While it’s easy to praise both Davis and Tyson, Nowalk doesn’t stop there. The love, appreciation, and creative inspiration extend to the rest of the supporting players. “I love collaborating with them and taking parts of them and using that as inspiration for the character,” he says.
For instance, when it came to Laurel’s ethnicity -- something not defined in the first 10 episodes of the season -- it was a matter of asking Karla Souza if she was OK with her character having a Latin surname. While Connor and Oliver’s romance was driven by Nowalk’s admiration for Jack Falahee and Conrad Ricamora. “I’m just reacting to what I’m seeing and who we cast and who these people are,” he adds.
He also singles out Billy Brown for much overdue praise for his work as Detective Nate Lahey. “He always plays that [role] soulfully and strong and real,” Nowalk says, reflecting on last week’s montage with Nate’s arrest. “I really feel that pain.”
Ultimately, HTGAWM is a character-driven show and that’s what he hopes fans like the most. ”We just trust that people are interested enough in these characters and want to watch where they go,” Nowalk says with a mix of hope and confidence, considering the ratings powerhouse the show has become.
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The two-hour finale of HTGAWM airs at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.