Marcia Gay Harden on 'HTGAWM': 'Arguing Is in My Blood'

The actress, who has a buzzy guest arc on the hit ABC series, talks to ETonline about being TV's go-to guest star.

Annalise Keating’s (Violas Davis) world in ABC’s hit series, How to Get Away With Murder, just got a lot more complicated with the arrival of Hannah Keating, her late husband’s sister played by Marcia Gay Harden.

Their 20-year history is complicated, to say the least. “They’ve never gotten along, they’ve always butted heads,” Harden tells ETonline. “It’s about -- for Hannah, I should say -- Annalise's initial breaking of the moral code, breaking up a marriage.”

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The Oscar-winning actress, who was only seen briefly at the end of the winter premiere, made a clear impression on fans. As one of TV’s go-to actors for guest arcs, Harden knows how to make the most of her screen time -- even opposite Davis, fellow Oscar winner and recent Golden Globe honoree.

In fact, Harden promises that the impending showdown between Hannah and Annalise will be “fantastic,” but she doesn’t stop there. ETonline jumped on the phone with Harden to chat about going head-to-head with Davis, joining Shonda Rimes’ TGIT lineup, and becoming TV’s favorite pinch-hitter.


ETonline: Your character, Hannah, is clearly at odds with Annalise. Can you tell us a little more about that dynamic?

Marcia Gay Harden: The behavior of the two ladies is remarkably different. Hannah is this open person who would rather being a warm and cozy person even though you don’t really get to see her have that opportunity in this world. But that is more where she would be comfortable. She’s a psychiatrist. She likes to think out in the open.

Annalise is very, very different. She’s very masked, covered, brusque, and blunt. She’s not charming. Annalise lacks a kind of a charm but she is a sensual general. But she doesn’t charm or grace. She just says it like it is. I think that Hannah operates very differently and would find that bluntness and directness offensive. You know, we had to make it up.

What’s it like to go head-to-head with Viola Davis?

It’s fantastic. We do have a showdown at the end of tonight’s episode. We improv’d a bit … Fortunately, the director and writers are very cool and that we could -- within the boundaries of what we knew -- try anything. There’s definitely yelling and slamming tables.

I don’t what they kept. I don’t know what you’ll see but I know the work and process was pretty exciting. And the scene ends with a shocking discovery and everything changes from then on for the ladies.

The show has become noted for pushing the boundaries of race and sexuality on TV. What’s it like to be a part of that forward momentum?

I’m not really in those kinds of scenes but it’s exciting to be a part of a show that is speaking to so many people. It feels like it’s on the pulse of where we are today -- generationally, gay characters, characters of all different races, strong sensual relationships, and of course, you have the interracial relationship. To me, it’s on the pulse of how we are, of how society really is. People are responding to it and it’s fantastic as opposed to boycotting because it’s not representing what certain people want to see but this is what people want to see. It tells us something better about ourselves as a country and that’s good.

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You seem like the perfect actress for any of Shonda Rimes’ series. How have we not seen you on Thursday nights before now?

[Laughs] Let me call Shonda, let me ask her!

You’re something of a pinch-hitter when it comes to TV dramas. What’s it like coming in for these special arcs on shows like Damages, Law & Order: SVU, and The Newsroom?

Well it’s good and it’s bad. Law & Order is a different structure because I’m a guest star. Each episode is a complete arc. On Newsroom, Rebecca’s a part of the story as I am in Murder. So it’s not like each episode I’m doing a showy little number and tap out of there. But the writers, like Aaron Sorkin [creator of The Newsroom] and Pete Nowalk [creator of HTGAWM], they are writing stuff for me. That feels like an incredible honor and I don’t take it lightly if they say, “Marcia Gay can handle this. Let’s throw this dialogue at her.” Or “I thought of Marcia Gay for this.” And that makes me go, “Awww, that feels great!” But that’s what you want -- a writer to see what you can do or challenge you to do something you think you couldn’t do or use a certain skillset that you might have. That’s what you want, that’s when acting becomes fun.

You’ve played an attorney or law official a number of times. Does that character run in your blood?

[Laughs] You’re really asking if arguing runs in my blood, that’s really what you’re asking me.

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And does arguing run in your blood?

Of course it does! The investigation of right and wrong and the investigation of humanity -- that's what runs in my blood. That’s why Hannah was so interesting because she has a very strong moral code and she’s always looking down her nose at other people even though she doesn’t mean to. Everyone has their flaws. Everyone has their Achilles’ heel. Everyone has their soft spot. And that’s always interesting to me.

Having spouted all that legal jargon for so many years, do you know what any of it means?

Oh hell no! No, no, I don’t know -- at all. It’s like medical jargon, you learn it and then you forget it.

Final question before we wrap: The First Wives Club is headed to the stage. Any chance you’ll go see it?

I didn’t even know it was happening! You’re even more in the know than me. Let me pull my head out of the clouds for a minute. They’re doing a musical of The First Wives Club? Come on! Of course, I’ll try to see it. [Laughs]

How to Get Away With Murder
airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.