Cicely Tyson has been a fixture on television, film, and in the theater for decades. One of her latest roles has been playing the mother of Annalise Keating on ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder, a role that’s earned her four Emmy nominations, and a possible fifth nomination for the show’s final season. Awards Daily spoke to Cicely Tyson about how the role of Ophelia Harkness fell into her lap, and what it means to be apart of another groundbreaking piece of television.
Awards Daily: How did you get involved with How To Get Away With Murder? Were you familiar with Shonda Rhimes and the show before you agreed to sign on?
Cicely Tyson: I wasn’t familiar with Shonda Rhimes. I got involved because I received a telephone call at that time that the agent of Viola Davis saying that she would like me to play her mother on How To Get Away With Murder.
AD: That’s amazing! Were you excited to take on the role?
CT: I was stunned! (Laughs) I hadn’t met Viola Davis, I just knew of her work and had tremendous respect for her and the way she was handling herself in the business, and I thought I’d be the farthest thing from her mind. I didn’t even know they were doing a mother role on How To Get Away With Murder, so when they came to me saying they wanted me to play her mother, I was a little thrown off balance.
AD: Throughout your time on the series you and Viola Davis shared some powerful scenes. What was the rehearsing process like with Ms. Davis?
CT: Well, I have to admit to you that I’m not a rehearsing person.
CT: When I get a script and I know the role is mine, I start working on it right away! It comes to me as I read the scripts 100 times. Every time I read it, I get some more of the woman that I’m being asked to project. So, that’s how I learn my lines! I just try to explore as much as I possibly can. Every time I read the scripts, I try to get more of the character. When I get to the set, I’m ready! I don’t require much rehearsal, I’m ready to shoot! Out of respect for others in the scene, I will rehearse, but I’m not the person to give it all in the rehearsal. I let them do what they need to do, and I react in kind. Once the director yells “ACTION!” it’s go time.
AD: Over the years we’ve seen your character Ophelia and Annalise have their ups and downs. What are your thoughts on how the writers handled the dynamics between these two strong black women?
CT: There’s so much that went on in their lives that contradict each other. Annalise thinks it’s one thing and her mother thinks it’s something else. The relationship with her father, and the relationship between her mother and father, and so it was always tumultuous because none of them took the moment to sit down and listen to what was going on with the other. So they had this constant conflict all the time because they didn’t know who each other was. They never took the time to sit down and find out what was the actual problem in their relationship, that’s always been their issue. Anyone who knows anything about mother and daughter relationships knows how trying that relationship can be at times. It could be hot as the devil or sweet as apple pie!
AD: What will you remember and cherish the most about playing Ophelia and being apart of How To Get Away With Murder?
CT: I like complex characters because it gives me something to chew on. If it’s easy, it’s not a challenge. This character made me sit down and work the character out like a puzzle. When I get the corners squared, I know how to fill it in.
AD: How To Get Away With Murder will go down in TV history as a groundbreaking piece of television that shows a multi-faceted black woman who’s strong but also vulnerable and extremely flawed. How do you feel about being a part of another groundbreaking piece of work that’ll be remembered for years to come?
CT: All I can say is that it takes too long for shows like this to come around. It takes so long for people to realize what we have, what Black people have. Why does it take so long to find out we’re human beings? We have smart people! We’re people just like everyone else! When we get an opportunity, others often get shocked and say “Wow, do you see what she [Shonda Rhimes] did? She has three shows running simultaneously.” You realize that we have the same given talent that everyone else has. Give us the opportunity, and we’ll show you what magic can be done!