Cicely Tyson: Viola Davis ‘Just Took My Breath Away’ The First Time I Saw Her Act

Annalise Keating has gone from getting her hands dirty to getting them completely filthy on “How to Get Away with Murder.”

Hurting and conflicted after Nate was arrested for her husband’s murder (she and Frank framed him by making sure her lover’s fingerprint was put on Sam’s wedding band and placed in the woods), Annalise curled up in bed and made a phone call to her mother.

On Thursday’s “HTGAWM,” Cicely Tyson enters the picture as Ophelia, mother to Viola Davis’ Annalise.

WATCH: Shonda Rhimes Raves Over Cicely Tyson’s ‘HTGAWM’ Performance

It’s been widely reported that series star Davis was the one who came up with the idea to get the Hollywood legend to play Annalise’s maternal figure on the show, something asked Ms. Tyson about when we spoke to her this week. And while she hasn’t spoken to Davis since they filmed “HTGAWM” together, Tyson shared with Access emotional words about her connection with her fellow artist. Was Viola the one that came to you and convinced you to do the show?
Cicely Tyson:
She never came to me. I did not know that she was responsible until I read it in the paper. She never said a word to me. You know, it’s so hard to talk about because I get very emotional. She apparently went to the powers that be and said, ‘I want Cicely Tyson to play my mom.’ And I understand that they said, ‘Well, that’s a brilliant idea, but will she do it?’ And then, they approached my people and when I heard it I thought, ‘Oh my God,’ but they didn’t tell me that she was responsible.

WATCH: Cicely Tyson Visits ‘HTGAWM’

Access: You said when you talk about it you get emotional, is that because of the close connection that you have with Viola, or was it just–
Ms. Tyson:
Well, it’s because she just qualified my concept of her being. I worked on the movie ‘[The] Help.’ I did not have any scenes with Viola, but we did talk from time to time, and then she did a number of interviews in which she never failed to mention me as an inspiration, just watching when she was younger – watching whatever I did, and when we [talked], there was something about… the depth of her being that reached me, not only as an artist, but as a human being and that is what qualifies her to be the artist that she is.

Access: Right. As you were saying that, I was thinking I wonder how Viola – if her performances inspire you as well? As an artist, you’re always growing.
Ms. Tyson:
Absolutely. There’s no question about it. The first time I saw her, she just took my breath away and what I felt was more than what I saw, if you understand that. And so I knew that this was someone super special and so when she… took it upon herself to go to the powers that be and say, ‘I want Cicely Tyson, to play my mom,’ I can’t tell you what that… means to me.

Access: I’ve got to ask you, before we get into Ophelia, what did you think of the character Annalise?
Ms. Tyson:
She’s a very complex woman. That’s what makes her unique. At one point, when you think you understand who she is, she becomes somebody else, and this is [the] sum total of her life’s experience that surfaces from time to time. You never really know how she’s going to handle anything.

Access: It’s so true! You get to play her mom, and we understand from a previous episode that Annalise grew up in a violent household. What more are we going to get to learn through seeing Ophelia on the show?
Ms. Tyson:
I’m not going to tell you that (laughs, and laughs). You’ll see it! You’ll see it and you’ll discern for yourself whether it’s worthy or not.

WATCH: Alfred Enoch & Katie Findlay Discuss ‘How To Get Away With Murder’ Twists

Access: Shonda Rhimes told us on a red carpet that watching you and Viola together was ‘electric’–
Ms. Tyson:
I hope so.

Access: Did you and Viola feel the connection? Was it hard to do a scene where you feel that kind of energy coming off of another actress?
Ms. Tyson:
Well, I don’t know. I can only speak for myself. When I’m in the moment, I am in the moment. I don’t think about whether it’s hard or it’s not hard. The moment speaks for itself and the moment dictates the action. So, that’s the way I work, and apparently, Viola works similarly because we somehow or another — when that moment surfaced it was volatile.

Access: Wow. Viola gets very bare on this show with no makeup and no wig. Are we going to get to see your character, Ophelia, laid bare as well? Is that something that we might get to see happen?
Ms. Tyson:
You’ll see it when you see it (laughs).

Access: I’m trying so hard here.
Ms. Tyson:
(Laughs) I know! You’re pretty good.

Access: I’m going to keep trying… I have to ask you what you think personally about how raw Annalise is on the show. She takes off the wig and she doesn’t wear makeup  [in some scenes] and I know for Viola, she’s talked about how important she thinks that is to show on television and I was curious what your thoughts were on that – on showing women that way on TV?
Ms. Tyson:
Well… I said earlier she’s very complex, and she is [also] somewhat tormented because there are so many facets to her life that she has brought about herself. She left, she graduated college and [this] brilliant woman suddenly found herself living in a realm that she herself, I don’t think anticipated would come to her that quickly. And I think one of her difficulties is the absence of her childhood, or her mother… She has found herself in a totally different world, really complicated. And I think she’s vacillating back and forth, in and out of that world. Once she is herself, pure and naked, and then she’s camouflage, you know? And that, I think, is the end result of not having the wholeness of her life.

Access: That’s a good point. … Would you like to come back on the show?
Ms. Tyson:
Well, I certainly would love to work with her again, there’s no question about it.

Access: Do you ladies lunch? Do you and Viola keep in touch?
Ms. Tyson:
I actually have not talked to her since I left the set. I deliberately did not do that. I have sent her notes. I’ve connected in other ways, but I have not talked to her because I did not want to feel – I don’t even know if I could express what it is. I wanted to keep the distance until the show aired. I really needed to do that. I did try to call her the other day when I learned that she was responsible [for bringing me on as her mother], but she was out and I didn’t leave a message, and so I said, ‘Well, I guess I’m not supposed to talk to her.’ And I really feel the need to kind of like, hold off until it’s over.

Access: Wow. So let me just ask you finally, are you going to be Tweeting on Thursday night when the show is on?
Ms. Tyson:
Oh, I don’t know (laughs). I tell everybody I’m going to Dubai (laughs). I won’t be around because [Ophelia is] quite different from anyone that I’ve ever played and so I don’t what the response is gonna be and I’m not so sure I want to be around (laughs). I say I’m gonna get on a plane and fly to Dubai and when it’s all over, I’ll come back.

WATCH: Matt McGorry Talks Asher & Bonnie On ‘HTGAWM’

“HTGAW” airs Thursday at 10 PM ET/PT on ABC.

Jolie Lash

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