'How to Get Away With Murder's' Cicely Tyson on TV's Diversity Push: "We've Come a Long Way"

THR talks with the legendary actress about the ABC drama and the mother of all guest roles.
Courtesy of ABC

Sometimes even the most successful and powerful women just need a little help from their mom. After being called a murderer and framing her on-again, off-again lover Nate (Billy Brown) for the death of her husband — and to protect her murderous students — Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) finally had the mental breakdown that's been 12 episodes in the making on ABC's How to Get Away With Murder. What's a woman to do when even her precious vodka can't help anymore? Call her mother, of course.

Enter the illustrious Cicely Tyson, who joins the fray of Shondaland's gripping How to Get Away With Murder this week as Ophelia, the matriarch of one of TV's most complex women.

Will Ophelia be able to save Annalise from herself? Or is it like mother, like daughter? The Hollywood Reporter spoke with the venerable Tyson to discuss what's in store for these two women, their complicated relationship and why this character makes her want to fly to Dubai.

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From the hints we've seen so far on the show, it appears as though Annalise and her mother don't have the closest of relationships. What's Ophelia's reaction when she first arrives at the house?

She feels disappointed in what she sees when she arrives at her home. She's disappointed in the state of the home. She's even more disappointed in Annalise's physical state because it indicates her mental state, which is not present at all. So, this of course is very disturbing. She receives a phone call from Annalise saying, "I need you," [but] she did not know the extent to which she was needed, and it's a little troubling, to say the least, to find what she did when she arrived.

With the accusations against Annalise flying around in the last episode, does Ophelia believe that Annalise could be capable of something like killing her husband?

She has no idea, and that's why she point blank asks her. She knows that Annalise's husband was murdered, and she may or may not feel that she, Annalise, had reason to do it. She doesn't know, but she knows that she has to find out, and the only way she can find out is to honestly ask her, "Did you do it?" And she assures to her that it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter to her whether Annalise did it or not. "I'm not the judge," she said. I just want to know if she did.

Last episode, Hannah Keating (Marcia Gay Harden) mentioned that Annalise came from a "violent home." How will Ophelia's presence reveal more about Annalise's history? Does the apple fall far from the tree?

Well, if I tell you that I would be giving you the core of the story, which I'm not privy to do. However, I can safely say, if you have been watching the show and been studying this woman, she is simply the sum total of all of her life experience. She is still is fighting to find who she is. She doesn't know. And I explained earlier to someone that that is the reason why she goes from nakedness to camouflage. There are moments where she is really — she strips herself, like the removal of the wig and no makeup, and then suddenly she's glamorous with wig and the makeup [again]. She herself is searching for who Annalise really is at this stage in her life.

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In that case, will her mother serve as a mirror for Annalise? Will Ophelia finally help Annalise see herself?

Absolutely. When she calls and tells her mother how much she needs her, that route, no matter how violent her early life was, the substance of it was her mother and that's what she needs right now — not all of the glamour and the opulence that surrounds her. It means nothing to her now. She needs the earthiness of her mother.

Although Annalise finally broke down and called for help, it appears as if there is still some disconnect between the two. What kind of walls do they still have between them?

Well, there's been a wall for a long time. And, I think Ophelia is put in a position that she despises. I say that because, this is the first time that she has been invited to this opulent home. And she is somewhat resentful that [Annalise] waits until she's in trouble to invite her. And so there is, there is a strain that is very evident. There is no question of what they're feeling towards each other because of the way she reacts to the state that Annalise is in and the resentment Annalise that feels about that. So there is a tremendous strain at the very beginning of their meeting.

With the push and pull of their relationship and Annalise in such a fragile state, will Ophelia's presence bring Annalise back from the brink or finally send her over the edge?

(Laughs.) That's left to be seen. You'll see that when you're viewing it.

It's such a heightened situation that you're playing. What was is like working with Viola Davis as you navigated this complicated relationship?

Well, you know, to me, when I encounter a situation with an actor or actress that allows the matter or the situation or the scene or however you refer to it to flow, it's not work at all. It's something that truly exists. It is. And that's what I loved in this experience working with Viola. It was. It just was.

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It's been two decades since you starred in and were Emmy-nominated for the legal drama Sweet Justice. Now, Viola Davis just won a SAG Award for a very different type of legal drama. With such prominent roles for women of color in TV nowadays, how have you seen the industry change?

I think we've come a long way, to answer your question directly, because, you know, when I look at the roster of women working on television today and the different positions they are. Well, you have Oprah who has her own network, you have Shonda [Rhimes] who has three major and very successful shows on a network and another one on the way ABC pilot The Catch]. You have actors and actresses, [Alfre Woodard] is playing the president [on NBC's State of Affairs]. It's special that the first female president is a black female that is the president. And then you have Taraji [P. Henson] with the hugely successful Empire[on Fox]. I mean, it's a wealth of talent that has been dormant for so long, that has finally been recognized and they're all successful. You have Angela Bassett, who has just directed [Lifetime's] Whitney. I mean, when I compare it to what, my time, it just didn't exist. There were no [opportunities]. I remember one director that was black and that was Vinnette Carroll. It's awesome, that's all I have to say. Really, it's very exciting and I hope it's not a temporary state. I just hope that it will continue to go. You know, Tyler Perry did wonders for blacks through his company. He hired actresses that never really thought they had a chance on the screen, in movies or in television and that's poured into the market, the talent market, more artists that would have never had the opportunity, but because they had that experience with him, they could venture into the larger market. And I just hope it continues to go that way.

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Shifting back to Murder, what is the one thing fans and viewers can expect from your character in this next episode?

I think they'll see a performance that they've not, in terms of the character that I play, that they've not seen before and that's going to open up quite a few eyes. That's why I want to take a plane and go to Dubai (laughs). I keep telling everybody, they keep asking me, "Which party are you going to?" and I'm not going to any party because people are going to be so surprised when they see the character, Ophelia, that I don't know what the reaction is going to be. So, I'm going to get on a plane and fly to Dubai and when it's all over I'll come back. At least, at this time it is [a good plan]. There are some people who have seen it and are quite moved by it, I think a lot of people are curious about the relationship and are anxious to see the two of us together and what the end result will be and you'll only know after you've seen it.

Excited for Tyson's appearance on How to Get Away With Murder? Wondering what goes down between the two women? Sound off in the comments below. Murder airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.

Twitter: @NotPhelan

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