'How to Get Away With Murder's' Liza Weil on "Devastating" Death Reveal and 'Gilmore Girls' Return

The actress discusses the season-long murder arc and differentiating Paris Geller and Bonnie Winterbottom.
Mitch Haaseth/ABC

Liza Weil is no stranger to Shondaland. Before becoming a series regular as Bonnie Winterbottom on How to Get Away With Murder, the actress guest-starred on both Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice and appeared on the first season of Scandal in a six-episode arc. Beyond that, many passionate Gilmore Girls fans recognize her to this day as the quirky overachiever Paris Geller, a role Weil recently reprised for the upcoming November release of the four-part Netflix revival Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.

However, Weil is still plenty busy with her full-time gig on Murder, having recently learned which leading character was under that sheet in the third-season premiere. THR caught up with the actress to discuss her character’s loyalties to Annalise (Viola Davis) and Frank (Charlie Weber), the ongoing comparisons between the Bonnie and Paris characters and how everyone reacted on set to learning which character dies this season.

How has playing Bonnie evolved from the first season to now?

The main difference is that, in season one, we were working with a minimal framework of who these people were; we had no idea what the origin story was of how these people came together. I had no idea what the Bonnie backstory was. So there were a lot of broad strokes I had to fill in for myself. Having the Bonnie backstory was helpful for digging deeper into who she is and knowing the things that make her tick and just what her general mythology is. That backstory was a huge surprise, but also something that I've been really grateful to be able to explore. Now, after the way last season ended, she’s questioning her identity in that house. Frank’s absence is a huge loss, and it’s surprising how deeply she is feeling that. She didn't really recognize her bond with Frank until he was gone. So that is definitely something we are going to be exploring throughout the course of season three.

When it comes down to it, would she pick Frank or Annalise?

That is certainly something we are going to explore with Bonnie this season. She has a very complicated relationship with Annalise and feels profound loyalty toward her. But things come up over the course of the season that make her question whether she can trust Annalise. There is also a very deep bond between Bonnie and Frank that comes into play. These are both very damaged people who understand each other in a way that only damaged people can.

What can you tease about who dies and how it affects everyone?

It's pretty dark. It’s going to hit a lot closer to home. One of us is going to die, and it's going to be very heartbreaking and shocking, and it's not going to be what people expect. There is this primal need that these characters have to connect. There's sort of an element that any relationship can turn physical and sexual at any time just because of this hunger to feel a connection to a person. The stakes and emotions that everyone is feeling all the time are so intense.

What was your reaction to learning who dies?

It was devastating. [Death] is an element of the show, and it is part of why the show is so successful in terms of how invested people are with these characters. We are all extremely close, we work on this thing that does get very dark and intense all the time, so there's a strong bond between us all. We knew that whoever it was going to be was going to be somebody that was extremely difficult and heartbreaking. Once we found out who it was, we were all even more devastated than we thought we would be.

This role was completely reimagined once creator Peter Nowalk saw you for the part; how was your take on Bonnie different?

There wasn't very much of Bonnie in the pilot. It was indicated that this person would become important in the house, but it was not something we got to explain in the pilot. I read a scene between Bonnie and Laurel, where Bonnie was warning her about Frank and viewers learned that Frank was a bit of a womanizer with a penchant for students. So the thing that helped me figure out Bonnie was that there's sort of a no-nonsense element to her, but also a very real need to caretake and mother. That was my initial take on her. Pete talks about the sad, longing look Bonnie gave Sam in the pilot; I didn't know he was going to have those people become involved. It opened up a lot of doors and stories. My big mission as an actor is that if there are established relationships and if you are meant to play a history between people, you have to really try to figure out a way to make that real for yourself.

Did you find it hard to break away from the Paris Geller character after Gilmore Girls?

That was the longest job I had had at that point; I was very young when I started it, and it took me through my entire 20s. There was always a very intense fan base surrounding that show, but it really wasn't until a couple of years ago when it came on Netflix that it was in the world in a different way. When we were filming the show, we never felt that we were playing iconic characters. Luckily, that's not something I had to deal with while I was on the show because that would have been overwhelming in a way that I don't know if I would have been equipped for. It's been sort of a lovely gift to have it live on and not be doing the job at the same time. Coming back to it was a strange thing because I wrapped season two of How to Get Away With Murder, and two days later I was on-site as Paris Geller. So it was almost hard to make sure that Bonnie wasn't showing up in Paris and the other way around.

Did that make you thankful Paris chose medicine and not law?

Yeah, I suppose so. I would have been able to deal with it OK; Paris and Bonnie are still different enough for me to sort through them that way, but yes, that Paris’ focus ended up being more in medicine … I will say that Paris Geller is doing more than just medicine. As she can. It was a little bit of a relief, yes, but I would have been happy with anything. It was mostly just great fun to be able to play her again.

How would you contrast the two characters?

Certainly in the beginning, Bonnie and Paris present similarly in that they are very driven women who have a really intense work ethic. They are both highly intelligent and a bit ruthless. The biggest thing for me that really made them different was once I had the reveal of what Bonnie’s backstory was. That is a pretty staggering difference. Paris Geller grew up in privilege, and Bonnie was working every day to overcome one of the worst traumas that a person can experience. Also the tones of the shows are pretty different. There are a lot of die-hard Gilmore Girls fans out there on social media who say they will never see me as anything other than Paris Geller, which is a compliment, but certainly as an actor, there is a sting to that. So it was a great development for me to be able to have such a difference come to life.

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

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Twitter: @amber_dowling