How to Get Away With Murder's Marsha Stephanie Blake talks Vivian's motives and mixed signals
"We are going to be mopping up a lot of tears and blood," the new How to Get Away With Murder actress teases.
Warning: This story contains spoilers from Thursday’s night episode of How to Get Away With Murder.
Vivian (Marsha Stephanie Blake) has arrived on How to Get Away With Murder just in time to see it through to its conclusion — and stir up a little trouble along the way.
The new character, an unexpected twist in a sixth and final season dedicated to giving us answers about the people we already know, was first introduced to viewers at the conclusion of the season premiere — spying on her son from her car parked below his apartment. We’ve heard of Vivian of course — she’s Gabriel’s mother, the wife Sam cheated on and left for Annalise. Oh, and she’s also a drug addict, and according to Gabriel, a not-so-great mom.
So, naturally, her arrival should be met with some trepidation. And in her first full episode, we quickly see any concern is merited — she confronts Annalise about whether she killed Sam, barges back into Gabriel’s life, and on top of all that, might be in cahoots with the FBI. So, basically, your average How to Get Away With Murder guest star.
Blake, who brings Gabriel’s fierce mama to life, is having a heck of a year playing mothers on the small screen after her Emmy-nominated role as Linda McCray, mother of one of the Exonerated Five, in Netflix’s When They See Us. But is Vivian really just there to protect her son or is something more sinister afoot?
We called up Blake to get the details on her character, how trustworthy Vivian might be, and whether she can ever reconcile with her son, who has become surprisingly loyal to Annalise in a short amount of time.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We’re getting a lot of mixed signals from Vivian this episode. She tells Annalise she’s just here to get her son back, but we learn by episode’s end that she also has been talking to the FBI. Can we trust her at all? How worried should we be about her as a threat to Annalise and the Keating Four?
MARSHA STEPHANIE BLAKE: I would just say as a fan of the show, can we trust anybody on How to Get Away With Murder? I don’t know that anyone is a trustworthy person, except for maybe Annalise’s mom. I don’t know. I think someone talking to the FBI is never good. You know what I’m saying?
We know she was arrested for drug trafficking only a year ago. How likely is it that she’s still using or will somehow fall back into that trap of addiction?
That would be interesting for me as an actor, but they haven’t told me anything about that. They don’t really tell me anything. I always love a character who is a little bit messy, a little bit complicated. Not good or bad, like all of us in life. Because these writers are fantastic, I would say she’s going to be as messy as everybody else. And who knows if that means drugs or what that means exactly, but I wouldn’t rule it out.
She tells Gabriel she never knew that Sam came back to see them. She seems pretty genuine, but is there a chance she’s lying?
There’s always a chance [laughs]. Again, we can’t trust anyone on this show. In the most wonderful ways, we can’t trust anyone because people say things in a moment when they think they’re being protective or they mean it in that moment. I will say in the moment, when she said it, when you saw her say it, she is telling the truth. That’s as much as I know. Moms will do that and we don’t know if it’s a version of the truth. Is it her version of the truth? Is it the truth? I have no idea.
How much is she still hung up on Sam and in love with him?
It’s been many years. That’s been one of the things I thought about. The circumstances of how they separated — you always feel like there’s unfinished business or a confrontation you would’ve liked to have that you never had; the conversations or arguments with someone who’s not there. I imagine she did that a lot. Then to see Gabriel and to her, he looks just like his dad, and to see that every day has to leave you with some lingering something. Resentment, mixed with love. It’s complicated. It’s probably all those things. The idea that someone you cared about so much betrayed you. And then to have no contact at all, whether through your own actions or his. But to have that son there every day, it’s got to be very, very complicated. I think she really loves Sam.
Is there a genuine want or need for answers surrounding Sam’s death tied to her love and betrayal? Or is that murkier than we’ve seen thus far?
I wouldn’t say it’s not murky because this show is at brilliant at messing up the way you think [and] things are [never] straightforward. As the actor, in those moments where I’m questioning whether Annalise had anything to do with Sam’s death, I think she really does want the answer. She does care. She did care about Sam and she cares about what happened to him, and maybe it’s just that someone stole answers from her. She feels like she can never get answers from him that she needed. Now they took away the opportunity for her to resolve whatever unresolved issues she had with Sam, so I think that alone will make you feel a need to find out what happened to this person.
Along those same lines, she seems determined to punish Annalise, based on her interaction with Tegan. How much of that is motivated by self-interest?
I don’t know if anything is really self-interest so much as it is she cares about her son. She thinks Annalise is not a good person. Not good for her son to be around, so she goes into mama bear mode. She will do anything to protect her son. She did it with Sam. She thought what she did for Gabriel in terms of distancing him from his father was the best thing for him, and she will do it again with Annalise. I don’t know that she’s thinking about herself so much as she’s thinking about her son.
We know this show loves red herrings. This photo Nate has of her talking to the FBI — what’s the likelihood Nate and Annalise are misreading that situation?
I don’t know. They give us little to no information. On purpose. I think it’s actually beautiful that I don’t actually know. As a fan of the show, I would love all versions of what that meeting with the FBI means, but it could also not mean what they think it means. It could mean nothing. That’s how this show is; it’s kind of great.
Annalise describes the impact Sam had on both of their lives as “giving everything over to a man who sees us in a world that doesn’t” — what was your reaction when you first read that line?
It’s pretty devastating. That scene was weirdly hard to shoot in that I had personalized it so much in my own life. But it was easy because I was doing the scene with Viola, who is just such a master and I really feel like we understood essentially those two women because we’ve been there. I’m speaking for myself. I will say that I thought it was a really resonant, eye-opening moment. I hope it resonates with other women and women of color. It’s just well-written; it’s just beautiful, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with anybody but Viola. She’s the best. We did it a few times, but it was one of those things we got it right away and the multiple times we did it were for more technical reasons. But we were present for it from take one.
Vivian almost immediately questions Gabriel about the reveal that he killed her boyfriend. What can we expect this to do to their relationship?
I worry about that. It’s already so fragile and so fractured. I feel like Vivian’s intentions are always to protect her son, but she just gets it wrong like so many parents. She’s trying her best, but the more you try, the more you’re likely to mess it up. When you add to just regular mother-son or parent-child messiness, or complicated relationships, when you add to that murder and drugs and deception and huge betrayal, that’s not going to be easy to dig ourselves out of.
How will it affect his relationship with Michaela since he can obviously trace the information back to her?
I don’t like that girl. I love Aja [Naomi King]! I don’t like Michaela. Everything’s going to be messy. It’s the last season. We are going to be mopping up a lot of tears and blood. Everything is going to get messy.
Things on this show always come full circle. What’s the likelihood Vivian is somehow connected to the mystery surrounding Laurel and her disappearance?
There’s always a chance, but I have no idea.
Both this and When They See Us deal with our criminal justice system and how we are quick to define and stereotype villains in stories. Are you finding parallels between them?
I’m not sure how much Vivian has to do with that aspect of the show right now. But I’m a huge fan of the show and was before I was on it. I always loved the conversations that happened in terms of the economic status of defendants, our perception of guilt versus innocence based on where someone is coming from in life economically or [their eductation] … And then, what color are they? What race are they? Are they an immigrant? All of those questions. I love the show because it’s truthful. It tries to be as truthful as possible about how the criminal justice system engages with people. Because of When They See Us, I am now always curious when I watch shows [where] you end up in a court or a police precinct. I’m always curious about how that is handled on the show, and I’m always looking for the truth of it. How to Get Away With Murder has been very truthful about how that is handled.