Long before Peter Nowalk created the hit ABC show, "How To Get Away With Murder," he worked in the mailroom dubbing VHS videos. "I had to sit in a little closet and press record on actor demos and screeners," he says.
Nowalk wrote his experiences working at the bottom of the entertainment industry in the book, "The Hollywood Assistants Handbook: 86 Rules for Aspiring Power Players." The book was published in 2008 around the same time Nowalk began working as a writer on ABC's "Private Practice." It was on that show where he began his relationship with Shonda Rhimes, and where he began his move from the bottom of the call sheet to the very top.
We talked with Nowalk about working with Rhimes, his inspiration for "How To Get Away With Murder," and how Viola Davis inspires him.
The first job Nowalk had in television:
I actually got my first job on "Private Practice" when they spun off Kate Walsh's character. So when that show started, I'd never been in a writers' room. Betsy Beers and Shonda Rhimes were very nice to read a script of mine and hire me on that. And I worked there for a few months and then "Grey's Anatomy" was short on writers, so I got moved. And it's so intimidating to be in the writers' room at first... and I've never been a writer's assistant or anything like that. So it was all very new to me.
Nowalk on going to "school":
I feel like I grew up in Shonda Land University if you wanna call it that. The best thing [Beers and Rhimes] did for me, personally, was just encourage me and give me confidence. And for someone as successful as both of them to say, "You know what? You are good at this and you can do this." That helps you a lot when you're very insecure writing your first script and also when you're turning in your first script and they're like, "Oh, we need to rewrite this from page one," which happens all the time and it happened to me. So I'm saying that for all the writers out there: don't beat yourself up too much.
Lessons from Rhimes:
What I learned from Shonda is to trust your gut, and she has always been so confident in her vision and willing to put herself out there and to take a risk with her story lines that might seem — to other people — not right. But they're right in her head, so she does them and it's really paid off. She's taken these huge risks in all of her shows and she's reinvented TV because of that. So I've tried to just keep my blinders on sometimes and just be like, You know what? My first instinct — I like that the best and I'm gonna do it. I'm sure there's critics out there or viewers who are like, Ew! I wish you didn't trust that first instinct. But it allows me to learn and it's really the only way that you can keep the writers' room going.
On how '80s and '90s legal thrillers inspired "How To Get Away With Murder":
I think there was a lack of the legal thrillers that I would watch. I love "Presumed Innocent" and "Jagged Edge," with those crazy twists and those kind of forbidden romances and the frothy fun legal thriller that they just don't make so much in the movies anymore. So my take was that I wanted to do a show that recreated those movies I used to love.
Nowalk never thought he would get Viola Davis:
The minute her name came up, it was like, Well, she'll never do TV, and I — as a first time person making a pilot — wasn't gonna be like, But my script's really good! This Oscar nominated actress would probably wanna do it. I'd sound really arrogant and naive. When Viola finally got the script and we waited on pins-and-needles for her to read it, she had such insight already into the character. And from the beginning she said she would love to see [her character] Annalise in private moments where you see the mask come off. And so, she had pitched the idea of, "Every black woman — before they go to bed — takes off their hair or deals with their hair in some way." And she really wanted to see that. And I, as a white man, did not have experience or personal knowledge of that.
On not letting the show's success go to his head:
I'm trying not to do that, because just as many people who are enthusiastic — I'm similar to a lot of writers out there — I also worry about all the people who hate it [laughs]. So if I have to think about what makes it successful, I also have to think why people don't like it. To have a successful show is a fluke and we're only a few episodes in. So, that's my biggest fear, is that you're only as good as your last episode. And how are we gonna keep this up and are people gonna eventually reject it? I go through all those neurotic scared places. So all I do is spend a lot of time with my awesome writers in the room and not to think about why people like it or why they don't and just stay true to the story.
On why he doesn't think he's "made it":
I'm still faking it in a way because that's what these jobs are. You're just learning as you go. I also think what's really interesting is that's one of the themes of the show — all the characters are wearing masks and trying to project one thing in life where they feel different inside. And I feel like that's the psychological thriller aspect of the show that I've been loving as we're writing it. And especially with the character of Annalise. Who is she really? She puts on all these different fronts, but that is something else that I hope the audience will be really interested to go on — the journey of us uncovering who the real Annalise is. Cause she is definitely a person who is faking just as I think we all do in a way.
"How to Get Away With Murder" airs on Thursday nights at 10:00 on ABC.