If you don’t recognize Milauna Jemai Jackson from Cinemax’s Strike Back or NBC’s Aquarius, you definitely know her from ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder. Her character Rene Atwood has clashed with HTGAWM protagonist Annalise Keating inside and outside the courtroom, and we got the scoop on what to expect next!
Read on for our interview with Milauna Jemai Jackson.
First of all, Happy Halloween! Did you dress up this year?
Milauna Jemai Jackson: Happy Halloween! I did; I was Solange in the Cranes in the Sky video. I had this pink, billowy, fleece-like sweater – it’s actually on my Instagram.
So you play Rene Atwood on How to Get Away with Murder, who is Annalise’s rival both professionally and romantically. As season 3A begins to wrap up, what can you tell us about what’s coming up for them?
Well, I can’t reveal much because the way the show operates, they don’t let us know until we’re close to actually filming it! What I will say is that after the last battle we had in court, my character is on a mission. The story behind why this rivalry exists will be revealed, and Annalise just found out that Nate and I have a relationship, so I’m sure that’s going to also come to a head. I think there are a lot of possibilities, and it’s going to be really interesting because the audience is not gonna know exactly what direction I’m gonna go with my plan of trying to battle Annalise. She is Annalise and she wins – and if she doesn’t win, we wind up coming up with a deal. Ultimately, her clients get off with a lesser sentence than anything that I would ever impose upon them, so to her, that is technically still a win. I’m gonna add a lot more tension and obstruction to this plan of hers to get away with murder!
HTGAWM is one of the most successful shows to debut over the past couple of years. Were you a fan before you got the opportunity to actually appear on it?
Absolutely, I was a fan! I’m a fan of Viola Davis and I watch Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, so when I found out that there was another show created by Peter Nowalk under the umbrella of Shondaland, I was already excited. Then when I saw the show, how it’s done is so different – typically when you have a procedural show, everything is pretty much the same, but the format [of HTGAWM] is so interesting. You always have to pay attention, which I enjoy. There’s not a lot of multitasking while you’re watching it, and you’re always left feeling as if you’ve gone through this journey with these characters. To be part of that personally is life-changing to me! I’ve read the script, I’ve shot the scenes, and still, at the end of the episode, I’m like “Wow!” when I see it executed.
I definitely agree about having to pay attention. Sometimes you can play Candy Crush while you’re watching a show, but with HTGAWM, you’ve got to put your phone down!
Exactly! That’s so true.
I’m sure you get this question a lot, but what has it been like working with the acting powerhouse that is Viola Davis?
For me, it can be quite intimidating to work with somebody who you have studied, admired, revered. To actually work opposite that individual, you have to set aside the fame that you’ve placed upon them because that can sometimes cloud your natural instinct – which, in acting, is the most important tool that I use.
I remember working with David Duchovny, who at the time was the only actor I’d worked with who was known internationally. My very first scene on Aquarius was with him, and he made me feel like he was just another thespian doing something he loved. That kind of prepared me for this opportunity with Viola. Also, I’m the new rival for the season, so I could use whatever I was feeling and channel it in a way that allowed me to say, “I don’t care that she’s this force to be reckoned with; I am still going to make her work to get her client off!” What made it easier is that she gave me permission in an indirect way [to be there], that I had earned the right to be in this position, that I deserved it and I worked hard. Her doing that in her way made it that much more fun and exciting. She may not realize that – I’ve never shared that publicly with her.
You mentioned being part of the Aquarius cast, and you’ve also had guest roles on some pretty big shows including NCIS and Dexter. Over the course of your career, have there been any tips or specific pieces of advice from actors that have stuck with you?
I think most of the tips I’ve gotten would be from people behind the scenes – the directors and producers, even some of the crew. It’s really about a collaborative effort. Obviously you experience that working with the cast, but none of these shows happen without everyone coming together, being on the same page, and having the same mission.
Additionally, I’ve found that it’s about the body of work. I believe having experience on other shows helped me be more prepared for what I’m currently working on. I did two years on a show called Strike Back, which was all action and a lot of physical and mental commitment. That prepared me for the next opportunity, and I’m reminded of that on every single set. Someone coming in as a guest star, a series regular, or even someone working freelance or on the crew, they’ve worked on other projects that lend themselves to help in their current situation. This is a marathon, and with a marathon, you have to really prepare! Even if you wind up being successful on one marathon, every single project and every single race will be different.
Do you have any projects coming up that we can look out for?
I’m always actively auditioning and having meetings. [HTGAWM] has opened a lot more doors – there is something about being on a show where almost every scene I’ve been in was either with Viola or Billy Brown! There are projects that I can’t discuss until the deal is final, but as soon as something is revealed, I’m always open to share it. I’m on Instagram, I’m on Twitter, and I like to post things that I think my fan base and people who watch the shows that I’m on would love to see me do. My goal is to play a character who’s quite different from the one I’m playing now, just to mix things up.
Speaking of Twitter, I see you’re rooting for the Cubs! How are you coping with the roller coaster that is the World Series so far?!
I’m from Chicago, born and raised, and it is a city divided! You’re either a Cubs fan or a White Sox fan, and it’s contingent on where you were raised. My grandparents had two things in common and one thing was the Cubs, and my mom grew up on the North Side so she’s a Cubs fan. I’m going to always represent the Cubs in any way that I can, but I am a South Side girl, which means that by default, I am supposed to root for the White Sox. It’s not as much of a roller coaster ride for me as for diehard Cubs fans, so I’m managing OK, but considering that we have to win the next two games, it is affecting my heart a little bit! If it’s affecting me and I’m not even a diehard fan, there are people who grew up on the North Side who are probably having heart palpitations right now considering what the score is! History will be made, and I have to say I believe it’s time. A hundred years is a long time – we deserve it!
Thank you very much for the interview! Your character on HTGAWM has been a really interesting rival for Annalise, and I’m really excited to see the last few episodes of season 3A.
Thank you! I do believe you won’t be disappointed in the ones that are soon to air!