Much has been made of the rise of the TV antihero, and deservedly so. Walter White, Tony Soprano, Dexter and Don Draper gave new meaning to the term "guilty pleasure." It's taken a while for women to join those ranks, but now the airwaves are fairly teeming with female characters as ruthless, ambitious and manipulative as any man. And like Ginger Rogers dancing with Fred Astaire, they can do it backward and in heels. You've seen the ladies who lunch? These are the women who punch.
This fall, ABC gave us Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) on the new "How to Get Away With Murder," something she helps an awful lot of people do. Netflix gives us Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) in the political drama "House of Cards," who is arguably her politician husband's better half. She stands by her man, but when he crosses her, she has no qualms about stabbing him in the back. Metaphorically. So far. And it's doubtful that any male antihero has gone as low as the emotionally frayed Carrie (Claire Danes) when she contemplated drowning her baby in this season's opener of "Homeland" on Showtime.
Audiences (and award voters) can't get enough of them. All three actresses received Screen Actors Guild Award nominations for their roles last week, and the American Film Institute recently named "Murder" one of the year's best shows.
And the nastiness doesn't stop with them. HBO's "Game of Thrones" unleashed Cersei (Lena Headey), who plays the game as well — that is to say, as atrociously — as any of the power-wielding brutes around her. Keri Russell plays Elizabeth Jennings in "The Americans" (FX), a Russian spy who has no qualms about getting her hands dirty for the Motherland. And Netflix has a whole prison full of women behaving badly on "Orange Is the New Black."
Even without a mustache to twirl, these actresses are having the time of their lives.
"What I adore about her is that there's nothing necessarily heroic about her, and that's OK," says Taylor Schilling of her role as the fish-out-of-water inmate Piper Chapman on "Orange Is the New Black." "She's discovering the parts of herself that aren't likable, that are manipulative and powerful and angry and sad and scared and lustful, these parts that she wouldn't have the courage to touch if she was still playing the game in the outside world."
NBC's "State of Affairs" has just begun, and its future so far is a little shaky, but Katherine Heigl is making the most of CIA agent Charlie Tucker, who justifies her moral ends with highly immoral means. "There's a certain sort of sick satisfaction in getting to explore that," Heigl says. "And there's something amazing about her ability to win no matter the cost. That's fun to play."
She notes that the network gets nervous about letting Charlie get really dark, and she understands their concern. "I have a certain audience that I don't want to alienate," says Heigl, who's also a producer. "But I think done right, we can gently, delicately go into those places and bring them with us."
Piper's route has been more blunt, especially when beating the daylights out of a fellow inmate who threatened her. Schilling loved every minute of it. "Frankly, there aren't a lot of stories that give you freedom to go to those places as a woman," she says. "And that exists in me as much as it exists in any male actor out there. That's a part of my psyche." The moment was transformative for Piper as well. "Every idea she has about herself is truly stripped away from her and she's starting from zero. In a way she finds a lot of freedom in the lowest point of her life."
Schilling and Davis have the added thrill of stripping their characters of any traditional female accouterments. "It's one of the most liberating things about the show," says Schilling. "It's fascinating for me to play a woman whose looks and whose body are not what is presented first," without makeup or attractive clothing. "What we're really trading in is ourselves, and our stories, and what we want and who we hate and who we love, and what our hopes are and our dreams are, and what our deepest, darkest moments are."
In "Murder," Davis goes from glamorous to bare, removing her wig, makeup and heels to reveal herself completely. "I am so acutely aware of women in their professional lives who put on the masks — the manicures, the clothes, the hair, the makeup — to show an acceptable image for our culture," she says. "When I signed on for the role I had to show her when she took all of that off, because to me, that's the money shot."
Davis notes that Annalise is the most complex character she's ever played. "You can use your sexuality, your vulnerability, your strength. You can pull all of those tools out of the box. Oftentimes because of my age, my look, you get one or two little tools you can play with, and all the rest you've got to leave at home."
The biggest limitations the actresses face aren't in the roles themselves but in public perception. "I'm constantly asked about likability," says Schilling. "That's the last thing to think about, whether someone's nice or not." She adds that it isn't a question asked of men in similar roles.
"The two things that will destroy an actor is to play likability and to play vanity. Those are Kryptonite," Davis asserts. "I'm hoping this is the era when we go along for the ride with these women as they figure out how to be human." In all their messed-up glory.