The Gladiators of ‘Scandal’ Leave the Arena
Posted April 12, 2018 4:09 p.m. EDT
BURBANK, Calif. — When Olivia Pope arrived in prime time in April 2012 — talking fast, wearing stilettos and a Burberry trench coat, savoring red wine — she was a revelation. Appearing in Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal,” Pope was the first African-American female lead in a network drama in almost 40 years. (“Get Christie Love!,” starring Teresa Graves as an undercover cop, debuted in 1974.)
Pope, played by Kerry Washington, was a Washington fixer and the long-term lover of the married president of the United States, Fitzgerald Grant III (Tony Goldwyn). Her glamour, ambition, ruthlessness and unshakable loyalty to both the Republic and her team of lawyers, hackers and assassins — her “gladiators” — at Olivia Pope and Associates made her one of the most memorable antiheroes, let alone one of the more complex black characters, on television.
For Rhimes, coming off the success of the pulpy medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” was a risky proposition. (ABC originally ordered only seven episodes.) But its mix of dark comedy, over-the-top melodrama, hot-button social issues — and passionate sex scenes — transfixed audiences. “Scandal” became a ratings hit, appointment viewing and a hashtag-spawning social media sensation (#ItsHandled).
Ultimately, its most lasting legacy is likely to be Olivia Pope herself. Both fully in command and deeply flawed, she was often driven by a higher purpose (“a white hat” in the show’s parlance) while resisting being controlled by any male, or in this season, female presidential authority in the form of Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young).
With the show’s finale on Thursday nearing, Rhimes, Washington, Goldwyn and Young gathered at the ABC building here to chat about the show’s momentous run, craziest storytelling twists and nuanced handling of racial issues. These are excerpts from that conversation.
Can we go back to the show’s beginning? I always imagined that you wanted to do a show with a black female lead, but that it was almost historically impossible. Did you have a strategy to create a viewership that would be able to “see” Olivia Pope?
SHONDA RHIMES: I don’t believe in things being impossible, so it never occurred to me that it would be impossible. “Grey’s Anatomy” was my first television show, and it turned out to be an enormous, giant, crazy hit right out of the gate, which afforded me a lot of power. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do with that power, but that power was a very effective tool. And when I met Judy Smith [a well-known Washington crisis manager] and knew that I wanted to write the show, it never occurred to me that there would be a problem making a show with an African-American lead. I was more surprised at how surprised everyone was than anything else. I felt good storytelling is good storytelling. The lore of the show is that almost every black actress in Hollywood auditioned for the part.
RHIMES: I will say that I understood immediately what a big deal it was when we started casting, because every actress who was the right age, even who weren’t, who was of color, wanted to audition. And I felt an obligation to allow them to. It was like there was a shoe and everybody got to try it on, because it was clear that that kind of role was not out there or available to them. That was heartbreaking to me.
Did you all think about all of that history when you were taking your roles?
KERRY WASHINGTON: I understood the historical weight of it, but I wasn’t going to be able to do anything about that in any other way than dedicating myself as an actor. We weren’t going to get picked up by me organizing a march at ABC. We were going to get picked up because we did work that was undeniable and that was the best version of storytelling up against all the other dramas.
BELLAMY YOUNG:I mean anyone of any color at any age was happy to audition for the role of the first lady. At that point, I had just been grateful enough as a woman in Hollywood to have such agency and be so complicated.
Did you think about the moral ambiguity of playing President Fitzgerald Grant III, this complicated, Republican president who is really very left-leaning, in the age of Obama? He even kills a Supreme Court justice at one point.
TONY GOLDWYN: Moral ambiguity is one of the great things about the show. As a storyteller, Shonda took huge swings right off the bat. Well before the murder, I remember there was an episode where you thought Fitz may or may not have had an affair with Amanda Tanner [a former White House intern] in the first season. And there was one scene where a recording [of the affair] appears. I went up to Mark Wilding, who is Shonda’s head writer, and I said so you’re going to kill Fitz off? I thought there’s no way that this character could come back from this.
Sometimes when people watched the show, those “OMG” moments drove how people responded on Twitter. Were there moments when you thought the show was going over the top in terms of plot?
GOLDWYN: When my son was murdered. When we did the table read about it I literally was so shocked that Shonda made that choice. It was so upsetting. It was such a bold, extreme choice but it was true to the story. We’re in this super-high-stakes world, which is why the show worked so well being set in the White House and Washington, because everything is life and death.
RHIMES: I feel like we’re just telling a story. We weren’t writing OMG moments. That’s something the audience could decide because we weren’t trying purposely to create those moments, we are just following the characters on their journey. And sometimes those journeys were twisted or dark.
WASHINGTON: This idea of genres or context or act breaks, that stuff was not important to our writers. We were going to do our own thing our own way, and we were going to make it loud and bold and to hell with what everybody says TV is supposed to look like.
RHIMES: It’s true. I remember being highly insulted at getting only seven episodes, but more challenged and feeling like we only have seven episodes. We’re going to tell the story that we really want to tell. Given the limited number of episodes ABC originally ordered, did you feel like you had to cultivate your own audience? Is that why you turned to Twitter?
WASHINGTON: I was coming off working on the Obama campaign and the huge change that social media made in that campaign. We had to do everything we could on a grass-roots level to make people love this show. What worked was that we all loved our show and wanted to be talking to each other and the fans because we were so proud of the work we were doing.
RHIMES: And it had an authenticity to it. It wasn’t about ...
GOLDWYN:I mean I had never been on Twitter before. Shonda got us all together and said Kerry had this idea. Are you guys all up to do this?
YOUNG: It also made “Scandal” appointment TV because you wanted to be a part of the conversation. We are all theater kids and we loved it because it felt like we could feel our audience there. You could see how those scenes landed and if that joke worked or if the audience cried. People came together across the globe.
Olivia Pope is a complicated female lead who’s a black woman. Did you think there were any cultural risks involved in having a black female antihero?
RHIMES: I’m smiling because I wasn’t thinking of her that way. For me, writing Olivia Pope as the lead meant she got to be the lead and the lead is everything. She’s the love interest, she’s mean, she’s kind, she’s flawed, she’s brilliant at her job. She makes mistakes. Equality is getting to be as screwed up and as messed up as all of the other leads on television.
GOLDWYN: Audiences don’t need likable characters, they need compelling characters.
“Scandal” started in the Obama presidency and now ends in the Trump one. The show lived through all those political moments and yet now gives us an alternative of what could have been: the first woman president. And the relationship between Olivia and Mellie seems as important as the love triangle among Fitz, Olivia and Jake [played by Scott Foley] that we’ve struggled with.
YOUNG: At the outset it was always a palpable undercurrent of how close they could have been; we’re not just resigned to Olivia as [the president’s] mistress. To watch women build up women is also very important in terms or representation on television. You get two women in a scene and if they’re not talking about a man or fighting you’re like, why are they even speaking to each other?
WASHINGTON: What are they talking about? We’re talking about world politics, bitches.
YOUNG: America is so behind the rest of the world in terms of being comfortable with women in power. It just goes back to representation, and they just aren’t used to it. They’re used to power as for old, white men.
YOUNG: Straight, old, white men.
GOLDWYN: It is one of the things that I keep being surprised by, that suddenly something that made you very uncomfortable and felt very strange and not normal becomes normal in a way. Shonda’s creating a world for the audience in which the Republican chief of staff happens to be gay and has a husband without mention. There was no mention of an interracial relationship until well into Season 2.
One of the things that is important about your work is that race is there but it isn’t there. Many of the show’s intimate relationships are interracial: adoption, friendships, workplace and romantic relationships.
RHIMES:Race is there. Race is very there. Once Papa Pope [played by Joe Morton] showed up, we say blackness of a different kind showed up. In a weird way, Olivia Pope was sort of the post-racial Obama world that everybody believed they were living in and Papa Pope is old school. He showed up and was like, don’t you remember that everybody is inherently racist? He remembers and believed in a very different world and felt like his daughter has lost her mind. It’s the same thing when we did the lawn chair episode [its take on the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri] and she met Marcus [a civil rights activist]. Her black and his black were very different kinds of black and you watched them clash. She’s isolated.
WASHINGTON: It’s not that she rejects the community; she is not ashamed of being black. She’s fully aware of her blackness. She just doesn’t identify historically with the burden of blackness because she was raised with a sense of impossibility.
RHIMES: Papa Pope did his job and to his own regret. He raised an entirely privileged black girl who thought she was as entitled to everything as any white man.
What’s the legacy of these characters?
GOLDWYN: For me, the most interesting thing about playing the character is that the man who is the most powerful person in the world and occupies an iconic position and has an iconic look has feet of clay.
YOUNG: Mellie has lived deeply and that makes me proud of her. Shonda and our writers opened up a whole rainbow of womanhood onscreen, and we got to be all of our colors.
RHIMES: I don’t know. I’m still in the middle.
WASHINGTON: I can barely breathe right now. It has taken every tool in my acting toolbox to not weep through this entire interview. It’s very raw.