The Gladiators of ‘Scandal’ Leave the Arena


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. It was just so truthful.

RHIMES And it had an authenticity to it. It wasn’t about …

WASHINGTON Marketing.

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? I’m like, teach me which button to push.

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.

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Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times

Olivia Pope is a complicated female lead who’s a black woman, who’s messy and multidimensional. 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.

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Olivia Pope (Ms. Washington, third from left) calls her team of lawyers, hackers and assassins (Katie Lowes, Guillermo Diaz and George Newbern) her “gladiators.”

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Nicole Wilder/ABC

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Ms. Washington’s Olivia Pope is both fully in command and deeply flawed, often driven by a higher purpose even when her actions were unseemly.

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Richard Cartwright/ABC

“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 throughout the show.

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.

WASHINGTON Straight.

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.

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Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times

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, Mo.] 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. I mean it’s very clear 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.

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As Olivia Pope’s father, Joe Morton (right) saw racial issues in a very different light than his daughter.

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Eric McCandless/ABC

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The Season 4 episode “The Lawn Chair,” inspired by the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., was an example of the show’s more explicit handling of racial issues.

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ABC

What do you want the legacy of these characters to be?

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. It’s like he’s just a dude, messed up and complicated and flawed.

YOUNG Mellie has lived deeply and that makes me proud of her. Shonda and our writers opened up a whole rainbow of womanhood on screen and we got to be all of our colors, beautiful and horrible and driven and vulnerable and courageous and terrified.

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.

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