“Scandal” broke ground in 2012 when it launched on ABC starring Kerry Washington in the lead role of Washington, D.C. “fixer” Olivia Pope. Washington was the first African-American woman to star on a primetime network show in almost four decades. (She went on to be nominated for an Emmy for the role twice — first in 2013 and then again the following year.)
“She’s been a very three-dimensional, independent woman at a time when female characters really weren’t antiheroes,” series creator Shonda Rhimes says of Olivia Pope. “I hope that’s something that’s happened and now feels very normal and obvious — that female characters can be antiheroes — and [that] it feels normal and obvious that women of color can be leads of shows. …Hopefully that is something that the show has done.”
Washington herself notes that she has inhabited the role of Olivia longer than she has held any other title — including wife and mother. But she is quick to point out that the reason she thinks the show has been so successful is because of the writers who created such colorful characters in such a unique world.
Now, as the show heads into its April 19 series finale, the cast and creator reflect on what the experience has meant to them.
What were your early expectations or hopes for the show when you first booked it?
Tony Goldwyn: “I had a relationship with Shonda in the past and knew she was brilliant and I had been dying to work with Kerry Washington, who I knew socially and through political activism, and I thought, ‘You know, Shonda Rhimes plus Kerry Washington plus whatever kind of president Shonda was going to write sounds like a pretty compelling combination!’ So that trio sounded potentially exciting. But that was all I knew. It was my manager, Jason Weinberg, who said, ‘You’re doing this because it’s going to be a giant hit.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever,’ but he turned out to be right.”
Katie Lowes: “I was a newbie, much like Quinn was, at the beginning of the show. At every moment, I was like, ‘This is heaven on earth, this is the best job I could ever have, when is it going to go away?’ When you’re an actor you’re so conditioned to looking for your next gig and if you land something you love [often] you get canceled or you get replaced or your character gets killed or whatever it is.”
Jeff Perry: “I responded immediately to the setting and the structure of it. I was already a very happy member of the ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ company and loved Shonda’s writing, and I was really thrilled by what was just her developing new writer territory — more operatic events, a political thriller, a page-turning amount of ‘Oh my god’ moments and all of that. It felt imminently groundable, cautionary political tales, and so I just knew it would be great fun to work on.”
When was the first moment you realized just what an impact “Scandal” was having on the zeitgeist and culture outside of the television industry?
Goldwyn: “The first time I realized what was happening I had taken two episodes off early in the second season to direct a pilot I had been developing, and I was by City Hall in Philadelphia filming a different show, in shorts and like a baseball cap, and people were running up yelling, ‘It’s the president, it’s the president!’ The show wasn’t a big mainstream media hit [yet] so I realized that people had discovered it before ABC really knew what was happening.”
Lowes: “There’s a couple but [ the first was] at my wedding, which was between seasons 1 and 2. I had a big wedding and I remember at the reception, like 150 people started cheering “Who is Quinn, who is Quinn, who is Quinn!?” And then during the second season I was at the NAACP Image Awards, walking next to Tony Goldwyn, and all of a sudden I started to hear screaming and I thought a natural disaster was happening — like an earthquake or something — but it was a million women screaming for Tony like he was a Beatle. …Those were the moments I realized people were actually watching.”
Perry: “If the memory serves, somewhere in those first seven episodes, it felt like the crucial decision that Kerry and Shonda had ganged up on [about] creating a social media connection, in real time, with our audience [did that]. And maybe some of the media attention [too]. It felt like, ‘Oh wow. Everything we feel they do.’ Because Shonda and the writers and the actors watched not-quite the final versions of the first two episodes before anyone else had a chance to see them. And if you can imagine show biz folk who already love what they’re doing, they’re still tremendously skeptical about whether anybody else is going to like it. We were kind of whispering to each other in the commercial breaks and kind of checking in with each other, and I was sitting next to Tony Goldwyn, and I said, ‘This feels like crack TV.’ When I read it, I could not wait to turn the page, and I said, ‘I hope it feels like this to people who have not drunk the Kool Aid.’”
What storyline, moment, or specific emotional arc that you were tasked with are you most personally proud of?
Guillermo Diaz: “‘Seven Fifty-Two,’ an episode about Huck’s past. We flash back and see Huck before he was brainwashed and traumatized by B613. And we also see how the gladiators come together in the present to snap Huck out of his paralyzing break down. It was the most challenging, memorable and rewarding episode for me.”
Goldwyn: “In the first season there was an episode called ‘The Trail,’ which tracked the origins of Fitz and Oliva’s love affair, and I thought it was just beautifully done, and I thought it was a really important, kind of defining episode in terms of understanding who these people were and what made them tick — and understanding that at the core of Fitz’ character and Fitz and Olivia’s relationship was a profound love connection between these two people, as opposed to the more easily dismissed affair or the guy who’s disgruntled in his marriage or a woman who’s taking advantage of a powerful guy. [The episode] really solidified who these people were and sustained the Olitz thing for seven years.”
Lowes: “I’m so invested in this last, final season for so many reasons, but I was pregnant and Quinn was also pregnant — and Quinn was running an office, and I was also running my career. It felt incredibly empowering to play a character who was a bada– pregnant woman and it felt incredibly empowering to be a bada– pregnant woman and to work in an environment that supported my personal choices.”
Perry: “I think Shonda and the writers created a beautiful predicament, intention with the marriage between Cyrus and James Novak, played by Dan Bucatinsky, of a professional journalist doing his darndest to uncover truths and Cyrus having 17 reasons from Sunday to try to keep the truth from coming out. …It became epitomized in a scene where [we] so mistrusted each other’s motivations that we forced ourselves to get naked to prove neither of us was wearing a wire. Because Cyrus so loved him he was forced to reveal truths that he had never spoken before or since [and] Dan and I always felt tremendously grateful for the humanity and the complexity of that relationship writing and that marriage.”
Rhimes: “I think I’m most proud of the way we told stories on ‘Scandal,’ which felt different when we started doing it which was sort of at a high-speed break-neck pace, mostly because we were telling the story as we felt it needed to be told to convey what we felt like was the level corruption and mania and insanity that our characters were swirling in. So I think I’m most proud of our style of storytelling.”
Bellamy Young: “I was so proud to get a job in Shondaland because everybody has a seat at the table [there]. She hires for the soul, and whatever your body looks like it doesn’t matter. She’s committed to everyone’s story being told in a way that’s whole and complete.”
How do you feel working on the show and/or with Rhimes most changed you?
Diaz: “I am a more confident person, for sure. Shonda trusting me with this complex character and me trusting myself that I could do it, has moved me forward both as an actor and as a person in a profound way.”
Goldwyn: “[Shonda] sees potential in actors and writes for that. And she will write stuff for you that you don’t even] see in yourself. So for me personally Shonda creating this complicated figure of Fitz has definitely impacted and revealed things about myself that I didn’t understand. And I don’t know that I would have worn comfortably the leader of the free world — and I don’t mean that in a trite way. There’s something about exploring a character’s relationship to power, to complicated relationships and women that teaches you something about yourself.”
George Newbern: “I spent a lot of my career playing good guys, and I married a lot of people in a lot of [projects], but Shonda really gave me the opportunity to do something different, which was a huge deal because in Hollywood you’re pretty much in a box and you stay there until you either quit or write your own box. But she gave me an opportunity, and I’m so grateful — and the show was successful. All those combinations of things — as an actor in Los Angeles, after awhile you feel like, ‘I got this part,’ ‘I got that part,’ ‘I got that part’ but to have it all happen at the same time is like catching lightning in a bottle. It was the most unique experience.”
Perry: “I’d been spoiled with a lot of beautiful, rich theater writing from my early-20s on, but with on-camera, this has been a really gigantic challenge and pleasure — this amount of story and a character as beautifully complex as [Cyrus]. And it’s been darn fun to play ruthless and evil — the many sides of Cyrus — because then you get it all out in your pretend work and you can be nicer at home.”
Darby Stanchfield: “When I got the role of Abby I had just come to a place in my life where I had stopped apologizing for who I am as a person. And I feel like the run of the show has allowed me to come more fully into my voice as a person and as an actor, so it’s affected me on a level as a human being. And also as an artist, getting to work with these talented actors — I’ve learned from everybody, and I think there’s another level of confidence in owning my voice that is one of the most precious gifts of coming away from this.”
What political storyline or topical piece of storytelling do you feel is most important to the show’s legacy?
Diaz: “‘The Lawn Chair” episode, which deals with a young black man being shot by a police officer. I think this episode was proof that Shonda was not afraid to tackle extremely difficult subject matter and face it head on.”
Goldwyn: “The way that Shonda Rhimes dealt with race on our show — she did not comment on the fact that the president of the United States and Olivia Pope were having an interracial love affair until well into the second season, and when she chose to do it, she did it with brass knuckles with Olivia saying to Fitz that she was Sally Hemings to his Thomas Jefferson, and Fitz was so deeply offended by that — but it was like, “OK we’re going to talk about it? Let’s talk about it.” And she brought Rowan into the story and then race became a very prominent, unflinching discussion in our show. I just thought it was so impressive. It took a long time to actually have a conversation about it [because] it was just the way it was — it was just normal. And I think that’s something ‘Scandal’ has done — it’s normalized things that weren’t seen as normal in mainstream culture [including] an interracial love affair, a gay Republican chief of staff, a woman president.”
Lowes: “‘The Lawn Chair’ episode where Courtney B. Vance plays a dad whose son was shot by a police officer; we did an episode I’ll never forget where we dealt with rape in the military; and the filibuster episode where Mellie filibustered the bill. This show was as entertaining as it was commenting on social issues and making people have conversations about things that I think have to be talked about.”
Why do you think “Scandal” will withstand the test of time and continue to draw new audiences through streaming in the years to come?
Goldwyn: “Shonda has this ability to do really satisfying, mainstream commercial entertainment and, in a very sophisticated way, say exactly what’s on her mind without dumbing it down. The thing that I think is so extraordinary about ‘Scandal’ and what Shonda’s done with it is it’s straddled this line between really satisfying, escapist, fun, popcorn and red wine and entertainment and very unflinching, confrontational in-your-face social commentary without even being commentary. And I think that’s Shonda Rhimes’ genius, and ‘Scandal’ has done it in a way that is so well-balanced. If it ever starts to take itself too seriously, it goes off into just fun territory [and] when it starts to get too lightweight, all of a sudden she smacks you in the gut with something you were not ready for.”
Perry: “The whole political landscape is so polarized right now — and so nakedly so than it was when we first started seven years ago. And the events of our real politics are so wildly volatile and changeable and so media-soaked because we have a president where one of his greatest strengths, arguably, is as a salesman, getting the most out of a 24-hour news cycle. And so what some people always considered enjoyably or dismissively a magnification of politics within ‘Scandal’s’ almost operatic turns of events, I think people might say, ‘Wow, this was kind of prescient storytelling.’”
Cornelius Smith Jr.: “I think everybody can find at least 10 episodes that move them personally. I think the best teacher is experience, and I think we can find moments that really touch us individually, that really make us think or think about someone that we know. I think art has that responsibility to not only entertain but also to stir up the consciousness in your mind and your heart — to make you think about, not only your own actions but also what people are doing and not doing. I know ‘Scandal’ will remain relevant in that way.”
How do you want the show to be remembered?
Scott Foley: “I have a feeling that it’s going to be reduced to one of the first shows to live Tweet and one of the political shows in a politically-charged climate. I think somewhere along the lines it’s gotten a little lost that Kerry Washington was the first African-American lead of an hour-long television drama in something like 38 years. I hope that doesn’t get lost. I think the show broke a lot of stereotypes and new ground along those lines.”
Lowes: “On camera I think it’s incredibly amazing and important that we opened a door for women and women of color to be the leads on network television. I think that when we end the show, where we have a female president and Olivia Pope was the chief of staff and Quinn Perkins was running a business — they were powerful but also incredibly complicated and three-dimensional people and I hope the vision is remembered for that. But also, I really hope that the behind-the-scenes [is remembered too]. When the show ended, I put my head on the pillow on the last shot, and I was like, ‘Every single day it was a very healthy working environment, and I don’t think that’s the norm.’”
Rhimes: “Hopefully we’ve made it so they can stop calling [characters of color and/or LGBTQ characters] ‘the other.’ Hopefully we’ve created a world where we stop seeing these characters on television and it’s a magical anomaly that they’re there and that there’s an otherness to them. Getting to be a three-dimensional character on television isn’t something that happens to only white people. Straight white people — mostly straight white men because for a long time white women were asked to just be nice. So to me it feels like, hopefully, we’ve made a dent in that.”
Washington: “I hope that we leave a legacy of being hard workers — people who were really committed to creating good work, working hard to do work that we are proud of — [as well as] groundbreaking storytelling [and being] unpredictable.”
Kirsten Chuba contributed to this story.