SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t yet watched the premiere of ABC’s new D.C.- set Shonda Rhimes drama Scandal, stop reading now… During a fairly steamy scene in the Oval Office, we learned that Olivia Pope (star Kerry Washington), the former communications director to President Fitzgerald Grant (Ghost’s Tony Goldwyn), had left the White House to open her own crisis management firm when she ended her affair with him. The president, whose marriage is thought to be stronger than ever, told Olivia he still loves her. We may want to believe his kiss, but one problem: Olivia was there because she’d just realized that Fitz had actually slept with the aide (Gilmore Girls’ Liza Weil) he’d asked her to stop from taking “lies” about an affair to the press. Olivia prides herself on her gut never being wrong, but she’d let her feelings for Fitz cloud her judgment. She’d gone at the aide so hard, the young woman tried to kill herself so the President would come see her and call her “Sweet Baby” (also his pet name for Olivia, which was her tipoff).
That Oval Office scene is an example of what Washington loves about Rhimes’ writing. “It’s people who are extremely powerful, but we see them in a moment of profound vulnerability. That, to me, is what Shonda Rhimes is so good at,” she says. “She’s not afraid to explore the ways that people’s lives, their feelings, and their thinking is not always simple. She’s not afraid of the complexity of human beings, of the gray area. I think that makes for really interesting characters and interesting scenes: Two extremely powerful people in the office of the leader of the free world, and yet they both feel like they have no power over the situation at hand. That is fascinating to me.”
What’s also intriguing: Trying to figure out if we’re going to like Fitz at all or totally hate him. That question captivated the cast and crew, too, Washington says. “Television crews can sometimes get really jaded. I had guys on our crew who have been in this business for 20 years, grips who were like, ‘Are you kidding me? I haven’t read a script for 16 years.’ And they were chomping at the bit for each week’s episode. ‘Kerry, I know you have the new script. Let me see it. Let me see it,’” she laughs. “This is no exaggeration: People were throwing brushes across the makeup trailer because they were so upset. ‘He loves her!’ ‘He doesn’t love her!’ ‘I think he’s a good guy!’ ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about!’ We would have these huge heated arguments about the characters and their relationships, and I would just sit in the hair and makeup chair and wait for the brushes to stop flying so that my hair would get done. I was just praying people have these arguments around the water cooler on Friday morning, because we’re certainly having them here at the craft service table on set.”
It should stay interesting: Presumably, Rhimes has to keep the president likable enough that we’re okay if Olivia decides to do the dance with him, but unlikable enough that we’re okay if she decides to take him down. How do Washington and Goldwyn look at it? “As an actor, you kinda have to have compassion and understanding for the characters you play and be committed to finding the truth of what they’re feeling and how they justify their own behavior. That’s how we approached them and their decisions,” Washington says. “And we also just sort of sat on pins and needles each week waiting for more information. It’s important to remember that week-to-week, we didn’t know much more than you do. Every once in a while, Tony would call me and go, ‘[Gasps] I got something out of Shonda,’ and he’d fill me in on something coming about our history and we’d go WHAT? What do we do about that? But not often.”
Will we see their history in flashback, or just continue to hear about it in conversations? “I don’t know if I’m allowed to tell you,” Washington says. But here’s what she can say: “As the season goes on, you definitely get more and more information. But the more information you get, the more complicated things get.”