Ron Batzdorff/ABC
Marc Snetiker
October 15, 2015 AT 12:00 PM EDT

After months of vacancy, there’s finally been a new hire at Olivia Pope & Associates… and Olivia Pope doesn’t exactly know about it.

Cornelius Smith Jr. has joined the cast of Scandal as a series regular in season 5, and after a summer of speculation, it’s Capitol Hill official: Smith’s political activist Marcus Walker, who appeared in two episodes last season as a staunch advocate and then a bloody-handed mayoral candidate, has been tapped by Quinn and Huck as the newest Gladiator at OPA. The only hitch is that Olivia has made it explicitly clear that she doesn’t want any new bodies lurking around the office — so, how will she react when she meets the newest person on her payroll?

Smith exclusively chatted with EW about his Scandal Gladiator debut, the big promotion, and just how long Marcus’ “do the right thing” approach will last as he learns how torture-happy his new coworkers are.

EW: Congratulations, first, that you can finally talk about this huge secret!

CORNELIUS SMITH JR.: I’ve been kind of sitting tight. I’m super excited. It’s everything that you can imagine in terms of excitement and anticipation.

What was your phone call with Shonda Rhimes like when you found out you’d been promoted to Gladiator?

It actually wasn’t [as direct as] “Hey, you’re going to be the new Gladiator.” I had no idea what was in store for me, and in many regards, I still don’t. It was more just, “We want to make you a series regular.” And I think any phone call from anybody saying that — but specifically, Shonda Rhimes — is kind of like, say what!? It was like a nice refreshing slap in the face.

I love that Marcus is recruited by Quinn at a bar in the same way that she was recruited to join OPA in the pilot.

It felt amazing. It was a little surreal, like, this was written and these are the circumstances. It took me a little extra focus to stay focused and get grounded, because I was extremely excited that I was even there taping those scenes. I don’t really know if words really give it justice in terms of how I felt and what that experience was.

Olivia may be hesitant to bring Marcus into the fold — is that because of Marcus himself, or because she doesn’t think there needs to be a new hire at all?

My sense is that she’s hesitant anytime you’re talking about adding somebody to something that’s already established and well-oiled. There’s a level of risk and exposure that comes with that, and in Olivia’s world, I think it’s the most pressing thing for her. We all know that Marcus and Olivia didn’t necessarily see eye to eye, so she’s maybe conscious of that difference and that’s where the hesitation comes. Marcus will rock the boat — he may rock it in a good way, may rock it in a bad way.

What’s behind Marcus’s own hesitation to take the job?

Marcus is a man of his own set of morals and principles, so what initially sends him away is that he doesn’t necessarily like and respect their code of conduct [or] where they have their moral bar set and the things that they’re willing to do in order to obtain justice.

Uh oh.

I think Marcus has a clear line of where he’s willing to go or not go in the name of justice. Olivia, Quinn, and Huck have a different code of ethics, and I think that’s what turns Marcus off. He doesn’t want any part of that, and that’s something he stands firm on. And then I think after further consideration, he kind of sees maybe how he can bring justice and help those individuals.

Is he naïve at all, as far as what he’s getting into?

A little bit. And I think he wises up to that fact. But that’s a good question, how dirty will he let his hands get? Marcus fights for justice but I think that’s something he wants to stay clean. He doesn’t want to contaminate. He doesn’t believe in bullying to manipulate others. When you start manipulating, that’s maybe getting your hands dirty — but, Marcus understands because he’s in the political world and you have to get your hands dirty to thrive in that world. So maybe if he gets his hands dirty for the right reasons, but not too dirty, I think that’ll work. But this is all speculation! What that line is for Marcus, I’m still discovering.

How will his activism background play a role in his approach as a Gladiator?

I’m not sure! He is a very grassroots kind of guy and I think he has a lot of resources available to him and that essentially dictates and governs how he gladiates. I think the most important thing that distinguishes how each person gladiates is their rulebook: their code of ethics, how they grew up, where they grew up. Marcus is from the community, grew up in the streets, went away to college, came back to make a difference…so there’s a real sense of relatability and connectedness to the community and the street that he can bring maybe to OPA to help govern things and service Olivia, or not service Olivia. I think that’s where it gets dicey. 

Is he destined to clash with Olivia?

All alone in the wild, Marcus is fine. He’s strict in terms of integrity and every decision is based on love and high morals and being honest. In past episodes, that’s one thing that comes up with Olivia, about being honest and not necessarily lying. But I think when you’re seeking to build a team of any sort, be it at OPA or any type of organization, you want individuals with their own backbone, with their own set of opinions, strong ideas, strong personalities. And it’s those individuals and their individuality that makes the team so specific and special. I think Marcus has a lot of qualities that I think would fit well at OPA. He has a great personality and work ethic that fits well with them. OPA has their hands across the world and they’re making a huge impact. That requires a unique team and unique individuals to come up with unique solutions that are grounded in truth and honesty and justice.

How did you fit in with the other Gladiators on set?

There wasn’t any hazing or anything like that. It’s really been just love. I had the pleasure of meeting them earlier this year, but the first day back as a series regular filming those scenes in OPA and at the bar…it was amazing. It wasn’t overwhelming, but when you’re embraced so quickly and so openly to a family, that love is really touching to see and feel from people that you essentially just met. I met Katie [Lowes] and Guillermo [Diaz] earlier, but the rest of the cast, I hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting.

Moving forward, what is Marcus’s biggest challenge going to be?

I think it’s going to be his moral compass. That’s going to be coming into question for Marcus time and time again because he not only lives in a world where everybody’s moral compass is not on center, but now he is flirting with the idea of working with people who may need reminders. And they found him! It’s not necessarily peer pressure, but when you’re in an environment where everybody says “Let’s do it this way,” it takes some grounding and centering for you to stand up for yourself and say no. I can only imagine that as he continues to deal with OPA, working for them or working against them, his exposure to the world and to people is going to expand.

D.C. is his to gladiate!

He’s going to be out there engaging people in a way he’s never really had an opportunity to do. Running for mayor, there’s really only so much one can do. But without the same, how shall I say, guidelines or rules, there’s more an effect you can have, and I think that’s one of the lessons that Marcus learned when he went away [last season after stepping down as mayoral candidate]. Last time we saw him, he actually thought that he could do more as mayor, so as time has passed, he’s [realizing] there’s more he can do outside of the political world without the same constraints.

Tease up next week’s episode. The big question is: How does Olivia react?!

We’ll have the opportunity to see everybody’s reaction and how they deal with the new guy. It’s a new guy for everybody — for Quinn, for Huck, for Olivia. Everybody’s going to have a chance to engage the new guy and we’ll see what hapens. Some things may shock you. We may not get the reactions we expect from certain individuals, and things are flip-flopped. That’s the lovely thing about Shonda. We set it, then we like to flip it, then we set it again. That’s what I’ve been seeing so far, and it’s really exciting.

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