In ABC’s new drama Scandal it appears that everyone in Washington DC has a secret, and Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) has dedicated her life to protecting and defending the public images of the nation’s elite and keeping those secrets under wraps.
The series is loosely based on the real life of Judy Smith, the founder and President of Impact Strategies, a leading strategic and crisis communications firm with offices in Washington DC and Los Angeles.
After her great success with Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, Shonda Rhimes has stepped away from the medical genre to create and be Executive Producer of Scandal.
I spoke with Shonda on the set of the show, which premieres during the first quarter of 2012.
Were you friends with Judy, is that how this came about?
I am now. Betsy (Beer, who produces with Rhimes) was the person who said, ‘You’ve got to meet and sit down with Judy, because I think this is a show.’ I resisted for a long time because I was busy and I was tired. We sat down with Judy and we started talking about it and I was engaged in the first five seconds of talking to her. I was like, ‘This is going to be interesting.’
Did she have tons of stories to tell you?
It was more about her telling me what she did for a living and how she did it. I just found it fascinating. I also think the way Judy thinks is fascinating, she thinks like a fixer.
She thinks about everything in a very particular way, and the more you talk to her the more you wish she was available 24 hours a day to solve all your problems. I got engaged with it and just wanted to know more and a world started to form in my head as she spoke and that was really interesting to me.
The first couple of episodes end in a cliffhanger, is that going to be a constant thing?
I feel like the seven episodes work as a whole and at the end of every episode you’re going to be going, ‘Why don’t I know what’s happening next?’ I think we’re telling a story in which, yeah, there’s a little bit of a cliffhanger at the end of every episode and that’s important.
Is the romantic relationship between President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) and Olivia going to sustain itself over several seasons?
As long as he’s President of the United States. And what’s wonderful about it is that it can’t work. He’s the leader of the free world, that is an obstacle, and that’s what I loved about it. I got excited about that idea of how impossible their love can be.
Why did you make his wife somewhat constipated?
She’s not constipated, and I think if you’re a woman whose husband is sleeping or in love with another woman you have the right to be a little bit pissed off all the time. And I think that the more you get to know her the more interesting she becomes.
You’ve inspired so many actors, what inspires you?
I don’t know, that’s a hard question. If I knew where my ideas came from I would somehow be better at getting then all out there. Lots of things inspire me. Just being out in the world inspires me. I think that’s why it’s always good to take a little time off from the job, get out and meet real people so you’re not just referencing more television when you’re trying to create something.
The pacing of this reminds me of The West Wing, were you a fan of that show?
I’ve seen every episode of The West Wing at least four or five times. I think anybody who loves television has. But no, the truth of the matter is everyone talks really fast because the script was seventy pages and I said, ‘I want all seventy pages, so everyone talk really fast.’
Once everyone was talking really fast it became a thing the people on the set started doing and it just works. That speed works because you feel like everything’s always moving all the time. I didn’t necessarily need it to go as fast as it goes, but I love it. The minute that we saw it on screen I was like, ‘This is perfect.’
This is set in Washington DC and has a political background, but it doesn’t seem political. How deliberate was that?
I think it was deliberate, I wasn’t doing a show about politics, that wasn’t the plan. I was really trying to do a show about this woman and what Judy does for a living. That’s really what it was about.
There are some episodes that are more political than others, but really it was just about wanting to tell the stories and tell them well.
Were you disappointed that this is a mid-season entry instead of premiering last fall?
No, I like mid-season, Grey’s Anatomypremiered mid-season. I think it’s always good.
Why only seven episodes and not thirteen?
Grey’s Anatomy only premiered nine its first season. We’re doing seven, and I could sit and really concentrate on doing these seven episodes, so they are the best seven episodes I could do before turning around to focus on the other ‘children.’ It felt good. I got to do it like a British miniseries, which is what I wanted. It feels more like State of Play than a regular network show, and that was my goal.
You’ve inspired so many actors, what inspires you?
I don’t know, that’s a hard question. If I knew where my ideas came from I would somehow be better at getting them all out there. Lots of things inspire me. Just being out in the world inspires me.
I think that’s why it’s always good to take a little time off from the job, get out and meet real people so you’re not just referencing more television when you’re trying to create something.
Is it nice to get a break from medical shows?
To me Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice are not medical shows, they’re shows about people and they always were, the medicine is the backdrop. Just like this is a show about people and the crisis is the backdrop. So it never felt like, ‘Oh, I’m mired in medicine. It was never about that.’