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Scandal – Kerry Washington and the special TV series

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Scandal, 1.01 - Kerry Washington
Pilot Episode 1.01 "Sweet Baby" - Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) © 2011 American Broadcasting Companies

Kerry Washington’s career has flourished since she won the coveted role of Della Bea Robinson, the wife of Ray Charles in the biopic Ray. Additionally she has had roles in The Last King of Scotland, Lakeview Terrace, For Colored Girls and most recently, Eddie Murphy’s A Thousand Words.

So it’s obvious that a pretty special TV series would have to come along for her to want to star in it – and it did, Scandal, written by TV icon Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice). In the series, Kerry portrays Olivia Pope, who runs a crisis management office in Washington DC, protecting and defending the public images of the nation’s elite and keeping their secrets under wraps.

Were you looking to do a TV series?

Scandal - Kerry Washington
Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) © 2011 American Broadcasting Companies

No way. I have three movies coming out this year, so I wasn’t like, ‘Maybe it’s time.’ I had started thinking about doing some things for cable, and then I fell in love with the script that happened to be for a network show with Shonda Rhimes.

I didn’t actually want to read it, because when it was sent to me I knew that it was a network show, and I just thought, ‘I’m not looking for that. That’s not what I want to do.’ And then I read the pilot and it was like, ‘Who do I have to kill to play this role?’

Do you feel this is a different kind of character for you?

That’s a very interesting question, because for me I really try not to do the same thing twice. I’m drawn to diversity in my work, so I like the challenge of doing something I haven’t done before.

People know that I’m a very politically active person and so in that way I was fascinated and intrigued to do a show that takes place in this world. But, you’re right, I’ve never done anything like this before.

If I’m really honest, this is the hardest I’ve ever worked without a doubt, and it’s the most challenging and fulfilling job I’ve ever had, artistically and emotionally.  It’s very exciting and the scripts keep getting better and better and more complicated.

This is a character that we love and hate almost at the same time. How do you play that?

Scandal, 1.01 - Henry Ian Cusick and Kerry Washington
Episode 1.01 "Sweet Baby" - Stephen Finch (Henry Ian Cusick) and Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) © 2011 American Broadcasting Companies

When Shonda says she writes flawed people, what she means is she writes real people, people who are three-dimensional, fully realized human beings, and that is a joy for any actor, because so often we are having to create the three-dimensionality of a character.

But when it’s given to you, it’s such a treat. I really love playing a complicated woman. But I am always looking for the good in the character.

Are we supposed to feel like Olivia always does the right thing?

We as actors have to have compassion and understanding for our characters, we have to look for the good. We can’t demonize our characters.

I think Olivia behaves professionally, yes, theoretically I always do the right thing. But you might think,  ‘Really, you’re taking on a madam as a client? Is that the right thing to do?’

But where is the line for her?

Scandal - Kerry Washington
Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) © 2011 American Broadcasting Companies

I don’t think that Olivia Pope believes that the law is always an accurate reflection of good and bad, and that justice is more complicated than the law.

Olivia and Pope & Associates are really about trying to make sure that people deserve a second chance, people make mistakes and to the best of their ability they try to even the playing field, being helpful to people who don’t have anywhere else to go, if they feel like that help is deserved and justifiable.

What’s it like to say the dialogue at that pace? Shonda has written this in a West Wing style.

We all so adore the material and adore this show that we put in so much time outside of the already rigorous TV hours that you’re working on to make sure that our Scandal pace is on and that the scenes have the rhythm in which  they were written.

Every week we get these scripts and go, ‘Okay, this is really good. How do we not mess it up as actors?’ That’s our job because it is so good as is.

I said to my mother, ‘Mom, this is one of those shows you’re going to watch on close-caption.’

There are certain shows that my mother watches, they’re in English, but she watches them on close-caption because she doesn’t want to miss anything. She watches Game of Thrones on close-caption. I said, ‘This is totally one of those shows.’

I was surprised that you have this backdrop of politics and yet it doesn’t seem to be about politics.

Scandal, 1.01 "Sweet Baby" - Guillermo Diaz, Darby Stanchfield and Kerry Washington
Episode 1.01 "Sweet Baby" - Huck (Guillermo Diaz), Abby Whelan (Darby Stanchfield) and Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) © 2011 American Broadcasting Companies

There are things that are uniquely politically oriented about this show, but it’s not about politics. It’s about people who are in desperate circumstances, both in and out of the political sphere.

One of the things that’s so cool about crisis management is that you never know what’s going to walk into your door. So setting the show in Washington DC is exciting because DC is the nexus of power for so many different industries and so many different fields.

But from show to show who walks in our office is completely unpredictable, whether it’s somebody in the military, a politician, somebody in the corporate world, somebody in the labor movement or a celebrity or a sports figure. It’s not a political show because we deal with crisis in all areas.

Scandal premieres on April 5, 2012 on ABC.