“Scandal” was one of the pleasant surprises of last spring.
Held back until April and then rushing through its first season in only seven episodes, the Shonda Rhimes-created Beltway drama proved to be stylish, soapy, occasionally shocking and, as the title suggests, scandalous.
Anchoring the whole production was a compelling performance by Kerry Washington, playing uber-fixer Olivia Pope, a success-at-any-cost DC mastermind with a sensitive past involving the President of the United States.
“Scandal” returns to ABC on Thursday (September 27) night with an episode titled “White Hat’s Off.” Last week, I got on the phone with Washington to chat about the premiere and the development of “Scandal” into its second season.
Washington wasn’t always prepared to humor my suppositions about her character, but it’s still a good conversation…
HitFix: So the premiere to this season is called “White Hat’s Off.” What does it mean for Olivia to have her white hat come off?
Kerry Washington: [Laughs.] Well, how do you know it’s Olivia’s white hat?
HitFix: Well, I’ve seen the premiere, so…
Kerry Washington: Ah. Well, it’s interesting… I think… I can’t really answer that without spoiling the show, but I think that one of the things that’s definitely happening so far — we don’t get an outline for the season, so it’s hard to say overall — but so far, five episodes in, it’s just that idea of how complicated justice is, it’s so far a big theme. What is “Right and Wrong?” For me, what that title kinda opened up was more of an investigation. What does it mean to wear the white hat? Sometimes it looks like somebody is taking off their white hat, but they may not be, the more information you get.
HitFix: In the first shortened season, did you feel like maybe right and wrong or wearing the white hat were too clear or more clear?
Kerry Washington: No, I wouldn’t say that. Do you feel that way? I think it’s always been kinda complicated.
HitFix: Maybe not “too clear,” but in the first season, I think I felt like we felt maybe more confident that Olivia was ultimately doing things for the right reasons?
Kerry Washington: I think that’s a funny statement, because I think one of the things that interests me so much about her is that from the very beginning, we realize that Olivia’s not who she seems or who she says she is. Everybody says, “Olivia doesn’t believe in crying” in the pilot episode and then by the end of the episode, she’s standing a coat closet by herself in tears. So that’s kinda the thing that’s always been interesting for me about the character is the complexity of the difference between who she is publicly and who she is privately. I mean, you can say in Season 1 she’s somebody who does the right thing, but she’s also having an affair with a married man who’s the President of the United States. So I don’t know how much of a white hat she was. So I think that what the show really does is kinda challenge our ideas about what is the right thing. Because is that OK if they really love each other? Is it not OK? It’s part of what makes the show, I think, fun to talk about.
HitFix: There aren’t that many network shows that offer that, I suppose. Were you surprised when you first got the scripts that there was this sort of grey area?
Kerry Washington: Absolutely, particular as a woman actor and as a person of color, a lot of times my job has been to flesh out the the character, to create a conventional, complex human being from what I got on the pack. And that is the job of the actor always, but for this show, so much of it was just on the page. I didn’t have to work to figure out how to fill that space. She just *is* that.
HitFix: Not so much on the issue of right and wrong, but I do feel like in the first season, we mostly saw Olivia at her most proficient, where she was pulling rabbits out of hats with her unique skill-set, but we also saw a few moments of weakness. Do you have a preference between Proficient Olivia and Less-Strong Olivia?
Kerry Washington: It’s actually that complexity that I like. I actually like the challenge of creating a human being who truly embodies both of those dynamics and having it seem real.
HitFix: But there’s still the side of the character who’s so very ultra-proficient, who’s such a smooth operator. And that seems like it would be fun to play a character who’s so good at getting things done. Or is that maybe too easy?
Kerry Washington: Oh gosh. There’s nothing that’s too easy about her. It’s exciting to play a character who’s so much smarter than I am, so much more powerful than I am. It’s challenging in different ways.
HitFix: Last season you were able to approach it as a shortened season. Does it feel different starting this season knowing that you have 13 or hopefully 22 episodes? Knowing you have that whole season looming?
Kerry Washington: I think that’s more of a question for the writers. For us, it just feels so exciting. We, honestly every day when we’re at work, we thank the fans in our heads. It’s because people tuned in that we have a shot at a second season. This company of actors, we just love working with each other so much and we love the material that we get and we just love our jobs. It’s such a fantastic work environment and such great material. So we just honestly are so, so grateful.
HitFix: You mentioned the fans and last year you would have shot mostly in a vacuum with no way of knowing what people were or weren’t responding to. How is it different now shooting knowing that people are watching and enjoying and knowing specifically which things people are responding to?
Kerry Washington: It’s still so new for me, because I haven’t really worked in television that much, but one of the things is… Like I said, we don’t get an outline for the season, because when you work for Shonda, you just don’t know. There’s that little symbol at the end of all her shows that’s that little rollercoaster with the heart in the middle and that’s our lives. That’s what it’s like. So we get shocked week-to-week in the same way that the audience does when the show airs, which is really funny and I guess some part of the difference is sometimes now when we’re acting those moments and when we’re reading them week-to-week as the get the scripts, we think more about the fans, because we know that our excitement has the potential to be their excitement and that’s really fun for us, because it gives us even more drive and purpose.
HitFix: Many of us saw you on-stage at the Democratic Convention. With its political backdrop, does the show feel different as we’re deep in this election season?
Kerry Washington: It’s fun for me because it’s obviously really something that I’ve been interested in, but also it’s so fun that the world of the show is so completely different, that it’s a Republican administration, that it’s a white president. It’s such a different world.
HitFix: Returning one last time to the black hat/white hat thing… How dark would you like to see Olivia get this season?
Kerry Washington: Oh gosh. I don’t know. It’s funny. When people ask me kinda where I want this show to go — and I really mean this — I don’t really have a sense of where I want the show to go, because I really trust these writers. Every time in the past when I had an idea about, “Oh, you know what would be cool?” The writers come up with stuff that is so above and beyond anything that I could have thought of, so I really am just along for the ride now and I get excited and nervous when things happen that change how one might think about or feel about her, but it’s all part of the ride. It’s such a fun adventure working on this show. It really is. I just buckle my seatbelt and enjoy it.
“Scandal” airs at 10 p.m. on Thursdays on ABC.