‘Scandal’s’ Kerry Washington Relishes the Contradictions in Olivia Pope

Kerry Washington stars in "Scandal." (ABC)

Kerry Washington is not Olivia Pope. Both women are smart, driven, and passionate about their work. But Olivia Pope, the character Washington plays on “Scandal“, would never wear suede high heels decorated with gold zippers. They are far too flashy for conservative Washington D.C., especially for crisis manager Olivia, whose tasteful wardrobe is designed to allow her to fade into the background. In contrast,Washington, who is wearing the fashion forward shoes to an on-camera interview along with an equally un-Olivia patterned silk dress and a textured black coat, has grown accustomed to the spotlight.

Over the course of its second season, “Scandal” has become broadcast television’s most buzzed about series, with soaring ratings and a huge social media presence. Washington is simultaneously winning critical acclaim for her portrayal of Broomhilda in Quentin Tarantino’s Golden Globe winning hit “Django Unchained.” It’s a dream scenario for an actress. Yet Washington claims that she would rather be on the set than on the red carpet. “I’m  going back to do the second half of season two right now and I’m grateful that keeps me focused on the process of what I do as opposed to how it lands in the world. For me, the joy in what I do is much more focused in the process of making it than the bells and whistles around it.”

Washington, who has been steadily building a career in film, was happy to make a long-term commitment to  “Scandal”, realizing that Olivia would be her meatiest role yet. “When I first read the script, I was really moved by the humanity of this character, by the contradiction between her public persona and her private persona because from the very first episode you have Huck’s (Guillermo Diaz)  character saying to Quinn (Katie Lowes),”She doesn’t believe in crying,. There is no crying at Pope and Associates. We don’t do that around here. But by the end of that very first episode, Olivia is alone in a coat closet crying secretly. That dichotomy between her strength in public and her vulnerability in private, particularly with the president, that complexity really intrigued me.”

Washington is referring, of course, to the tortured love story between Olivia and President “Fitz” Fitzgerald  Grant (Tony Goldwyn) that drives the series narrative. “Olivia used to work at the White House and she left partly because she has had a very complicated romantic relationship with the president of the United States who happens to be married and have children.” It’s not common for a show to ask viewers to root for an adulterous relationship. Even “Homeland“, which is often compared to “Scandal”, gave its cheating protagonists the excuses of mental illness and PTSD. Washington likes that Olivia is completely accountable for her own actions. In fact, this season Olivia did her best to distance herself from the president until he got shot and found herself serving as the White House secretary, tasked with hiding the extent of his injuries from the public while helping the First Lady and Chief of Staff keep the scheming Vice President from taking over as Commander in Chief. “I think as the series goes on things get more and more complicated. I think you never quite know who to root for and I love that. I love that as time goes on people have more and more compassion for Mellie (Bellamy Young), the character of the first lady. And they feel more and more conflicted about Olivia.”

Washington thinks Olivia and Fitz’s forbidden relationship adheres to classic dramatic themes. “One of the things that is so intriguing about the show is that I think we’re often from Romeo & Juliet, captivated as audiences by lovers who love each other but can’t be together. These two, it’s phenomenal that the reasons they can’t be together play out not between two families but across a global stage so the stakes are very high in their relationship.”

Washington likes that her character is far from a saint. “I think it’s a testament to Shonda Rhimes courage as a writer and a showrunner and to the entire group of “Scandal” writers because they are really willing to have these characters live in the grey area. They fully embrace that human beings are flawed and that characters should be, too. And that in order for these characters to be real, we have to have them live in the grey area. Because nobody in real life is all good or all bad.”

Olivia got a lot greyer in the January 17 episode, “A Criminal, a Whore, an Idiot, and a Liar ” in which the audience learned that she cast the deciding vote approving the electronic voting machine fraud that got Fitz elected president. “When I read the episode, I was finishing [it] in the car on the way to work. I was riding with a member of our transportation department and I just burst into tears and called Shonda because I was so distraught about the episode and about the decisions being made and how they were made and why they were made. It’s amazing.”

She was equally affected when she read the script for show’s gamechanging episode in which Fitz was shot. “It was such a shocking moment to read that that was going to happen and to not know week to week how that was going to unfold. So it doesn’t surprise me that it resonated with audiences in the same way because we were blown away, no pun intended.”

In fact, the entire cast enjoys seeing the audience’s reaction. “We really enjoy live tweeting with our audience when the show airs because it’s fun for us to see the shock and the awe with every twist and turn because that’s exactly how we feel when we read the episode so we absolutely identify with our fans that way.” Washington’s favorite Scandal-related hashtags are #FreeHuck and #WhoisQuinnPerkins. “It’s rare that you have a television show where our own cast and crew ares fans of the show.”

Washington credits Rhimes for not only creating a great television show but being a source of inspiration. “Powerful women accomplishing their dreams in the world inspire me whether it’s Shonda Rhimes or [real life inspiration for Olivia] Judy Smith or [playwright and activist] Eve Ensler who is one of my heroes. Washington is a part of Ensler’s, best known for creating ‘The Vagina Monologues”,  latest project. “She’s got this great initiative called One Billion Rising that I’m a part of in February. It’s a day of celebration and empowerment on February 14 of this year. Eve Ensler is the founder of V Day which is to end violence against women, so it’s a day of dancing to end the violence against women. It’s really exciting.”

Washington’s childhood heroes were also strong women. “My Mom was definitely one of them. I think teachers are so fundamentally important to the development of our kids, so I would be remiss to not say that the different teachers I’ve had in my life.” In fact, her mom was her first employer. “My Mom was on the board of the Bronx reading council and I was stuffing mailers into envelopes for them.”

Now, of course, there are a lot of little girls who want to grow up to be Kerry Washington. ” I’d say I’m much more interested in you being the best version of yourself. Life is too short to try to be somebody else. Just look for the best in yourself.” It’s advice that one could imagine Olivia Pope giving.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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