“Grey’s Anatomy” creator Shonda Rhimes is used to writing characters dealing with major crises. Just not like this.
“If I’m not sure what to do on ‘Grey’s’ at the end of an act or commercial break, someone codes or faints or crashes – literally, at ‘Grey’s’ someone will collapse,” Rhimes chuckles, admitting she doesn’t have the luxury of ailments to provide dramatic curve balls into her new series, “Scandal.”
"This one – no. There can be no medical emergency to save you. You have to solve the problem.”
Rhimes hopes to rise to the occasion with “Scandal,” which takes viewers into the political pressure-cooker world of Olivia Pope, a former White House press officer who now heads her own crisis management firm and finds her life consumed with containing provocative secrets: professional, personal, presidential or sometimes a combination of all three.
“It was a real evolution for me as a writer,” Rhimes tells PopcornBiz. “A real indication of how much I’ve grown up as a writer, to create this new world and have it be totally different and not depend on any of the things I’m used to doing – what I always call my bag of tricks. I had to throw it out the window to do this, and that was really exciting.”
Rhimes could also rely on the professional experience of the show’s real-life inspiration Judy Smith, herself a former deputy press secretary-turned-crisis management specialist who’s handled cases including the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the BP oil spill, for some authentic plot twists. Smith is also a producer on the ABC series.
“I got to know her extraordinarily well,” says Rhimes. “Betsy Beers, the other executive producer introduced us – Judy and Betsy Beers have the same agent, I guess – so we just had a meeting to see if maybe we wanted to develop a show for someone else to write or whatever, and I talked to Judy for two and a half hours, and I knew: this was the show. And from that moment on, Judy and I have been fairly inseparable.”
Joining Rhimes in trying to make the arena of backstage political drama as sexy and sudsy as “Grey’s” is the series’ leading lady Kerry Washington (“Last King of Scotland,” “For Colored Girls”), who quickly connected to the role. “Part of why I think Olivia does what she does, and part of who I am, is just a fundamental interest in other human beings, and a desire to honor and celebrate the lives of other people,” Washington tells PopcornBiz. “I feel like part of why I’m an actor is that I think it’s important that all different kinds of stories get told about people. And I think that part of why Judy does what she does and part of why Olivia does what she does is because they care about people, and they believe that everybody deserves a shot, everybody deserves a second chance, everybody deserves a level playing field, which the world does not always create. So I think an interest in people and an interest in humanity is something that we share.”
Rhimes says she scoured Hollywood looking for the actress with right qualities to portray Olivia before landing on Washington. “It was interesting because, literally, I feel like we auditioned every actress of color in town – every one! “ recalls Rhimes. “I wanted everyone to have a chance, so it was really difficult because we saw a ton of actresses. But then it was really simple because when Kerry came in and sat down and started to read, I thought, ‘Well, there she is.’ You know it when you see it.”
“This really is a single female lead show,” adds Rhimes, distinguishing “Scandal” from her other ensemble-based series, “Grey’s” and “Private Practice.” “Kerry is in almost every scene. She’s working her butt off. But I love surrounding that with really strong characters, so the supporting characters aren’t just one-note. They’re real, three-dimensional characters around her, and I feel like all of my shows kind of have that same element. And I think what I like about it is it affords you so much possibility. As a writer, you want as much possibility as possible and really write for as many people as possible to make it rich.”
Washington says that thus far she’s enjoyed wrapping her brain around the kind of high-wire gamesmanship her character employs. “It’s been really fun to learn how to think strategically,” she explains. “I’m not really a chess player, but that’s how Judy lives her life and her work. She’s always thinking four steps ahead of everybody else. She’s thinking four steps ahead of the legal system, four steps ahead of the media, four steps of the client themselves. So it’s a complicated existence, but it really challenges me mentally.”
Just as long as all the juicy intrigue stays on the screen, she adds: “I decided a long time ago that I’d really prefer it if the drama in my life was mostly drama I get paid for,” Washington chuckles. “Nobody can guarantee that, because you can’t control all of the factors in your life. But I think it’s a good thing that I didn’t know a lot about crisis management before I started doing this show.”