The new ABC drama series Scandal, premiering on April 5th from show creator Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice), follows Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), a woman who had dedicated her life to protecting and defending the public images of the nation’s elite and keeping those secrets under wraps. A former communications director to the President of the United States (played by Tony Goldwyn), Olivia left the White House to open her own prominent crisis management firm, made up of individuals who specialize in fixing other people’s lives, but can’t manage to fix their own.
During this recent interview to promote the fast-paced and exciting new show, co-stars Katie Lowes (who plays Quinn Perkins, the new young woman in the office who is in awe of Olivia), Columbus Short (who plays slick litigator Harrison Wright), Darby Stanchfield (who plays investigator Abby Whelan) and Guillermo Diaz (who plays hacker extraordinaire Huck) talked about what attracted them to the show and the character they play, how challenging it is to do the dialogue at the pace they need to do it without ever missing a single word, how realistic they think this show and setting is, what you’ll learn about their characters over the course of the season, what it’s like to work with show star Kerry Washington, and what sets this drama series about from everything else that’s currently on television. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
Question: What was it that initially attracted you to this show and what was it about your specific character that stood out for you?
COLUMBUS SHORT: When I read the pilot, obviously the first scene is that awesome monologue. To be quite frank, in my career, I had never seen anything that cool, written for me. That was my initial attraction. And then, the world in which we were delving into was just awesome. Harrison is cool, he’s slick, he’s not a dork. I wanted to play a character that had some kind of swag. And, he gets to wear $1,000 suits. I was like, “I am in! Sign me up! Gucci suit? Check!”
KATIE LOWES: When I read that script, I was blown away. I could not read quick enough or flip the pages fast enough. Quinn is my middle name, so I was like, “It’s meant to be! This is my role!,” which never happens. I loved her. You will see, as the season unfolds, that there is a lot more underneath Quinn Perkins that you don’t know. There’s a lot of secrets and things. You just don’t get that in a lot of 20-something roles. They’re not always complex and interesting and contradictory. It just was so exciting to me.
GUILLERMO DIAZ: For my audition, for a couple of us, Shonda wrote monologues for our characters that had a lot of information. A few days before my audition for Scandal, I said to my manager, “Where are all the emotionally crippled, tragic, good characters?” And then, Scandal came along and I was like, “Oh, my god!” It was just a dream. And, I connected to the character so much. I auditioned for Shonda and it just felt right. It’s been an amazing experience.
DARBY STANCHFIELD: Definitely for me, the writing was the first thing that drew me to this pilot. I love Shonda’s specificity. She’s so specific with the characters. I love Abby’s specificity. I love that Abby is a little bit of a dork. She’s a little too exuberant when she shouldn’t be. She’s got this awkwardness maybe in her love life or personal life, and she’s really all about her work. That was fun. She’s not just this polished, two-dimensional woman. She has some substance to her. I also love that she speaks her mind. I find that to be quite refreshing, for women in TV, to get to really say what you mean. It’s so much fun! Sometimes I just want to be like that in real life.
SHORT: Shonda is amazing at making what could be pedestrian or run-of-the-mill characters have depth, whether it’s with this show or Grey’s Anatomy, or anything. It’s very refreshing because it can get procedural where you’re just wearing suits and solving problems. But, we have problems and we’re damaged, and that makes for interesting viewing for an audience.
STANCHFIELD: The most phenomenal thing about the writing and the project, as a whole, is that everybody that you meet in Scandal in the pilot, is a completely different person by Episode 7. We’d be texting and emailing each other and be like, “Can you believe this just happened to your character?” Who I thought Abby was in the pilot, is not who she is, in the end. You can say that with every single character. It’s so fun because you’re like, “What’s going to happen next?”
SHORT: Shonda allowed us to build that. We’d go sit down with her and say, “This is who I feel like my character is.” It’s very refreshing to just build with a dope and collaborative creator. It’s been an amazing process.
STANCHFIELD: It was cool because Shonda didn’t give us backstory on anything. She said, “Just say what I wrote, and you can create your own backstory. And, as things evolve and secrets come out, just adapt.” With the first couple of episodes, she would watch our choices and expand on them. It really is a supreme experience in TV, for an actor. It’s so fun!
How challenging is it to do the dialogue at the pace you need to do it, on this show?
SHORT: It’s daunting. Not only is it daunting to say the actual words, at that pace, but it’s hard to add emotion and not just make it a robotic exercise in wordplay. After the pilot, I think we got into the groove of the Scandal pace. I even went to read for another job and they were like, “Woah, you’ve gotta slow down! What are you doing?” And I was like, “I’ve gotta change my headspace.”
LOWES: I’m a New Yorker, so I speak really fast, naturally. I’ve been told to speak slower, my whole life, on other jobs or even by my mother. (Show creator) Shonda [Rhimes] was so specific about how the pace of this show is what makes it. That was so the vibe that she wanted, very specifically. Even in the pilot, she timed Columbus and I, doing that first opening scene in the bar, which is incredibly fast. I think it’s really freeing, almost, because your brain can’t get in the way of the ticking time clock of the story that’s about to break. You can’t think too much. You just go. The story is more important than you. You’ve just gotta tell it and you can’t think too much and you’ve got to go as fast as you can.
STANCHFIELD: But, you do have to have your thoughts clear. I’m an idiot around the house, going over and over and over the speeches, to make sure that the thoughts are differentiated.
DIAZ: I had some stuff I had to do with the computer, and I just kept messing up. When we’re all not shooting and they’re setting up lights and stuff, we constantly run our scenes.
SHORT: With this show, you need your castmates. It’s very rhythm-based. There’s music in the dialogue. It’s not like, “Oh, I’m going to say my line and there’s a dramatic pause.” Everything is timed out to perfection, like choreography but linguistically.
STANCHFIELD: It’s really refreshing because no one is too proud to rehearse. There are no divas. We’re all really willing to help each other out. It’s the most generous group. We actually need to rely on each other, and you know you can go to anybody. I would jump under a bus for anybody on the show. We’re all there for each other.
SHORT: It’s a very comfortable working environment.
LOWES: And you have to get every single word correct. That’s the other thing about this.
SHORT: There are no ad-libs.
LOWES: Before we starting shooting the pilot, Shonda Rhimes sent everybody an email saying, “I’m not sure how it is on other jobs, but on this specific show, I have picked every word specifically and they all are important to me. You get to say them how you want to say them, but what you say is what we’ve written.” So, we have to run it a million times, just to make sure everything is in the right place. It’s really challenging, but it’s a great challenge to have.
SHORT: It’s made us better actors, for sure. It’s very important, for the pace of the show, to keep audiences on the edge of their seat. It makes you listen. You’re in and you can’t miss a beat. I’ve only worked with one other writer/producer that is like that, and that’s Aaron Sorkin, who is very specific to the words and the words mean everything. In doing that on a weekly basis, you become engulfed into the storyline. That dialogue is going to be what people want to tune in to see, every week. They’re going to be like, “I want to see how fast they’re going to talk this week.”
STANCHFIELD: It was fun watching the guest stars come in on different episodes of the show. They weren’t necessarily aware of the pace when they auditioned, and the director would be like, “Okay, that’s great, but just put it all together with no pauses and say it five times faster,” and there would have to be an adjustment. We had some amazing guest stars on the show, but a lot of them were caught off guard because it’s just not your typical rhythm that you see on TV.
SHORT: These people are in a fast-paced business. They don’t waste time talking. If they’re talking, it’s for a reason and they’ve got to get it done. That’s what the show is.
Do you guys know why your character was chosen to be on Olivia Pope’s dream team of fixers?
SHORT: Great question. I didn’t know. All I knew was that this is my boss and I will jump over the proverbial cliff for her, at any point. As the show progresses, I sat down with Shonda and asked, “How did I get here? What brought me to this office? Where did Olivia find him?” That does start to unfold, but I’m not going to tell you how.
LOWES: There definitely is a reason why she handpicked every single person. It was specifically for their skill set and what they offer to the firm, but also because of where they’ve been. She definitely has a soft spot in her heart for taking in stray dogs and building them back up and using the skills that they’re really good at.
DIAZ: Regardless of how messed up we are, in our personal lives, we’re all really, really good at what we do. Huck is so different and he’s so introverted. You find out in later episodes, what he has been through. All I have to do is think about what his backstory is and what he’s been through, and it makes it so easy for me to play this character. When you see what he’s been through and what his life was, and how Olivia took him in and brought him into her firm, you’re going to be blown away by what happens. And, it’s not just me. We all have these pasts that are like, “Really? That’s what they did and what they lived through?”
SHORT: It gets dark. I hope you have a flashlight.
Are the personal storylines going to expand over the season?
LOWES: Yeah, there’s outside stuff, for sure.
STANCHFIELD: Very typical of a Shonda Rhimes show, you’re not just going to see a procedural case-of-the-week. We’re not just fixing a scandal, per episode. There’s also all this other stuff going on, for multiple characters at once.
LOWES: There’s some steamy personal stuff that occurs, outside of the firm.
STANCHFIELD: Shonda brings sexy to a whole new level. There’s sexy Grey’s Anatomy and there’s sexy Private Practice, and then there’s sexy Scandal.
SHORT: The world “scandal” is just sexy.
This show is set in Washington, D.C., but where do you shoot it?
SHORT: We didn’t shoot, at all, in D.C.
LOWES: We found all L.A. locations outside, and they CG-ed Washington, D.C. in. But, we really want to take a Washington, D.C. field trip, if that’s possible.
STANCHFIELD: We started shooting this in July, and there are scenes where we’re in layers of suits and overcoats, and we were in Pasadena in Huntington Park, in 90 degree weather. Every chance you had, you were taking off layers. We had to really pretend we were in Washington, D.C.
How realistic do you think this show is, in its portrayal of this setting?
SHORT: I think it’s pretty spot-on, even down to not just the political side, but what bar life is like in downtown D.C. and what type of people are there. In D.C., it’s the who’s who. It’s all about power. It’s a town driven by power, and everyone wants a piece of it. In our show, we hit home on that.
STANCHFIELD: It’s such a collaborative thing, in terms of making the world of D.C. We rely on our set decorators and our set designer, Judy Smith’s expertise, and having to use your actor mentality.
Columbus and Guillermo, what do you think your characters think of Quinn? What sort of relationship do they have with her?
SHORT: I think Harrison’s relationship to Quinn is one that’s very interesting. Obviously, he was sent out to bring her into the company. Personally, I don’t know if Harrison felt like this girl had the makings to work for this firm. She’s skittish and nervous, wide-eyed and like a deer in the headlights, most of the time. But, over time, as you get into the series, you get to see that she does have incredible assets to bring to the firm. In that, when the respect is earned, then a different type of relationship is birthed. Harrison think he has to steer her on the right path.
DIAZ: I think Huck, at first, wants to toughen her up. In later episodes, you see that Huck feels like a big brother towards her.
LOWES: You’ll see that Huck and Quinn get grouped together sometimes, just because Huck is always standing back and observing the situation. Because I’m the newbie and always a step behind, Harrison, Abby, Stephen (Henry Ian Cusick) and Olivia are always like, “What’s going on?,” and Huck is always around and looking and having brilliant ideas, while I’m just like, “What is happening? I don’t know anything! Somebody tell me what is happening?” There are a lot of times where Huck is like, “It’s okay. We’re over here. It’s fine.” And then, Harrison is like, “Get your s-h-I-t together!” He’s always like tough love, “Get it together, girl!”
SHORT: Harrison has adopted the idea that it’s tough love that’s going to get her there. In a pack of wolves, you can’t be a lamb. We’re sharks. We’re in a world where you have to have some teeth and, if I’m not sharpening them for you, who’s going to do it?
Guillermo, are you as computer savvy as Huck?
DIAZ: I’m certainly not computer savvy, at all. I joined Twitter kicking and screaming, and very reluctantly. I’m trying to make sense of all this stuff. I miss writing letters to my friends, like when I was a teenager. Playing Huck, I get to play in this world that I’m not familiar with at all. It’s a blast. I hope I’m learning some computer skills from playing Huck.
How much will viewers get to see Olivia not quite being the person her staff idolizes her to be?
STANCHFIELD: It comes up. Abby speaks her mind, so there is something to Abby and Olivia’s relationship where, if I see something going wrong, I’m going to be the first one to say it in the office.
SHORT: I think we all see it. Harrison definitely sees it. You see the cracks starting to show, episode by episode. She’s not only the proverbial hero of the show, but she’s our hero. She’s our leader. So, when your leader starts cracking, it takes the strong people that are around her to lift her back up, with tough love. She does that for all of us. The gladiator in the suit is the armor. Underneath that suit, we’re flawed individuals, and Olivia is, as well. That comes up, in a very big way.
How does humor enhance the show?
LOWES: I think it’s important to find humor, anywhere you can. In real life, with the darkest, scariest, most intense moments, if you can find something funny, that’s good.
STANCHFIELD: Humor, in this show, is like oxygen to a fire. Shonda writes these humorous moments that are very truthful. It’s like real life. It just fuels the stakes and it gives the audience a release because there is such intense stuff happening. It’s the breath in the show.
SHORT: We earn the laughs and the comedic part of the show. Otherwise, you’d slit your wrists.
LOWES: And, we’re all jokesters, off the set.
Did you guys audition for the same role that you were cast in?
SHORT: Fortunately, by God’s grace, I didn’t audition for this. I feel like, in my head, Shonda knew she wrote that for me. When I read it, I was like, “No way!” The words came out of my mouth and it just fit. In seeing and reading that, there was no question in my mind that I wanted to be a part of it, period.
LOWES: I auditioned for Quinn. When I read the script and Quinn is my middle name, I just lost my mind. I was like, “Oh, my god, please let this happen!” I went in once and read for Shonda Rhimes, Betsy Beers and Linda Lowy, the wonderful casting director. And then, they were talking about bringing me in for ABC – the studio and network – to test for the role. And then, a week later, a got a call that I had to go in again, so I went in. I had been on Private Practice and Grey’s Anatomy, so I had been in front of Shonda a couple of times. She sat me down and said, “We’re not going to bring you in to test,” and I almost started crying. I thought, “All right, just pick yourself up. It’s okay. You didn’t get the part.” And she said, “The reason we’re not going to test you is because I’m going to give you the role.” And then, I started hysterically crying. And then, I asked if I could hug everybody, and they said I could, so I hugged everybody. I was just so happy. It was my American Idol moment. It was awesome, and I’m so thankful. It’s been the best experience of my life.
DIAZ: I auditioned for the role, and Shonda and Betsy Beers were in the room. I finished my audition and just looked at them, and they were a little bit teary-eyed and I was emotional. We just stared at each other for a minute, and then I was like, “Okay, thanks, bye,” and I left. And then, two days later, they gave me the role.
STANCHFIELD: I auditioned for Abby and the character description was, “round, knits a lot, has a lot of cats, cheery.” So, I decided to wear a cashmere turtleneck sweater under my suit to throw in a little bit of, “Okay, I knitted this.” There was this monologue that Shonda has written, that I never actually say in the series, but it’s this brilliant monologue about how Stephen smells. And, when I did the monologue, I actually ripped a huge hole, right in the front of my turtleneck sweater, because I was just so caught up in the moment of how Stephen smells so good. And then, they called me back to test, so I had to go get the turtleneck sewn back up quickly. Shonda gave me this 30-second stare of silence, after I tested, and it was just true love.
Katie and Darby, since it can often be difficult for women to get good, strong roles, what does it mean to you guys to have these roles and have them be created by such a strong woman?
LOWES: To have roles for women that are like Abby and Quinn is next to impossible to even exist, and then for us to get them. This show was written and created by a woman, about a woman. To be a part of this, I just feel it’s so much bigger. It’s huge and exciting and we feel so passionate about the work that’s being done. To be a woman and be a part of it, it’s unlike anything I’ve felt.
STANCHFIELD: It means the world to me. I am emotional because I feel like, oftentimes for women, you have to cut off little parts of yourself to play a woman on TV that’s not fully developed. Shonda writes women so well. I feel like I can take full breaths, I get to use all parts of myself, it’s challenging, and I get to bring stuff that I’m not comfortable with. As an actor and as a woman, it’s the biggest gift to feel really fulfilled in such an honest way because that’s how women are. It’s profoundly special that we get to be a part of this. I’m just overwhelmed with how lucky we are and how rare it is.
Columbus and Guillermo, do you know anyone like your characters that you draw on?
SHORT: I don’t know a man like Harrison. I always try to find images that I find strength in because I wanted Harrison to have some strength. I don’t know that person in my life, per se. There’s Obama, I guess. Obama at 30 was working with Olivia Pope.
DIAZ: I don’t know anyone like Huck, either. I think I’d be a little afraid to know someone like Huck. I like that I don’t know anyone like Huck. I just have so much fun playing him and going to those dark places inside of me. I love getting to do this stuff on television, and the writing is so stellar. It’s a strange, beautiful experience.
What do you guys do to keep your energy up during the long days of shooting?
SHORT: I look at Katie and she smiles or says something crazy, or I’ll look at Darby and she’ll be watching me do my little, dumb idiosyncracies that I have. I like to dance when I’m thinking. I move my feet and tap a lot and make a lot of noise.
STANCHFIELD: When it’s three in the morning and we’ve been there for 12 or 14 hours, it’s interesting. Every actor probably does something a little bit different, in order to maintain or sustain their rhythm, in terms of caffeine or going into a corner and not talking to anybody. We all tend to have a little bit different energy. There is definitely a group chemistry, but I think we all rest in different ways.
SHORT: It ebbs and flows, but we pick each other up, when it’s time.
What’s it like to work with Kerry Washington, and how is she similar to her character?
LOWES: She’s the best leader. She really is our leader, as her character and as Kerry Washington. She took such care of the group. The week leading into us meeting, she called and emailed all of us to talk about backstory and how we met. She takes this job on, to 150% of her ability, all day and all night, and she cares about every single one of us and our characters. She is unbelievable.
STANCHFIELD: There’s no sense of weird competition or status. She is a true star. She has such grace and generosity of spirit.
SHORT: She was about the team. She’s all about the work and making you feel comfortable. She allows you to go on your journey with her, to make the scene better. You don’t see that a lot. It’s true that a lot of actors are very about themselves and they’ll leave you out to dry, in a scene. But, she rehearses on days off, or on her lunch. We called her Khaleesi (queen), based on Game of Thrones. When you have a work ethic like that, attitude reflects leadership. When your leader is like that, you either pull up or ship out, and I think all of us pulled it up. That’s nothing but a testament to her.
How do you think this show stands out from other things that are on the air, right now?
DIAZ: It’s a world we haven’t seen on television before, really. That’s really exciting.
SHORT: It stands out because there are new faces. We haven’t seen Kerry Washington on television. None of us have been on a show like this. I’ve done one TV show. I think that’s going to be a fresh aspect. I think that, alone, makes it interesting. And then, there’s the content. This show really is like a cable show, but it’s on network television, pushing the envelope, every single week. This show has pushed the limits of what ABC’s outlook has been. It’s a very new, fresh take on a world that we haven’t seen.
STANCHFIELD: There is a trend in TV, in the last few years, with the lead character being a flawed hero, whether it be Jon Hamm in Mad Men or Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad. They have these flaws, but you root for them still. There are some similarities there with Kerry Washington’s character, except that she is an African American woman. She is a hero and she has flaws, but it’s a more complex, flawed hero than anything I’ve seen on TV, and the flawed hero aspect trickles down to her whole staff. Every single one of us is that. The entire ensemble are flawed heroes.
LOWES: The show also looks really different than a lot of shows on television. We are always shooting through panes of glass or around things. With most television shows, you’re really used to coverage being perfectly spot-on. This is a totally different look and the colors are very dark. That’s a really interesting thing that what have not seen on TV. It’s more voyeuristic. You feel like you’re peeking through a window or peeking around glass to see a scene that you really shouldn’t be seeing.
SHORT: Shonda approached this like a British mini-series. If you watch any of the shows on the BBC, they’re very cinematic and very enthralling. It’s not like they have blown-out lights and bright colors. It’s very moody. At 10 pm, it’s going to be a perfect time to be moody. You can get your moody on.
Scandal airs on Thursday nights on ABC, starting April 5th. You can learn more about the show at www.abc.com/shows/scandal.