On the ABC drama series Scandal, from show creator/writer/executive producer Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice), actor Tony Goldwyn plays President Fitzgerald Grant, whose former communications director, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), left to open her own prominent crisis management firm. Revered and feared at the same time, Olivia was hoping to completely cut ties with her past (which includes an affair with the President) and start a new chapter in her life, but her former boss and his chief of staff (played by Jeff Perry) are never far from her beat.During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Tony Goldwyn talked about how he came to be a part of Scandal, what he thinks of his morally ambiguous character, the challenge of always being so exact with such fast-paced dialogue, the presidents that he looked at for inspiration, what it’s like to work with his co-star Kerry Washington, and how the stakes will continue to get higher through the end of the season. He also talked about his directorial work, whether he prefers the style of film or TV, developing a drama series for AMC, and the shows he’d love to direct an episode of, if given the opportunity. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Collider: How did you originally come to be a part of this show? Was it something that Shonda Rhimes approached you about because of your previous working relationship?
TONY GOLDWYN: Yeah, I think so. I just got a call that she was interested in me doing this. I love Shonda and have so much respect for her, and really love the creative process of working for her, as a director. Then, when I heard Kerry Washington was involved – and I’ve just been so impressed with her work, in everything she’s done, and know her socially and admire her a lot – the combination of Shonda and Kerry was overwhelming. And then, when she said she wanted me to play the President of the United States, I thought, “With Shonda Rhimes writing, that’s going to be an interesting president.” It sounded like a good bet to say yes to.
It must be an ego boost to have someone tell you that they see you as the President of the United States.
GOLDWYN: It was very nice, definitely.
When you got a chance to read the pilot, what was your first reaction to the story and character and the way that it was written?
GOLDWYN: Well, I really loved the final scene in the Oval Office between Fitz and Olivia because I knew that there was going to be so much more to this than what it appeared to be. I’m always perversely attracted to characters that seem one thing, but are ultimately revealed as another, and I knew, the way Shonda writes, that that’s how it would turn out. In a different writer’s hands, it actually would have made me nervous because I would have thought, “Oh, god, I’m going to be the philandering president, and that’s the role,” which is fine, but not necessarily something you want to be doing forever, in a television series. But, with Shonda, I knew that all of her characters are always full of contrasts and surprises, and she described to me what her intentions were for Fitz, as the show went on. I just found putting a character in a moral quandary like that really great. When you see the rest of the first season, Fitz is just full of surprises, which makes it really exciting, as an actor.
When you play a character that lives in the gray area like Fitz does, do you feel like you need to make him sympathetic, in some way, or are you totally fine with viewers getting angry at him and not always liking him and his actions?
GOLDWYN: Oh, no, I’m totally fine with that because I feel like we all live in the gray area. It’s one of the themes I always love exploring, in movies and television. We want to live in the black and white, but we don’t. The world is gray. And, I’m always fascinated by people who are clearly, “This is black and this is white, and that’s the way life is.” Life always has something to say about that. Whether it’s movies or television that I’ve directed, or characters that I’ve played, I’m just always fascinated by the moral ambiguity inherent in life. So, the fact that Shonda is writing a mainstream commercial television series with such human characters, and she doesn’t shy away from their flaws, in the same way that she doesn’t shy away from their attributes, is really bold and something that I find really attractive.
How challenging is it to do dialogue like this and always make sure it’s always so exact?
GOLDWYN: I have great respect for great writing, so I view that as my job, and Shonda is very collaborative. I knew from working with her as a director on Grey’s Anatomy that she wants all input, but she just wants it all to be decided ahead of time. She really values the input of her actors, with the understanding that she’s the decider. But, when we get onto the set, she wants it word-for-word, which I respect. I’ve worked a lot in the theater and it’s very much like working with a playwright. I would never presume to paraphrase a playwright, so why would I paraphrase Shonda Rhimes? It’s a technical challenge. You have to be prepared. These characters are very smart and we all have to talk very, very fast. There’s a pace to Scandal that is necessary to make it work. It’s something that we were constantly getting emails about, that said, “Scandal pace! You guys are too slow!” That’s another technical challenge. But, when you just do it, the scenes suddenly come to life, in a way that they don’t, if you’re filling it with pauses or indulging in emoting moments. The only scenes that she wants slow are me and Kerry. Whenever Fitz and Olivia are together, the pace of the show completely changes, which is by design.
Is it more difficult to keep that faster pace up, when you’ve done it for a number of hours in a day, or you’re doing an all-night shoot?
GOLDWYN: Oh, yeah, because your brain goes dead. Preparation is everything. You have to really make sure you’re on it. And it’s easier for some people than others, and easier on certain days than others. Columbus Short, who plays Harrison, would have his stuff memorized by the table read, which you do the week before you shoot. He’d cram all that into his head, and then blurt it out as fast as he possibly could in the table read, and it was almost comical. That was the way he worked. Everyone has a different approach. I can’t do it that way, but by the time I get there, I hopefully have it in my bones. It’s important. It has to do with the intelligence of the characters. These people think really fast and they lead incredibly fast-paced lives, processing vast amounts of information in no time, with incredibly high stakes. That’s the energy that Shonda wants to create, and it’s our responsibility to do that.
Did you look at or study any specific presidents for inspiration?
GOLDWYN: The thing about Fitz, and you’ll see as you get to know him better, he’s a guy who really leads with his heart, and that causes him to falter nad make a lot of mistakes, but it also gives him a great sense of purpose as a leader and makes him a really good president. So, I studied different presidents who I think had that quality. I think Clinton had that quality. His personal life aside, I feel like the way that he related to people was a great gift, as a politician. I had seen him in person a few times and, when Clinton is talking, you can be with 10,000 people and you feel that he’s talking directly to you. I also studied a lot of his speeches. He and Obama are both incredible orators and public speakers. That heart that they bring to their public speaking, in addition to the intelligence and articulateness, I really studied ‘cause I thought they were great examples of that. I admire both of them so much, in that regard, even though Fitz is actually a Republican. There are qualities in both of those men that I really spent some time with. You also have to find yourself in it.
You have some really intense moments with Kerry Washington. How has it been to work with her and develop the backstory between your characters?
GOLDWYN: Kerry and I knew each other a bit before and we were excited to work together, and we did talk a bit, but not too much. Because Fitz and Olivia are so unable to communicate with each other, we didn’t need to talk too much. As I recall, we would have conversations where we straightened out what we needed to know to get on the same page about things, and then we’d stop and just see what happened in the scenes. I talked much more with Jeff Perry about Cyrus. Jeff and I spent a lot of time talking. The thing about this show that makes it really fun, and one of the things that’s unique about it, is that there’s always so much going on underneath what people are saying, so it’s really hard to understand what the hell is happening, and we, obviously, have to understand it ‘cause that’s the only way the audiences has a prayer. So, Jeff and I would really sort things out, and sometimes Kerry and I would have brief conversations about it. There was something about Fitz and Olivia’s inability to communicate that we wanted to hold onto. Kerry and I have similar ways of working. We seem to see it in the same way. Our instincts are similar, so we didn’t have to have long conversations about it. That’s why we work well together. That shorthand develops because you have similar instincts as actors, and we were pretty much on the same page about that history.
What can you say to tease what’s to come for your character?
GOLDWYN: The stakes get higher and higher and higher. In every episode, there are just shocking revelations, and things that you assume inevitably turn 180 degrees. Whatever people think they know at this point, they’ll probably be wrong about everybody. At least, it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than it appears. It gets a lot juicier, for sure. I think every episode gets better than the last one, as the story gets deeper and continues to evolve. By the last three episodes, it just rocks. You feel like you’ve been shot out of a canon. Shonda just makes incredibly bold storytelling choices that make you think, “How in the hell is that character going to get out of this? There’s no way!” She paints every one of her characters in a corner, and then has to figure out how to get them out. It’s great!
Because your storyline is so isolated from much of the rest of the show, did you ever wish that you could work with some of the other actors?
GOLDWYN: Yeah! We’d joke about how we’d only see each other once a week, at the table reading. Shonda asked me to direct some of the shows next season, if we hopefully have a second season, and one of the things I most look forward to, with directing the show, is getting to work with everybody ‘cause I don’t, at the moment. It’s really Olivia and Fitz, and the whole White House world.
Do you have any idea what you’ll be doing next, while you’re waiting to find out about a Season 2?
GOLDWYN: Well, ABC owns me, so I can’t commit to anything long-term. I’m developing a series at AMC, which we’re waiting to find out if we’re going to go forward with that. That’s been taking up a lot of time. I’ve been directing some television. I directed Justified. I’ve done one every season. It’s really great. I’m directing some commercials. I’m just filling my time, waiting to see what’s happening with Scandal.
Is directing your first love now, or is it really all about what interests and excites you, whether it’s in front of or behind the camera?
GOLDWYN: It literally is that. For awhile there, directing really took precedence over everything, for several years. Maybe I had gotten a little bored of acting. I started to miss it a couple years ago, after I finished my last film, Conviction. So, I went and did a Broadway show last year. This year, Shonda asked me to do this. Doing Scandal has really reinvigorated my love of acting. It really is storytelling, and there are different ways of telling story. I feel really blessed to be able to do it in different ways, all the time.
When it comes to directing, do you have a preference for film or TV, or do you like the different styles of each?
GOLDWYN: I love both of them, but when you direct a film, the director is the central voice of the project. In television, the creator is really the voice, so it’s a different job. There are many similarities to the job, but when I come onto a show, like Justified for Graham Yost or Grey’s Anatomy for Shonda, my job is to bring their vision to life. In a movie, it’s my vision, and it’s a much longer process. Sometimes it’s two or more years. It’s like writing a novel versus a short story. But, I really enjoy directing television because you get to work in so many different genres and with different people. It’s fast, like a work-out. But, the one thing I’m really looking forward to doing, personally, is creating a show that I’m an executive producer and director on. I’m working on a couple different projects, but one is particularly close to happening. It’s not greenlit yet. That would be a very interesting experience ‘cause you’re involved in a series as a creator, for a very long time, and then you’re directing as well. That’s a hybrid of the two, which I’m really excited about doing.
Is that a drama series?
GOLDWYN: Yeah, it’s a drama.
Is there a TV show that you watch and would love to direct an episode of?
GOLDWYN: Yeah, a few. I’d love to direct Shameless. I think it’s absolutely brilliant. I’d love to direct Downton Abbey. That’s so wonderful. I think Game of Thrones is amazing. There’s so much great television. It’s a very, very exciting time to be in the television business, particularly as a director, because the kinds of movies that I have done and do, and the kind of material I tend to be attracted to, is being made less and less right now, in feature films. With adult-driven dramas in television, the writing is just going off the charts, in that regard. So, it’s such a fertile time for TV. HBO and Showtime and AMC really raised the bar, creatively, with the caliber of the writing, and challenged the networks to do the same. That’s why you can do a show like Scandal, where the characters are really flawed and it makes people uncomfortable, and yet it’s still really entertaining. It’s really become such a great medium for writers.
Scandal airs on Thursday nights on ABC. You can learn more about the show at www.abc.com/shows/scandal.