Kerry Washington On Bringing Washington 'Scandal' To TV

Apr 5, 2012
Originally published on April 5, 2012 2:58 pm

Kerry Washington knows that her new drama, Scandal, will inevitably be compared to another drama about D.C.: The West Wing. Scandal tells Audie Cornish on today's All Things Considered that it even has Josh Malina, a West Wing cast member, for a little of what she calls "secret D.C. credibility."

But instead of taking place at the White House, Scandal follows a crisis manager named Olivia Pope, who steps into ugly, dicey situations and does what needs doing. Pope is based on a real crisis manager named Judy Smith, who worked with public figures, including Monica Lewinsky, at some of their difficult moments.

Washington says she loves research, and she benefited from talking to Smith herself. "Judy gave me her phone number early on, and I think sometimes may have regretted it," she chuckles. She adds that she wasn't the only one: the show's writers would sit around coming up with what they considered an impossible problem, then they'd call Smith and ask her what she would do about it.

While she has some television on her resume, if you've seen Washington before, it may well have been in movies: Save The Last Dance, The Last King Of Scotland, Ray, Tyler Perry's adaptation of For Colored Girls, and others. She says it takes some explaining to get at the difference between the movie grind and the TV grind — even with her own mother, who initially didn't see the big difference between the two, since both involve long hours. "It's three times the number of pages on television," Washington says. She describes the feeling of looking at a script for Scandaland realizing, "Oh my gosh, this speech is two pages long."

Washington isn't leaving movies by any means — in fact, she has a big project coming up in Django Unchained, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, with a cast that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sacha Baron Cohen, Samuel L. Jackson, and Christoph Waltz. It reunites her, too, with Jamie Foxx, her co-star in Ray.

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Movie star Kerry Washington disappears so completely into her role that it's going to take you a minute to recognize her voice.


KERRY WASHINGTON: (as Olivia Pope) It has always been like this. He just chose not to show you until now.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as Character) So I put up with some terrible stuff and maybe that makes me part to blame, but I ain't scared no more.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) But you know I love you. I love you and those boys...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as Character) No, no.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) ...more than anything in this world.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as Character) No. That's a damned lie and you know it.

WASHINGTON: I can sort of tell what film someone's going to reference when they're approaching me. You know, like adolescent boys, it's always going to "Fantastic Four." When a European approaches me, it's usually going to be "Last King of Scotland." Older women in their 60s or 70s, it's always "Ray," so I can kind of tell. Girls in their 20s and 30s, always, "Save The Last Dance." So or I can...


CORNISH: You've got pegged.

WASHINGTON: Yeah. So, I can foresee what the film is going to be when somebody's walking up to me.

CORNISH: Soon, people might walk up to Kerry Washington after seeing her on TV. She stars in a new network drama called "Scandal" that premieres tonight. Her character, Olivia Pope, is a crisis manager for powerful D.C. clients. And with the backdrop of Washington, peaks into the Oval Office and a whole lot of fast talking. It's only inevitable that "Scandal" will be compared to the great D.C. drama that came before, "The West Wing."

WASHINGTON: Oh, boy. It's sort of impossible to avoid that reference. And we even have Josh Malina, who was a cast member on "West Wing." He appears on our show, as well, in every episode, which I always think is great because it sort of provides a little secret D.C. credibility.

But our show's different because I think, in the way that all of Shonda Rhimes' shows are sort of about the environment, but not really. You know, this show is about Washington. It is about crisis management, but it's mostly about people.

CORNISH: You mentioned Shonda Rhimes. Shonda Rhimes is the executive producer of the program and she's best known for "Grey's Anatomy," but also has shows like "Private Practice" and she's really great at coming up with these big multicultural casts and doing these kind of amazing evening dramas.

And this one is based on the real-life crisis manager, Judy Smith. She was a deputy press secretary for George H.W. Bush who later became a big time crisis consultant. She worked with Monica Lewinsky. She worked with Idaho Senator Larry Craig. How closely did you study with Judy Smith? I mean, did you call her? What did you learn from her?

WASHINGTON: I'm one of these actresses kind of addicted to research. So, Judy gave me her phone number early on. And I think, at some times, may have regretted it because I've called her at all kinds of hours. But also, she's been present in the writers' room and what the writers have done is said, you know, let's come up with an incredible problem that seems like it cannot be solved and then let's call Judy and ask her what she would do.

CORNISH: And your character is called - her name is Olivia Pope. And we have a clip here I want to play, which gives sort of a good idea of what she's like. She's doing a favor for the president and she approaches a woman, a staffer of his who's claiming to have had an affair.


CORNISH: Yowsers.


CORNISH: I actually had a moment when I was like, this lady's mean. What the heck? Like I want to be rooting for you, but I'm not sure you're the good guy at this point of the program, anyway.

WASHINGTON: Well, again, it's one of the really fun things about this show because I think, in life, it's never quite that simple that there's always a good guy and a bad guy and that the show is mostly about human beings trying to do the best they can, but being complicated and interesting, layered, real people.

CORNISH: And, of course, we've seen several movie actresses come to TV in the last few years. I'm wondering what the transition has been like for you.

WASHINGTON: It's been really fun for me. It's been tough...


WASHINGTON: ...because it's a different level of work. You know, I remember one day talking to my mom and her saying, what is the big deal? You work 16, 17 hour days on movies all the time. And I had to explain that it's three times the number of pages, though, on television.

CORNISH: It sounds very dense - the amount of fast talking and it's a lot of...



CORNISH: ...talking.

WASHINGTON: Yeah. It is. We call it "Scandal" pace. And I would often get these scripts and go, oh, my goodness. This speech is two pages long.


CORNISH: So, if the show takes off, are you ready to commit for a couple of years of television?

WASHINGTON: I mean, I can't imagine a more exciting prospect. I'm very drawn to diversity and experience in my work. And so, I am excited that, you know, in (unintelligible) the show, I'm doing a film right now and I have a few films coming out and I...

CORNISH: Is this "Django Unchained" with...


CORNISH: ...Quentin Tarantino?

WASHINGTON: Yeah, yeah.

CORNISH: We have our eye on that film.


WASHINGTON: So I just hope to continue to be able to do lots of different things, but having "Scandal" as my artistic professional home base would be really fun.

CORNISH: Well, Kerry Washington, thank you so much for opening up to us and talking about the show.

WASHINGTON: Thank you so much. This is a - you know, for a kid who's grown up listening to NPR, this is a dream come true.

CORNISH: That's actress Kerry Washington. She stars in the new drama, "Scandal," which debuts tonight on ABC.



This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.