Scandal: Courtney B. Vance Opens Up About Ferguson, Race and the Show's Powerful Episode
There was nothing scandalous about Thursday’s Scandal: The drama was too raw, the plot – a young, unarmed black man being shot by police – all too familiar.
But that’s what made the episode so moving, and why Twitter is already clamoring for guest-star Courtney B. Vance to win an Emmy.
Vance, 54, is known for his work in Law & Order: Criminal Intent and being the proud husband of actress Angela Bassett. He also has an upcoming role as O.J. Simpson defense attorney Johnnie Cochran in Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story
On Scandal, he played Clarence, the father of the slain teen Brandon Parker, who incited a police stand-off when he rushed the crime scene and raised a shotgun, refusing to leave his son’s body until justice was served.
“Some people called me and said ‘I’m still crying over it,’ ” he tells PEOPLE. “If nothing else, it will hopefully keep the dialogue open, which was one of the tragic things about Ferguson and other situations. Let it go to trial. Let’s talk it out. When you change that process, people don’t get the chance to hear it all and flesh it out.
“If that doesn’t happen, then all we’re left with is our anger.”
Vance discusses the powerful episode, House of Cards‘s take on race and working with Kerry Washington below:
Did you expect such a huge response from the episode?
When we started it, it came very quickly to me, and I had to make a decision on it very quickly. There’s a lot going on in the Bassett-Vance household, a lot of balls in the air. So I was kind of sitting back on it a bit, and my representatives kind of nudged me and said, “You gotta do this one,” and so I jumped in. I read it through one time, but I really didn’t read it again until I saw it, last night. Kerry and I and Cornelius, when we finished our sections, we said to each other, “This is an epic episode.”
I hear Shonda [Rhimes] was moved to do something and say something about what’s going on with the Black Men Matter situation. So yes, we knew it was huge, and it’s all a matter of editing. But the way it was edited and put together, it’s a huge, huge episode. When that young white officer goes on a rant about us and them, you realize how big this issue is and how far apart we all are. It’s the O.J. situation, where when the verdict came down, white folks were on one side of the fence and black folks were on the other. The question is, why?
It goes to the heart of how we were all raised. We were raised, in the black community, not to trust the police, and I believe in the white community, they were raised to actually be a policeman.
Which scene was the most difficult to shoot?
The scene where I’m sitting in the lawn chair and I’m talking about how I did everything, I did everything, and my son is still laying in front of me, dead. I did all the right things. And [Olivia] says, “We’re going to fix this,” and I say, “We both know that this is unfixable. You know where I’m going to end up. I’m going to end up dead or in jail, and that’s the way this ends,” because that’s just the way things end. That’s just the way things go. And that’s the tragic thing, that there’s no dreaming. Black boys and black men and black girls and black women, in those scenarios, which is what my character said, they have no dreams. You know the way this is going to go. They have one of two outlets, and one of them ends in death or jail. The other one, you can play basketball and get out, maybe. It’s bleak.
We have to give people dreams, we have to give people hope. In terms of government, in terms of society, that’s our goal. You can’t have a group of people that don’t dream, that see themselves as dead or in jail. We’re not doing our job.
When Clarence said he put a University of Maryland bumper sticker on his car so his son wouldn’t get pulled over, that really got to me.
That’s the reality. That’s black folks’ reality in the ‘hood. I was watching House of Cards last night, and the chief of staff for the president got pulled over and he forgot his wallet. And he was shook by it. He said “Wait a minute, I’m the chief of staff!” “No, it doesn’t matter.” Now, if it was a white chief of staff, they would have given him the benefit of the doubt.
If it’s a white man, you could lose your job. If it’s Remy (Mahershala Ali), as a black man, they’re going to get their hands slapped, maybe a desk job for a week or two, and they’re back. That’s why they don’t think before they act, with black boys and black men. With white men and white men, they have to think first, because the consequence is severe if they’re wrong: they could lose their job.
While the episode was airing, Shonda Tweeted that she was blown away by and didn’t expect your reading of the line, “He doesn’t carry a knife.” How did you decide to act it out the way you did, with such hurt and anger?
That whole idea that I know my boy. I raised him I’ve raised him the right way. He does not carry a knife. I know him. Parents know their children. “I know my son, I know my daughter. She wouldn’t do that. No, no, no, no, she wouldn’t do that.” That was his line in the sand. “I know that’s not my son’s knife. I will kill everybody around here if they tell me that he got shot because he was carrying a knife. He did not carry a knife.”
[Clarence] turned the gun on O.P., on Olivia Pope. That lets you know that that man knows his son. Now if it turned out the boy had carried a knife, he would have been shattered to his core.
You had some really intense scenes opposite Kerry Washington. What was it like working with her?
I’ve never encountered anyone like her, other than my wife, other than Angela Bassett. Somebody that can stand there and be completely professional, be ready for running monologues in rehearsal and at the same time is giving as anybody I’ve ever known. I’m a mess because I’m new, I don’t know the rhythm of the show, I don’t know the rhythm of the characters, so my lines are harder to get in my head, so she was so helpful and so supportive of me. My first scene, I thought I was showing up for a costume fitting, and then threw me into the last scene of the episode.
She was so supportive, she held my hand as I was at the door. I was like, ‘Oh this is so helpful, I’m so nervous, I’m scared, help me!” And she was there for me.
Tell me more about that final scene, when Clarence breaks down in Fitz’s arms. You’ve been talking about how this episode demonstrated stark differences, but that was a really beautiful moment of two fathers from vastly different circumstances crying together over the loss of their sons.
And I think, from what I understand, that was the exact same spot where [Fitz] broke down when he found out about his son. In the episode, the director Tom [Verica], we were fighting against the emotion the entire episode. There were scenes where I was broken, but he said, “Courtney please, hold back that so we get the payoff at the end.”
Also a part of it too, in that moment, was about the fact that [my character], in my wildest dreams, I never imagined that I would end up in the White House. I’m supposed to be in jail. I’m supposed to be dead. They should have shot me.
It’s relief, when I say my son’s name and the recognition that he’s actually gone, it’s all of that. I did all that I did for him, and I failed him. I failed my boy, and he’s not here. I did all the things I was supposed to do, that any father could do, and I couldn’t do any more. And he’s not here.
That was a heartbreaking and beautiful scene at the end, but there was also a little bit of a sense of injustice in that, yes, Brandon was cleared and Clarence didn’t have to go to jail, but the police officer was charged with tampering with evidence. No one said, “You murdered this young man.” What do you hope viewers take away from this?
I think that [the police officer’s] rant at the end there really lets you know what he feels, it’s us versus them. They’re there to protect and serve, but at the same time, they’re a group. They’re a club. They’re a unit. They’re a brotherhood and a sisterhood. They protect each other, that’s what keeps them alive in the field, but at the same time, they’re torn between their loyalties. They’re supposed to protect us, but in order to protect us, that have to protect each other in the streets. It’s a very difficult job. Who do you protect first? Do you protect your fellow police officers or do you protect who you’re supposed to protect and serve? But then, as he’s saying, “You all are supposed to respect us.”
There’s a lot of dialogue that needs to happen on both sides so that we can co-exist and get back to the place where they’re there to take care of us and begin to see police as our protectors and not our enemies. Work needs to happen on both sides to heal our breach. The work that needs to happen in Ferguson has to happen all over. What happened in Ferguson could happen anywhere.
It goes back in the black community that the police are not your friends. That’s an old, old, deep understanding that we have, that it’s going to take a lot to undo that in our minds. That’s deep. That goes back to the South. … And something is wrong with that reality, that it’s us versus them. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work.
Scandal airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.