Scandal Stars Reveal Secrets: ABC Wanted Olivia Pope to Be White, Issues over Abortion Scene & More
Gladiators, you might want to sit down for this one.
In honor of the hit ABC show’s 100th episode, creator and showrunner Shonda Rhimes and stars Kerry Washington, Tony Goldwyn and more sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to dish on all of Scandal‘s biggest secrets, from casting to gay characters to last season’s much-talked about abortion scene.
Of casting the lead role of Olivia Pope, casting director Linda Lowy revealed network executives originally envisioned her as a white woman. (Washington was ultimately cast, making her the first black woman to topline a drama in 37 years.)
“The network was reading us their top choices, and it was Connie [Britton] and all white women,” said Lowy. “I panicked. Somebody finally piped up, ‘We’re going to have to redo this list.’ ”
“Nothing felt more important than the sense of outsiderness,” said Rhimes, 47. “I didn’t know that there hadn’t been a drama series with a leading black woman for 37 years. When the show got picked up [to pilot], I got a phone call from somebody who said, ‘This would be the perfect show for Connie Britton.’ I said, ‘It would be, except Olivia Pope is black.’ ”
“This would have been a great role for Connie Britton!” said Washington, 40.
According to Lowy, in addition to Washington, they tested Jill Scott and Anika Noni Rose.
“It was Kerry from the moment I took her to meet Shonda,” said Lowy.
“She could talk Washington more than I could talk Washington. She was different than what I originally envisioned,” said Rhimes. “We were all like, ‘Oh my God,’ because she’s tiny, cute, pretty and younger — and because she was all those things, she was aware that people would underestimate her.”
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Channing Dungey, then-ABC drama head and now president of ABC Entertainment, told THR that Rhimes “felt strongly that Olivia be black,” as the character was inspired by famed Washington, D.C., crisis manager Judy Smith.
“It was inspired by Judy, and she wanted to honor that,” said Dungey.
“I already had two shows [Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice], and the idea of doing something else sounded way too exhausting. But Judy Smith talked for 10 minutes, and I could see what 100 episodes would be,” recalled Rhimes. “I’m obsessed with politics, but it was the workings of her job and the idea that she came into people’s lives on their worst day that was intriguing.”
According to Rhimes, after reading the script, then-head of ABC Paul Lee called her to inform her they wanted to pick it up — but asked if they could “remove the part where [Pope] is having an affair with the president.”
“There were 10 people on the call, and my actual words were, ‘In episode six or seven, this woman is going to have sex with the president in the Oval Office on the desk. So if everyone can’t get behind that, then we shouldn’t make this show,’ ” said Rhimes. “They all gasped.”
The role of President Fitzgerald Grant, of course, was ultimately given to Goldwyn.
“I’d known Shonda from Grey’s and Private, and Kerry and I had been friendly,” said Goldwyn, 56. “The combination of the two I couldn’t pass up.”
“I remember sitting with Shonda at the camera test with Kerry and Tony,” recalled executive producer Betsy Beers. “There was this immediate electricity.”
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The stars also opened up about having an openly gay character, Cyrus Beene, who is played by Jeff Perry.
“Linda [Lowy, my wife] and I have always had a firewall, and she let out a yelp from the backyard,” recalled Perry. “I’d find out later that she had just read the page that said, ‘Olivia knocks on the door. James [Dan Bucatinsky] opens it and says, ‘My husband doesn’t work on Sundays.’ ”
“It was the most refreshing, modern, subversive way of letting an audience know that a character was gay,” said Bucatinsky.
Meanwhile, openly gay actor Guillermo Díaz, who plays Pope’s hacker Huck, also weighed in on how the show approaches sexuality.
“Shonda cast me in this role of a former trained killer who has a wife and a child, and Shonda [knew I was gay],” he said. “She talks a lot about normalizing things, and Cyrus and James adopting helps the world at large start to see that there’s no issue.”
And last but not least, the cast revealed details behind Pope’s abortion scene in season 5.
“I remember we showed up for the table read the day the filibuster episode was about to air,” recalled Bellamy Young, who plays Mellie Grant. “[ABC’s] Standards and Practices wanted to cut Olivia’s abortion.”
“I said, ‘Go ahead, alter the scene. We’ll just have a lot of articles about how you altered the scene,’ ” said Washington. “We had done an abortion on a military woman who had been raped earlier on, and we were doing nothing different than we did in that scene — they just didn’t like that it was happening to Olivia. It was a Christmas episode, and we played Christmas music.”
“I don’t think abortion had ever been presented as an emancipated woman’s option before,” added Young. “And it’s set to ‘Silent Night.’ The balls to pick that song.”
According to Washington, she even checked in with the show’s music supervisor to make Aretha Franklin was “okay with this.”
“I wanted to make sure Aretha knew what the scene was about,” she said. “Her people said I was fine and to stop asking. It made me love her forever because then I could be like, ‘Aretha Franklin, who sings a lot of gospel music, is very supportive of this.’ ”
Scandal airs Thursdays (9 p.m. ET) on ABC.