HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — The Oval Office has no ceiling.
At least on the set of the ABC drama “Scandal” it doesn’t.
The deliciously frothy political thriller/soap opera from Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice”) has taken some serious twists and turns in its buzzed-about second season, including adultery, an assassination attempt, election-rigging, and torture.
Navigating it all with steely resolve in stylish togs is fixer extraordinaire Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), who expertly handles crises on the Beltway while falling in and out of bed with President Fitzgerald “Fitz” Grant (Tony Goldwyn) and talking very, very quickly to her “gladiators in suits” at Pope and Associates.
The show was partially inspired by one of its producers: Judy Smith, the real-life Washington-based crisis manager and former deputy press secretary to President George H.W. Bush. And it has shone a brighter spotlight on its star, who has worked steadily in film (“Ray, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”), on TV (“Psych,” “Boston Legal”), and on Broadway (“Race”) and can currently be seen as the slave Broomhilda in the Academy Award-nominated film “Django Unchained.”
The cast of “Scandal” recently gave reporters a tour of the White House set, and Washington — who knows a little something about the real White House as a member of President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities — fielded questions about “Django” and “Scandal,” some of whose juicy interludes have surprised even the actress herself.
Q. What is your reaction when you get the scripts?
A. Shock and awe. When I read [a recent episode], I burst into tears and immediately called Shonda and was like, “Can we talk about this? Does it have to be like this?” I was very worried and concerned and shocked. [The actors] constantly are e-mailing each other, “Oh my God, have you read it yet?” We’re very excited for each other as actors because it’s such a strong ensemble cast. We get really thrilled for each other when we have challenging work to do.
Q. What had you bursting into tears?
A. Reading her decision [to agree to the election-rigging] and how it came about.
Q. Were you ultimately OK with that choice?
A. I ultimately trust my showrunner. I’m so inspired by Shonda and her commitment to make all of these characters human beings, and that nobody is just all good or all bad, everybody lives in the gray area and is trying to do the best they can.
Q. Since you work with the current administration, do people ask if it’s really like this?
A. Well, it’s a Republican administration [on the show], remember. [Laughs.] That’s always a question I put to Judy [Smith]. They don’t base the show on things that are currently going on or anything that actually happened in the Bush years. What the writers do is try to come up with the most outlandish, scandalous ideas they can come up with and then they say to Judy, “What would you do? How would you fix this?”
Q. Was it tough to negotiate the transition from playing a slave in “Django” to the thoroughly modern Olivia?
A. Yes. We shot “Django” in the nine months between season one and season two, with virtually no break. I remember saying to a girlfriend of mine, “I feel like I have to jump two centuries in two days.” It has been very challenging and rewarding because I think in some ways that Olivia Pope is the answer to Broomhilda’s prayers. She lives in a place beyond Broomhilda’s imagination of what’s even possible. In Broomhilda’s world according to our Constitution, she’s three-fifths of a human being, whereas Olivia is arguably the most powerful woman in the United States because of the way she has the president’s ear. It was really phenomenal for me to explore these two women. One woman who desperately needs to be saved and the other who does the saving every week. It has been kind of amazing. And I feel really lucky to live, as an African-American and a woman, at a time where I get to tell stories about so many different kinds of experiences.
Q. Having worked with him, what was your reaction to Spike Lee’s criticism of the film?
A. I love Spike and respect him and have loved working with him, but I will say that I’m really grateful that there are lots of people who, even though they may have been anxious about the film, have gone to see it anyway to come up with their own opinion about it.
Q. You work on a show set at the White House, and you work with the current administration. Do you have any mementos from the real White House?
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