- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 24, 2012

NEW YORK — Nothing is simple in the nation’s capital.

Consider Olivia Pope, the District-based crisis management consultant whose clients range from a military hero accused of killing his girlfriend to a South American dictator whose family was kidnapped. Even the president of the United States needs her help as a fixer - and more.

As viewers of the new ABC drama “Scandal” have learned in its early episodes, Olivia is tough, shrewd and charismatic on the job. But her personal life is a little more, um, complicated. For one thing, she had a prolonged affair with the handsome chief executive under the nose of his first lady, an entanglement that has left both lovers heartsick and his presidency hanging in the balance.

Can Olivia save it?

“Scandal” deliciously plays against viewer expectations, pivoting (to use a favorite Beltway term) every time the narrative seems headed toward predictability. It’s stylishly produced (wide shots are often filmed through ripply glass, as if viewers are eavesdropping on the action), with the pace alternately frantic and contemplative. The series is a study in contrasts - as is Olivia.

“In the first episode we hear her tell her staff she doesn’t believe in crying,” said Kerry Washington, who stars as Olivia, “and then we watch her lose her [composure] in the coat room at a restaurant. This woman is not who she seems.”

All the better for the woman who plays her. On “Scandal” (which airs at 10 p.m. Thursdays), Miss Washington gets to sink her teeth in a robust role fueled by the sort of juicy, knotty melodrama masterminded by series creator Shonda Rhimes for her long-running hits “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice.”

It goes without saying that Miss Washington is equal to the task of portraying Olivia.

At 35, the Bronx, N.Y.-born actress has a varied list of credits that include “Ray,” “The Last King Of Scotland” and the two “Fantastic Four” films. She has worked with directors as far-flung as Tyler Perry (“For Colored Girls”) and Quentin Tarantino (“Django Unchained,” which she’s currently shooting). She appeared on Broadway in the play “Race,” written and directed by David Mamet.

Miss Washington said she and Olivia clicked instantly.

“That’s how I know I want to play a character: when I’m reading a script and - I know this sounds so mystical and so froufrou - I feel like the character already lives inside of me. That happened with this script, for sure. But those are just raw instincts about the humanity of the character,” added Miss Washington hastily, “and they have to get layered on with information.”

Fortunately, information was at hand in the person of Judy Smith, the real-life crisis consultant on whom Olivia Pope is based (and who serves as an executive producer of the series).

“I tend to approach my work from an academic standpoint, almost like an anthropologist whose goal is to go native,” said Miss Washington. “I was lucky no one warned Judy that I’m that kind of actress.”

Miss Washington seized every opportunity to study her.

“We spent a lot of time together - in person, on the phone, with email,” she said.

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