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“Unlike Judy, Olivia Pope is not as together and all-figured-out in her personal life. Olivia almost needs her own Judy Smith for her personal life,” she said.

All the better for a drama series, of course.

“But what the character Olivia and the woman Judy share is a belief in her fellow human being. And a belief that people deserve a second chance - if they’re willing to take responsibility for the jam they’re in.”

Olivia has a simple test for accepting a client: She trusts and follows her gut.

Even so, exactly what drives her isn’t always so obvious.

“When her own circumstances match up with her compassion for her client’s circumstances,” Miss Washington said, “it’s difficult to ascertain which person she’s fighting for.”

Olivia commands a team with varied skills and personalities (think: the diagnostic consultants on “House,” the Robin Hood crew supporting Timothy Hutton on “Leverage,” the investigators on “NCIS”) who include an intimacy-challenged ladies’ man played by Henry Ian Cusick of “Lost.”

Along with their unswerving loyalty to Olivia, they are united by their own past crises - personal secrets that begin to unravel in this week’s episode.

“That’s part of why Olivia has brought them into her work,” Miss Washington said. “She knows they understand what it’s like to have the worst day of your life, which is what every one of their clients is facing.”

Whatever her closeted vulnerabilities, Olivia is fearless.

After a severe setback on a case, a staffer asks disconsolately, “Are we just done?”

“We’re never done,” Olivia shoots back with a defiant smile that borders on a sneer. “Whatever happens, there’s always another move: We. Do. Not. Give. Up.”

Miss Washington has shown a similar hardiness in her wide range of projects.

“I enjoy a diversity of experience,” she explained. She points to her first movie, “Our Song” (2000), “a tiny independent film shot in New York, guerrilla-style - no hair and makeup, with Metro Cards to get us home. It was magical.”

And then she made “Save the Last Dance” (2001), a Hollywood feature.

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