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Actress Washington forever in crisis mode
Plays take-charge fixer in ‘Scandal’
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.
"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.
And what's her dream role?
"I've never had an answer for that," she said. "But my response now would be: a second season on this show. That would be my dream job."
Chances look good. Roughly halfway through the first season's seven episodes, "Scandal" has averaged in excess of 7 million viewers. It continues to pack weekly twists, with a dandy cliffhanger at season's end. And in the middle of it all is Olivia.
"She's such an exciting, complicated, interesting woman," said Miss Washington, savoring the possibilities. "I'm still discovering her and I want to be her longer."
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