Ellen Pompeo, Kate Walsh and, for a short while, Caroline Dhavernas have all been leading ladies in shows from hitmaker Shonda Rhimes. Now, Kerry Washington steps up to the plate in Rhimes' new drama Scandal, which follows the exploits of professional fixer Olivia Pope, who manages the crises of the rich and famous on Capitol Hill. In the series premiere, Pope was tasked with cleaning up the potential controversy of a respected military man and murder suspect whose alibi turned out to be his boyfriend.
"I feel like the luckiest broad in show biz," Washington says of working with hit maker Rhimes. "I don't quite know how this happened, but I do feel like every time I read an episode it is Christmas morning."
TVGuide.com caught up with Washington to discuss being front and center in ABC's new drama, along with what's in store for Olivia Pope, the woman who's fixing everyone else's problems while toeing the ethical line:
Why Scandal isn't just another Grey's Anatomy
How ethical do you think Olivia is?
Kerry Washington: I think Oliva Pope holds the belief that good and bad is more complicated than legal and illegal, and that the justice system is not always just. A lot of what we do is to help people who are in a tough situation and have nowhere else to go, but might in another circumstance. So, how do you level the playing ground? How do you help somebody who has nowhere else to go if you believe that they deserve that help? That's part of what's fun about the show.
Olivia Pope is such a hardened character. Does she have a vulnerable side?
Washington: I think you see the vulnerable side in the very first episode. She has this public persona that is so together, smart, sophisticated, professional, but her personal life, she's much more confused and vulnerable and torn. It's almost like I wish Olivia Pope could have her own Olivia Pope for her personal life. In almost every room in the world, she is the most powerful person, except for one room: The Oval Office. There, not so much. It's a little more difficult for her.
Olivia also had a personal relationship with President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn).
Washington: There are full-blown arguments in the hair and makeup trailer about whether or not he loves me. By that I mean Fitz and Olivia. People are really heated about it, and we just hope that that gets reflected in a larger audience. "No. No way. He's not good enough for her.", and then, "I don't care what he said. Actions speak louder than words, but he loves her!"
Anatomy of Shonda Rhimes, the busiest woman in Hollywood
The chemistry with you and Joshua Malina is off the charts. How will David and Olivia's working relationship evolve, and will it come back to hurt her?
Washington: They respect each other's intellect a great deal and that will take lots of different forms throughout the season. They both take their jobs very seriously, and they respect those qualities in each other, but sometimes that is a conflict, so it allows them to work together, but sometimes forces them to work against each other. It's a tricky balance.
Is there any particular upcoming crisis that you enjoyed the most?
Washington: I was pretty blown away by the plane crash [in the May 3 episode]. In some ways it was our hardest. Even the language around it was really intense. It's very, very intense that one. [Editor's note: In that episode, Olivia and the team take the pilots union on as clients after a tragic airline crash is blamed on the female pilot.]
Ratings: Scandal opens modestly on a night of lows
Pope is based on real-life fixer Judy Smith, a co-executive producer on the series whose past clients include Monica Lewinsky and Michael Vick. How do you feel about portraying her?
Washington: I'm very inspired by Judy, because Judy has become one of my absolute "sheroes." She does it all. You hear these stories of places she's been and things she done and has also managed to be married and have a family. To me, Judy is larger than life. If I'm able to get even an ounce of her largeness — and she terrifies all of us —then that's good.
Following in the footsteps of Private Practice's Walsh and Grey's Anatomy's Pompeo, do you feel pressure being one of Rhimes' leading ladies?
Washington: No. To be honest with you, I feel like it's much more of an ensemble show. This cast is ridiculous. So, I don't feel pressure. I feel really lucky to be in the trenches with absolute professionals who happen to be immensely gifted as well.
Scandal airs Thursdays at 10/9c following Grey's Anatomy.