News Column

Washington says writing makes 'Scandal' succeed

August 7, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 07--BEVERLY HILLS -- Sunday was not a day of rest for either ABC or the Television Critics Association, slouching toward the end of its annual summer press tour in Beverly Hills.

The Disney-owned network spent the day pitching the television press on its forthcoming offerings for the fall season, and to be honest, some of them did look promising.

When it came time for the ABC party Sunday night at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, the press stuck digital recorders toward Maggie Lawson and James Caan ("Back in the Game"), Jeff Garlin ("The Goldbergs") and Sophia Lowe and Peter Gadiot ("Once Upon a Time in Wonderland"), but almost everyone seemed to be keeping one eye on the ballroom entrance for the star of a third-season show. That would be Emmy-nominated Kerry Washington, who plays Washington, D.C., fixer Olivia Pope 0n Shonda Rhimes' hit "Scandal."

Other cast members were there, such as Darby Stanchfield, Jeff Perry and Katie Lowes, but it was Washington everyone wanted to see. She made a casual entrance along with co-stars Tony Goldwyn and Bellamy Young and immediately found herself in a claustrophobic knot of reporters.

Dressed in an orange and white brocade cocktail-length dress, with gray patent leather heels and her hair swept up (and a simple but elegant gold wedding band from her new husband, 49er Nnamdi Asomugha, on her left hand), she was happy to answer questions about the forthcoming season of "Scandal" -- maybe because she insisted she and the rest of the cast are almost as out of the loop as the show's fans.

News of next season

She did have a little information about the first episode of the coming season, which will air on Oct. 3.

"The show picks up right where we left off, just a moment later," Washington said. "It's very exciting that we get to learn more about Olivia and her father."

After that, Washington said she doesn't know where the third season will go.

"We're never privy to that information. I can't even tell you what's in the second episode, but I can tell you it's really good," she laughed.

Do Washington and other cast members ever make suggestions to Rhimes and the writers about their characters, I asked.

"You know, to be honest with you, at the very beginning, in the first season, we all used to sit around and talk about things we wanted to suggest, but we realized very early on that whatever the writers would come up with was 10 times better than any ideas we might have.

"There have been situations where one or two of us have come up with some backstory that Shonda has used. But for the most part, in terms of moving forward, these writers know what they're doing. They really do. We're shocked every week."

Washington says she hasn't begun to get tired of Olivia Pope.

"What I love most about the role is the complexity of Olivia, how strong she is and how vulnerable she is, and how somehow she can focus those things in her life, depending on the circumstance. I love that challenge."

Looking back from the vantage point of two powerhouse seasons and Emmy nominations for both Washington as lead actress in a drama and Dan Bucatinsky, for guest actor in a drama, it's difficult to imagine there was ever a time when the series' success was in doubt.

But that's not how Washington recalls it.

"Thank God our first season was only seven episodes because the writers were like, 'Well this seven might be all we're going to get, so let's just go for it, and let's go hard and let's put it all out on the table.' Then when we got picked up, we're like, 'Oh well, we can't pull back now.' "

Buzz built

She also recalls when the buzz started to build for the show, back in that first season.

"I have to say one of the things I was so grateful for was that we were still working," she laughed. "But as this buzz was happening, and we could feel it around us ... and we were like, 'Oh, people are really paying attention to the show.' We were all so busy memorizing our three-page monologues that we couldn't really obsess about it. It's better to be able to stay busy."

Earlier in the day, ABC Entertainment Group President Paul Lee called Washington's Emmy nod "historic," but the actress was eager to emphasize the ensemble nature of the show.

"I was really excited that the day of the nomination was our first table read, so I got to hang with the cast and the writers and the crew," she said. "And I believe in my heart that this nomination belongs to all of them because there's no way you can play a character like Olivia Pope for 22 episodes without just reflecting the excellence around you. Every time you're watching Olivia, you're really seeing the excellence of the other actors and the members of our crew."

She acknowledged the significance of an African American woman starring in a hit drama show, while saying television needs to reflect the overall diversity of the American public.

"You know there's been a lot of attention around the African American actress thing, but I just think that there are just so many important stories to tell that we all deserve to have a place at the table," she said. "It's exciting to me that people have this woman in their homes, not just in the United States but all over the world.

"But what I'm most proud of is that our show is diverse in so many ways. Our show is diverse in terms of gender, in terms of age, in terms of sexual orientation, in terms of ethnicity, in terms of religion. And that to me is one of the things that's special about the show. So it's not just about a black woman. When you look at our cast, you have Guillermo Diaz (who plays Huck), you have Jeff Perry (chief of staff Cyrus Beene, who is married to Bucatinsky's character), and you have Columbus Short (who plays Harrison Wright) and there's just a range of characters."

"And Dan Bucatinsky, whose Emmy nomination is awesome," she said, before being whisked into the depths of the ABC party.

David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: dwiegand@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV

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