Kerry Washington‘s character on ABC’s new drama “Scandal” is a crisis manager. She’s not a practicing lawyer (although she has a law degree) and not a PR mouthpiece (although that can be part of her job), but someone who helps her clients’ public problems go away.
The show, which comes from “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice” creator Shonda Rhimes, is inspired by the work of Judy Smith, a Washington-based crisis manager who has done work for clients ranging from Monica Lewinsky to Michael Vick to BP. Rhimes’ interest in the subject, though, predates her meeting with Smith.
“My simple answer is, [producing partner Betsy Beers] and I became interested in the world of crisis management when we were in our own crisis,” Rhimes says.
“That would be very accurate,” Beers adds. They don’t elaborate on the subject, but it’s hard not to think back to the controversy surrounding Isaiah Washington’s exit from “Grey’s” in 2007.
“We often say to Judy, ‘Why didn’t we know you at that time?'” Rhimes jokes.
Rhimes, Beers and Smith sat down with reporters during the filming of “Scandal” in the fall — the show debuts at 10 p.m. ET Thursday (April 5) on ABC — to talk about crafting the show, how closely it mirrors Smith’s work and more.
Q: What can you say about where the show goes in this season?
Shonda Rhimes: I think what’s great is the mystery element. [This] brewing scandal … really starts to grow and we watch that sort of spin wildly out of control and watch Olivia [Washington] deal with that. And at the same tim each week they have cases, and we find out more and more about each of the characters, illuminate their world.
I feel like it’s a juicy mystery that we get to spend these seven episodes on. I tried really hard to make it feel like a British miniseries in the sense that these seven shows — if this is all that ever aired, it would be like its own, standalone juicy thing, which was really fun to get to do.
Why did you choose to make the president (played by Tony Goldwyn) a Republican?
Rhimes: I made [him] a Republican president because it felt like right now within the Republican Party, with what’s going on with the Tea Party — there was a lot of drama within the party. And the vice president and the president — as the stories come up, you’ll see they sort of go to war a little bit. That was really interesting to me, and it’s not really happening in the Democratic Party right now.
Judy, why come into the foreground now and put this fictional version of your life out there?
Judy Smith: It’s exciting. When you watch TV … you see a lot of women in law, in medicine, which is great, but there’s never been a character that does crisis communications. So that to me was really exciting. … Not a lot of people know what I do. Obviously you see the result of it when you have politicians stand up and apologize — you see all that stuff. You guys deal with it with celebrities. … I think they’ve done an incredible job taking that chaotic, hectic, high-stakes arena we deal with every single day and breaking it down in a way TV audiences can grab hold of? [Note: Smith is also a co-executive producer of “Scandal.”]
How heightened is the reality the show depicts?
Smith: Obviously we don’t — I wish we did, but I can’t solve something in an hour. I’m good, but I’m not that good [laughs]. But in terms of crises — airplane crashes, we’ve done those. We’ve represented countries before. So the crises and what we do, how we go about solving them, is in there.
Are there any stories taken directly from your work? Are any of your clients nervous?
Smith: I would certainly never violate any confidentiality agreements I have with clients. What they’ve done based on the crisis work is get inspired and create different types of crises that could come up.
Rhimes: Judy is really protective of her clients, so for us a lot of it is, I’d come up with some idea of some crisis and call her up and go, “How would you solve this?” And then we get to have Judy’s amazing expertise. I feel like I want to call her up and go, “My kid won’t eat her vegetables — how would you solve that?” [laughs] It was really just about finding out what she and her associates did to solve a problem as opposed to using any actual cases.
The show has a lot of scenes that are shot through windows or partially closed doors. Is that meant to imply that there are a lot of secrets in play here?
Rhimes: Paul McGuigan, who directed our pilot — he’s done “Sherlock” and a lot of movies, and I love him — had a very clear sense of wanting to feel like there were still secrets happening, if that makes sense. There were pieces that were hidden, and that’s where he brought that in. He did a beautiful job with it, and Roxann Dawson, our producing director, really kept that up.
There’s a lot of ’70s music on the soundtrack. How come?
Rhimes: I was watching the pilot and had all this other music in it, and I was like, I really want to put the Staples Singers in it. Everyone thought I was crazy, but we put it in and it worked. Suddenly the show made complete sense to all of us.
How did you choose Kerry Washington for the lead role?
Rhimes: We saw everybody.
Betsy Beers: Everybody. Our casting director was phenomenally thorough.
Rhimes: We wanted to be thorough about it. We’re talking about a black female lead of a television show. I wanted to see everybody, give everybody a chance to come in. Kerry came in and was just perfect. It wasn’t really a thing — the chemistry was right, she felt right, she felt both tough and soft. She had all the things you want in a lead actor, very simply. It was sort of a difficult choice because there were a lot of people [we saw], but she was perfect.