NEW YORK (AP) — Nothing is simple in the U.S. capital.
Consider Olivia Pope, the 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, Olivia is tough, shrewd and charismatic. But her personal life is a little more complicated. For one thing, she had a prolonged affair with the handsome president, an entanglement that has left both heartsick and his presidency hanging in the balance.
Can Olivia save it?
“Scandal” deliciously plays against viewer expectations, pivoting every time the narrative seems about to be predictable. It’s stylishly produced, 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,” says 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,” 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 longrunning hits “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice.”
At 35, the 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.
Washington says 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,” adds 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,” says Washington, and laughs, “I was lucky no one warned Judy that I’m that kind of actress.” So Washington seized every opportunity to study her. “We spent a LOT of time — together in person, on the phone, with e-mail.
“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.”
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,” says Washington, “it’s difficult to ascertain which person she’s fighting for.”
Olivia commands a team with varied skills and personalities 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,” says Washington. “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.”
Washington has shown a similar hardiness in her wide range of projects.
“I enjoy a diversity of experience,” she explains. She points to her first movie, “Our Song” (2000), “a tiny independent film shot in New York, guerilla-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.
Her dream role?
“I’ve never had an answer for that,” she says. “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,” says Washington, savoring the possibilities. “I’m still discovering her and I want to be her longer.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.