'Quantico' Boss on Female President's "Glass Ceiling" Speech, Trump's Immigration Ban

Joshua Safran talks to THR about the real-life parallels that continue to pop up on the ABC drama: "Nobody really wants to be predicting these times."
Giovanni Rufino/ABC
Marcia Cross, Johanna Braddy on 'Quantico'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Monday's episode of Quantico, "ZRTORCH."]

Quantico's female president made her debut on Monday night with a speech invoking Hillary Clinton's campaign and stunning loss in the November U.S. election.

"Men don't like to admit glass ceilings exist because they are the glass ceiling," explains Madam President Clair Haas (Marcia Cross) of entering the Oval Office by default after the former president stepped down. "It's not getting the job that's going to change the way Americans feel about women; it's what I do with it."

President Haas has been called upon to launch an air strike on the hostage situation that has kept leading lady Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra) busy for the first half of the season on the ABC terror drama. After revealing her role in the formation of the terrorist group behind the attack, Haas tells FBI agent Shelby Wyatt (Johanna Braddy) why she has no choice but to follow through with the strike: "If I don't, I'll be perceived as weak."

The introductory scene was shot five days after Election Day and was a "very emotional sequence to shoot," according to Quantico showrunner Joshua Safran, who spoke to The Hollywood Reporter Monday after spending his weekend protesting President Donald Trump's immigration and travel ban at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.

When he returned to the show's New York City writers room, the upcoming storylines on the agenda — including a race to stop a Muslim registry and the introduction of a character he describes as "Quantico's version of Steve Bannon" — took on a different meaning, similar to Haas' speech.

"Nobody really wants to be predicting these times," he says. Watch the speech and read THR's full chat with Safran below.

What was it like to film President Haas' speech so close to the results of the election?

The scene was supposed to be filmed one day after the election, but we had just found out the show was moving to Mondays, so we had to move things around. It was very emotional for them to shoot the whole sequence that day. We changed one line, frankly, we didn’t really do much else. Marcia and I sat together the day after Election Day and talked about that scene extensively, what it meant and what it meant for Claire moving forward.

Could you imagine having to shoot it Nov. 9, the day of Clinton's concession speech?

Marcia attended her speech. It was still rough to shoot five days later. The world had changed. We didn’t plan for Claire to become president because we were hoping Hillary would become president. We weren’t actually tying it to the real world in that way. Last year, we had talked about Claire becoming president, and this was the situation that got there. She always had lines about had she not been elected she never would have been elected, but suddenly, because of Hillary’s loss, that took on a new resonance. 

Was the "glass ceiling" line a nod to Clinton?

Quantico has dealt with the glass ceiling before. It’s a recurring theme, because all of our power players are women, and it's a choice that’s important to myself, the writers and the actors. Last year, when Miranda (Aunjanue Ellis) had to leave Quantico, she said a version of the same thing to Alex. The difference is Miranda was inciting Alex to not let that stop her, and here we are seeing President Haas saying it does stop her. With our female characters, it’s always a constant discussion about who is going to allow men to stand in their way and who is going to do everything they can to ensure they won't.

President Haas ends up calling off the air strike, proving to Shelby she won't "act like every male president who came before her." Will there be repercussions to that defiant decision?

Now President Haas is going to pay the price for making that decision, and that’s the depressing thing. It’s not hard to portray a strong female president, and Claire will continue to be one -- it’s just that the knives that are out for her are so much sharper than they would be for anyone else. That’s what we’re interested in showing: If there was a parallel universe and Hillary had been elected, it would not have stopped. The sort of emotional violence toward a woman in that position is not going to go away just by nature of them being elected into that position. Because there is a female president on Quantico it is an alternate universe, but I also think it sadly is what would have happened.

What was it like protesting in Atlanta after Trump's travel ban went into effect?

I was visiting for the day and worried I was going to miss the NYC protest because I wouldn’t be able to get to JFK in time. So I was very grateful I got to join the protest in Atlanta. It was truly peaceful and really beautiful. People were really drawn together. The least of a good thing is that Quantico is a show where we can come to the writers room and talk about these issues. It's like group therapy.

What was the discussion like when you returned to the writers room?

We’re in the middle of shooting an episode about a race to stop a Muslim registry so it’s been weird on set. This morning, we were actually talking about an episode that involves a version of Steve Bannon for us. Someone we haven’t introduced yet. We had started talking about that episode last week, and then here we are this morning talking about it after his appointment [to the National Security Council] over the weekend. As much as we might all be like-minded in the writers room, we want our characters to be living, breathing humans with points of view. So it's cathartic, in a way, to get into the mind-set of these people and what they actually want from America. You don’t have to agree with them, but you still need to try to understand them. There’s a character coming up who is for the Muslim registry and is not vilified for that belief. We're shooting that episode now, so it was already written.

Sunday's SAG Awards were very political, and actors are facing criticism that it’s not their place to be political. What do you have to say to that?

It’s everyone’s place to voice their opinions, and I think if we actually aren’t always out in public representing what we believe in, then it can be very dangerous. I welcome people who share different needs. I’m always interested in having a conversation; I don’t believe in shutting another side out. But I also think that just as detrimental as turning a deaf ear on somebody who disagrees with you is hiding what you believe and who you stand for. I do think in light of certain civil liberties being taken away, this is a show that is really very inclusive. It’s about people who are allowed to be who they are and who are allowed to have their freedoms and who are fighting for those freedoms. Obviously we’re going to want to say and tweet things about protecting our freedoms for everybody.

How does the Muslim registry storyline parallel with what's going on now with the immigration ban?

It’s about a registry instead of a ban, so sadly I wish there were more parallels, because it’s actually about our characters racing around to try to stop a vote. There was no vote with Trump's ban. I wish there had been, and then people would have been able to have had their say, on either side. If I put myself in the cast’s shoes I'd think it would be very interesting for them to run around and try to stop a vote, knowing in reality, that’s actually a fiction.

Quantico has tackled several hot-button issues this season — including torture and immigration — with many of the storylines airing before they became real-life headlines. How do you react when you see your storylines reflecting reality?

The show is definitely more overtly political this season. It’s always been political in the way it deals with the global cast of characters, inclusive cast, terrorism, government workers, there’s politics in the show's sexuality. But now it’s actually turning a little bit into a version of The West Wing -- it's odd in that way. Still, it’s going the direction we’re all feeling, so it feels very natural to us. The episode that’s prepping now is about gun control, so we’re hitting all the topics. But they’re all related. The micro in the Muslim registry episode is about this registry and why it's unconstitutional. But the macro is a larger plot that also parallels into the back nine episodes.

When you worked with the CIA consultants for Quantico's torture episode — which saw the agents waterboarding Blair Underwood's character — could you have imagined Trump would speak out to say he believes torture methods, including those outside legal bounds, do work?

That was insane. I don’t want to be the guy that says, "Go watch that episode." But we had those talks then, and the problem that’s happening now, at least for me the thing that’s very uncomfortable, is that we’re all in our bubbles and get lulled into a belief that maybe things are changing. Then when a seismic shift comes along it can often reveal that nothing actually changed, people just got quiet about their positions. When we talked about torture with our consultants, we talked about how maybe this is still going on, but because the word has changed, no one is going to say that it’s still going on. And then look where we are -- only three months later from that episode and it’s actually back and being talked about on the surface. No one has to hide anymore what they believe. It’s definitely a realization. I knew that nothing was changing as fast as it looked like it was changing, but I still believed that we were all moving in the right direction.

Given your global cast, will you examine the ramifications these decisions on immigration and torture can have abroad?

We are looking at what Trump is doing now and — should there be a third season of the show — we’d revisit the benchmarks we touched along the way this year and see how attitudes have changed. The characters would have a strong point of view if they were told they were suddenly allowed to torture again. But just being given the ability to do so doesn’t mean you would do it. At the moment, we’re busy with fake news, the Muslim registration and our Bannon.

Monday's episode revealed that the rogue terrorist group, the AIC, began as a government-funded black site operation. Now that we know the origin, when will we learn more about them?

Claire Haas believed she was doing something anyone in her position would do and believed it was for the greater good, and ultimately it wasn’t. The question you will see throughout the season is whether she was actually tricked or whether that was legitimate at the time. By the end of episode 13 you will know everything, including everyone who is in It and how it came to be. You’ll also learn everything about how the Citizens’ Liberation Front came up to rise against them. It’s all out on the table. There are no cards left to turn over. Moving into the back half of the season, there’s no hidden agendas or secret traitors in our midst. Quantico is done with asking, Who among you is a terrorist?

How realistic would it be for a group like the AIC to exist under Trump’s presidency?

In our show, the AIC exists because they want to work in the shadows because the public won’t let them. Whereas Trump is saying, "Hey let us do this publicly." On our show it’s, "Let us do this silently." That’s the difference, and yet Miranda and the FBI and certain parties on our show did not want that to exist and tried to bring it to the light.

We see Lydia (Tracy Ifeachor) return as head of the AIC, and Owen Hall (Underwood) tells Alex he has nothing to do with it. Is he to be believed?

Yes, that is totally true. The next episode is very much about the emotional fallout of knowing this about his daughter. Miranda and the FBI believed it was Owen. Now we realize it was a Hall, it just wasn’t Owen.

The season is still switching from the future to the past. When will the show merge into the present timeline?

Every episode here on out only focuses on one part of the crisis. The next episode focuses solely on the hostages. We wanted to make it less confusing, so we only had to follow one thread at a time. The show turns into one timeline halfway through episode 13 [airing Feb. 20]. That episode is the dawn of a new day — everything's out in the open for the characters.

Quantico airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on ABC.

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