Emmys: 'Scandal's' Bellamy Young on Finding Inspiration in Michelle Obama

"I think it's always taken a couple to run the country," the actress behind first lady Mellie Grant tells THR.
"Scandal's" Bellamy Young

Scandal's Bellamy Young did her homework before stepping into the prim and proper role of first lady Mellie Grant. Initially, series creator Shonda Rhimes envisioned her first lady as having a minor role -- a three-episode recurring stint in season one that grew to series regular when the writers saw the friction and relatability that surfaced between Young's loving wife and the president's (Tony Goldwyn) mistress, Olivia (Kerry Washington). 

Now, with her first year (and first time) as a series regular in the books, Young opens up about how she prepared to bring the woman behind the president to life. How does Young walk the fine line between having viewers root for a character that is at once a shattered wife who learns of her husband's affair and conniving wannabe politico?

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The Hollywood Reporter: Mellie Grant really blossomed into a force to be reckoned with this season. How did you prepare to play the first lady?
Bellamy Young: During pilot season two years ago, it was the best script I read, and I was lucky to get the audition with, like, five other people. I had two lines in the pilot, and I knew Tony was involved, and he directed me on Dirty Sexy Money and Kerry was already cast. The writing was so beautiful, I would have done anything to be a part of the project. I went out the night before and bought an outfit and did the whole nine -- things I never do for an audition.

THR: Which first lady inspired your outfit?
Young: It was very Jackie O: Clam diggers and a little cravat, and I had my hair up. I had a whole vision. There wasn't a lot in the text for Mellie, but I wanted to be an appropriate partner for Tony and hold my weight with him. I got the part and came to the table read, and after we got picked up to series, I was in that next episode. Rhimes said, "It'll probably be like a three-episode arc." I was a little deflated because I didn't want to leave but was happy to have three episodes. Then, they just started writing more nuanced, beautiful, amazing and a juicy mess of stuff for me to play. I really enjoy the friction that Mellie can be in the situation. The writers around episode four started to say, "We want to write a scene for Olivia and Mellie." Shonda already had it in her mind and was writing it for episode seven. She wrote us this beautiful little one-act play.

THR: Mellie, despite having her own personal agenda, really excels when she works both sides. How do you make her so relatable that you feel sympathy for this opportunistic woman?
Young: Well, it's so interesting that it resonates with so many people. It feels like a universal story -- that there are a lot of women who feel that they have done all the work in their relationship only for someone else to step in and take the love and credit for it. Mellie is the quintessential woman behind the man on every level. Mellie doesn't have sides because she is a fully rounded character; in every moment, she meets the demands of the moment with her own agenda. The thoughts the writers put in our heads and the motives they put in our hearts are so clear and fully realized that people empathize with her. Mellie really wants to be on the road she's on; she wants to be in this marriage; she wants to be in the White House so she's willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen -- in the short term or with her long-term, macro goal. She sees her endgame with clarity and she is resolute.

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THR: How do you approach making the first lady so relatable? Do you look at old footage of anyone in particular?
Young: I haven't done this recently because I haven't been a serious regular on a TV show before and it's a lot of work. But I did my homework just as my part started getting bigger. I watched the election with a fine-toothed comb. There are absolutely parts of Michelle Obama in Mellie; she is the pinnacle of style and substance meeting for us right now. The role of the first lady is so interesting, and it's a thrill to be even a fictitious part of that lineage. I think it's always taken a couple to run the country. If you go back and read about Dolley Madison and Julia Grant, and they were doing everything that we're doing now -- only they were doing it quietly in the shadows as the dedicated hostess. Now, you saw Hillary Clinton really bring substance forward and try and be met as an equal. Our nation has gone through these growing pains to get more accustomed to women as equals in that position, and Michelle Obama is unprecedented and sterling in her ability to also be so relatable. She's so Clinton-esque when she speaks it feels like she's just speaking to you and everything is so familiar and has such truth in it that it really resonates. And she's been able to be incredibly productive in her position on a number of fronts.

THR: Is there something specific from Michelle that you bring into playing Mellie?
Young: It's more her essence. I wouldn't give myself the compliment that I'm doing a Michelle Obama impression; it's more the way she comports herself, her sense of decorum, the way she balances relatability and protocol. There's a lot of protocol in the position, but to get your agenda forward, you have to also seem very human, and she is a master at that. I'll watch her on Dr. Oz or when she's making a speech at the convention. It's a thrill to do that kind of homework because she's so magical.

Scandal's third season returns in the fall on ABC.

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@thr.com; Twitter: @Snoodit