Shonda Rhimes wasn’t looking to make another show, much less a weekly political statement, when her longtime producing partner Betsy Beers insisted she sit down with famed Washington, D.C., crisis manager Judy Smith. That changed before the meeting was over. Smith’s sordid tales of her years as a Beltway fixer — she has counseled clients from Monica Lewinsky to Michael Vick — inspired the Grey’s Anatomy creator to launch Scandal. The 2012 ABC series, which cemented Rhimes‘ status as one of the most bankable creatives in Hollywood, became one of TV’s first social media darlings and still ranks as a top five broadcast drama (8.9 million weekly Viewers) in its sixth season. But Scandal‘s contribution is much greater than hashtags and happy advertisers. Casting Kerry Washington as the lead in the political soap made her the first black woman to topline a drama in 37 years, a depressing superlative that helped launch the ongoing dialogue about inclusivity in entertainment. Viewers tuned in for the onscreen steam between Washington’s Olivia Pope and the married President Fitzgerald Grant played by Tony Goldwyn, and they stayed for hot-button commentary on Black Lives Matter, gun control and Planned Parenthood. Now, as the show airs its 100th episode April 13 in the era of Trump, nearly 20 of the real-life gladiators involved in Scandal share what happens behind the scenes as its outspoken creator works to reflect America’s political uncertainty — even if that alters the ending she long has had in mind.
Shonda Rhimes, showrunner I already had two shows [Grey’s and Private Practice], and the idea of doing something else sounded way too exhausting. But Judy Smith talked for 10 minutes, and I could see what 100 episodes would be. I’m obsessed with politics, but it was the workings of her job and the idea that she came into people’s lives on their worst day that was intriguing.
Channing Dungey, then-ABC drama head (now president of ABC Entertainment) The initial pitch was about this great fixer, a complicated heroine at the center of a very interesting workplace. The affair with the president was not in the initial incarnation. When we read the script, it became the Olivia and Fitz relationship.
Rhimes Paul Lee [then-head of ABC] read the script and called me to say, “We’re picking this up.” But some other people asked if we could remove the part where she is having an affair with the president. There were 10 people on the call, and my actual words were, “In episode six or seven, this woman is going to have sex with the president in the Oval Office on the desk. So if everyone can’t get behind that, then we shouldn’t make this show.” They all gasped.
Dungey Shonda said she felt strongly that Olivia be black. It was inspired by Judy, and she wanted to honor that.
Rhimes Nothing felt more important than the sense of outsiderness. I didn’t know that there hadn’t been a drama series with a leading black woman for 37 years. When the show got picked up [to pilot], I got a phone call from somebody who said, “This would be the perfect show for Connie Britton.” I said, “It would be, except Olivia Pope is black.”
Linda Lowy, casting director The network was reading us their top choices, and it was Connie and all white women. I panicked. Somebody finally piped up, “We’re going to have to redo this list.”
Kerry Washington (Olivia Pope) This would have been a great role for Connie Britton!
Dungey There were some small discussions about if [having a black lead] would impact us internationally.
Lowy We tested Kerry, Jill Scott and Anika Noni Rose. It was Kerry from the moment I took her to meet Shonda.
Rhimes She could talk Washington more than I could talk Washington. She was different than what I originally envisioned. We were all like, “Oh my God,” because she’s tiny, cute, pretty and younger — and because she was all those things, she was aware that people would underestimate her. Then when we were searching for somebody to be the president, nobody wanted to [play the president] because they weren’t the lead.
Betsy Beers, executive producer During pilot season, there’s virtually nobody available because everybody is working and people who have worked for years command a gigantic salary.
Rhimes And we didn’t have a gigantic salary. We were down to the wire.
Lowy Tony Goldwyn had tested for Grace, a dance drama at ABC with Debbie Allen. The minute Eric Roberts got it, I called Shonda, and Shonda called Tony.
Tony Goldwyn (President Fitzgerald Grant, aka Fitz) I’d known Shonda from Grey’s and Private, and Kerry and I had been friendly. The combination of the two I couldn’t pass up.
Rhimes Stephen [Olivia’s friend and litigator] might have been the hardest role to cast. I wrote the part for Scott Foley, and I told Scott Foley that. That’s why we killed him on Grey’s Anatomy. He was the first one we put up. I was like, “How can anybody resist Scott Foley?” And they rejected him.
Beers Linda found Henry Ian Cusick, and we knew ABC loved him because he’d done Lost.
Henry Ian Cusick (Stephen) I went and auditioned and it seemed like I got the job almost immediately.
Rhimes He felt name-y. They wanted somebody with international appeal.
Scott Foley (Jake, B613 agent/NSA director) I did Goodwin Games at Fox [instead], and the day it was canceled, Shonda called and said she wanted me to be a love interest for Olivia Pope.
FINDING THE SERIES
Paul McGuigan, pilot director I was stuck on the beach and was going to cancel. My wife insisted I go. I ended up being very late for the meeting, but Shonda and Betsy were Sherlock fangirls, and I liked their approach to Scandal. We shot in an old theater downtown for the OPA office, which gave it a unique look and style.
Beers We were trapped in the building we were shooting in because there was a jewelry robbery downstairs.
Katie Lowes (Quinn, investigator) We couldn’t leave for the whole day. I remember ducking behind windows because guys had guns. It was intense and it added to the whole thing.
McGuigan The first couple of days, Shonda kept saying, “Faster, faster,” and I was running around like crazy trying to get everything done quickly. A day or so later, she said she was talking about the dialogue speed.
Lowes Most drama scripts are 60 pages, and ours are 80 and change. The note every time: “Say it faster!”
Beers Judy Smith sat on set for most of the pilot. We’d stop and say stuff like, “Judy, which lapel do you have to put the president’s little pin on?”
Washington We shot the whole first season before it [premiered April 5, 2012]. One of my best friends suggested the whole cast should be on Twitter. I didn’t want to be that asshole, bossy No. 1: “Everybody do what I say!”
Goldwyn So she told Shonda to do it!
Rhimes We got everybody on Twitter, and live-tweeting was a group plan.
Washington We reached out to influencers who were friends, like Sam Jackson and John Legend. We had the benefit of this historical moment with a black woman as a lead, and that helped start some buzz. From the beginning, I felt a pressure of us having to do well for the black community as a whole.
Guillermo Diaz (Huck, Olivia’s hacker) The ratings weren’t that great at first. I thought we were going to get canceled.
Beers Everybody was trying to figure out a way to get more eyeballs. [Former ABC marketing chief] Marla [Provencio] and I decided to take all the advertising shekels and put it in one big episode, the one where we shot Fitz.
Patrick Moran, then-ABC Studios drama head (now president of ABC Studios) That’s when this thing exploded. We’d talked about how this was a show about crisis management, and there was an expectation that there would be cases that would be coming through the door. It quickly grew into something more complex and character-driven.
Goldwyn It really hit me when I took a month off to direct a pilot [in late 2012]. We were filming in Philly, and women started running out of a department store …
Washington “Fiiiitz! Fiiiitz!”
Goldwyn “It’s the president!” I’m in shorts and a T-shirt directing, and these people are running at me freaking out.
Jeff Perry (Cyrus, Fitz’s original chief of staff) We were in New York going to GMA at the end of season two, and there were so many fans pushing up against our bus that it rocked. I just said, “It’s our Beatles moment.”
Dungey Shonda has a wonderful ability to make the audience wait for that ultimate climax, and “Vermont Is for Lovers” [the season three episode that offered a glimpse at Fitz and Olivia’s post-presidential relationship] delivered on that in an incredible way. We wanted to have somebody that had a voice and vision to direct it.
Tom Verica, exec producer: When I saw Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere, I wanted to know who she was — and from the moment I met her, I wanted to hire her.
Ava DuVernay, “Vermont” director: The script was insanely juicy. The fans dubbed me “Gladiava” on Twitter.
MORE THAN JUST A TV SHOW
Goldwyn We found out Cyrus was gay in the third episode.
Perry Linda [Lowy, my wife] and I have always had a firewall, and she let out a yelp from the backyard. I’d find out later that she had just read the page that said, “Olivia knocks on the door. James [Dan Bucatinsky] opens it and says, ‘My husband doesn’t work on Sundays.’ ”
Dan Bucatinsky (James, Cyrus’ first husband) It was the most refreshing, modern, subversive way of letting an audience know that a character was gay.
Diaz Shonda cast me in this role of a former trained killer who has a wife and a child, and Shonda [knew I was gay]. She talks a lot about normalizing things, and Cyrus and James adopting helps the world at large start to see that there’s no issue.
Joe Morton (Rowan Pope, Olivia’s dad and head of spy ring B613) I got a call about a recurring role. It ended with, “If you decide to take it, the last two lines of season two will be: ‘Hello, Olivia.’ ‘Hi, Dad.’ “
Diaz Rowan opened the audience to a world outside of Olivia and Fitz’s tumultuous love triangle.
Foley That’s when we started drifting into that conspiratorial world. A lot of fans felt like, “Hey, give us the love triangle and the case of the week and we’re happy.” But the show found a more interesting life that wasn’t as repetitive. We had a finale script reading at the TV Academy with the last episode of season two. Olivia and Rowan are in the limousine and she says “Dad,” and the f—ing place erupted. Felicity was a hit in its time and I remember girls crying in elevators, but it was nothing like this.
Morton For a short period, Shonda talked about doing a B613 spinoff.
Washington In the beginning, the fact that Olivia Pope was black was enough of a dance in the racial politics arena. Then [the subject of race] started to [come up] in these tiny little ways: When Abby [Darby Stanchfield] and Olivia walk into a house together, and the wife says, “Olivia Pope?” and reaches for Abby’s hand.
Morton Season three started with me telling Olivia, “You have to be twice as good to get half as much.” Every black publication I could get my hands on ran things about it.
Washington When black people talk about “the talk,” it means two things: your parents saying you have to be twice as good to get half as much, or here’s what you do if the cops pull you over.
Rhimes I thought it was something that everybody knew. When it aired, half of Twitter was like, “What does that mean?” Then black Twitter was like, “Absolutely.”
Cornelius Smith Jr. (Marcus, civil rights activist) Then we did “The Lawn Chair” episode [depicting events similar to Ferguson, Missouri]. It resonated because viewers had seen that happen firsthand in their communities. It was truthful and heartfelt.
Washington That was the first episode where Olivia explicitly chose to stand in her blackness.
DRAMA MOVES OFFSCREEN
Columbus Short (Harrison, litigator) I was going through a tumultuous time in my personal life with my marriage, and it was starting to affect my onscreen play. I wasn’t focused; I was coming to work late, and I was bringing down the team.
Rhimes We did not renew his option. It was clear to everybody that his personal life overwhelmed his work life.
Darby Stanchfield (Abby, investigator) When we came back in season four, we were taking a van to Harrison’s funeral scene and texting each other that we didn’t want to shoot it. We were saying goodbye to our friend, too.
Bucatinsky By that time, the cast was reading the scripts cold at the table reads every week. There was one that ended with a gunshot and either David [Josh Malina] or James was clearly the one who got shot. Josh called out, “You gotta kill Dan, he already has his Emmy!” It felt like it was me.
Foley Having to take out Dan Bucatinsky was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do on this show.
Bellamy Young (Mellie, first lady) I remember we showed up for the table read the day the filibuster episode was about to air. [ABC’s] Standards and Practices wanted to cut Olivia’s abortion [in season five].
Rhimes I said, “Go ahead, alter the scene. We’ll just have a lot of articles about how you altered the scene.” We had done an abortion on a military woman who had been raped earlier on, and we were doing nothing different than we did in that scene — they just didn’t like that it was happening to Olivia. It was a Christmas episode, and we played Christmas music.
Young I don’t think abortion had ever been presented as an emancipated woman’s option before. And it’s set to “Silent Night.” The balls to pick that song.
Rhimes I kept going back to our music supervisor, “We sure Aretha Franklin is OK with this?” I wanted to make sure Aretha knew what the scene was about. Her people said I was fine and to stop asking. It made me love her forever because then I could be like, “Aretha Franklin, who sings a lot of gospel music, is very supportive of this.”
SCANDAL IN THE TRUMP ERA
Rhimes We had a Democratic president [when Scandal premiered], so I wanted to take a Republican president and make him human. Then our stories would be about what would happen if the wheels came off the bus and nobody was driving the bus. The problem now is the wheels have come off the bus, and nobody’s driving.
Young We’d shoot stuff with Gregg Henry playing [a Trump-like candidate], and the next day something exactly like it only crazier would happen in the election between Trump and Hillary.
Lowes I was at the Hillary party on election night with Tony and thinking, “We shot these episodes in July.” It’s weird to be on a political show during these times.
Rhimes The day after the election, the whole landscape changed.
Washington I remember watching the season six premiere and seeing David Rosen explain the Electoral College to the viewer. By the time it aired, I was like, “Everybody understands the Electoral College now.”
Goldwyn We were all very upset; we’d worked hard to get Hillary elected.
Rhimes There was a very specific planned progression that was going to be easy to tell because Hillary was going to be president, and we were going to be living in the light. But it didn’t occur. I’m still trying to come to terms with that. One bad thing after another keeps happening, and the world feels very unstable. So in a world in which all of the things that we would write on Scandal are happening in real life, it’s very hard to write Scandal the way we used to, when it was like, “Let’s make Washington the most outrageous, horrifying place it could ever be.”
Washington Now, we have a hard time competing with reality.
Goldwyn It’s all we talk about.
Rhimes Any of the stories we planned now just feel like we’re copying what’s happening in reality, which is insane.
Young They planned for season six to arc out the Russians hacking the election — and then the Russians hacked the election!
Perry It’s fun to write nightmares when you know the lights are going to go back on. But when you’re not sure?
Foley I always heard season seven would be the last. But when they announced the pickup, it was not announced as the final season.
Rhimes I used to know how it ended, and then Donald Trump was elected. We had a destination, and I don’t know if that’s our destination anymore.
ASSEMBLING OLIVIA POPE’S CABINET
“Linda brought me in after I had done Grey’s to read for Huck. I knew Huck wasn’t my part. Then I read for David Rosen. After the show got picked up, I got a text from Linda asking if I’d play her husband’s husband,” he says.
GUILLERMO DIAZ (Huck)
“I read the description of Huck — he was 50, and I was still in my 30s. I was like, ‘What the f—?! I’m not 50!’ ” says Diaz, for whom the role was reimagined. Dan Bucatinsky had read for it first.
SCOTT FOLEY (Jake)
Shonda Rhimes killed off Foley in Grey’s for a role (Stephen) on Scandal. “Then [ABC] rejected him,” she recalls. “They wanted somebody with international appeal.” Henry Ian Cusick was cast. Foley was brought in later.
TONY GOLDWYN (Fitz)
“I finished doing a Broadway play and came to L.A. and had always said no to doing series because of the six-year commitment,” Goldwyn says. “There was another ABC script I committed to but then panicked about it because it didn’t feel quite right for me, and another actor got the part. The next day, I got a call saying Shonda had been waiting in the wings and thought of me for Fitz. They offered me the part.”
JOSH MALINA (David)
“I ran into Dan there — he wound up with an Emmy so he did OK! — and read the David-Olivia scene. Shonda turned to [pilot director] Paul McGuigan and said, ‘That’s all I need to see.’ I called my agents and said either I just got the role or I’ll never work for Shonda,” he says.
DARBY STANCHFIELD (Abby)
“I was the last character cast,” says Stanchfield. “Abby was described as ’round, cheery, knits a lot, has cats’ and 10 or 15 years younger than me.”
KATIE LOWES (Quinn)
Casting director Linda Lowy found Lowes at Jeff Perry’s theater company. “My audition was like that magical American Idol moment where Shonda just gave me the role,” says Lowes. “I started hysterically crying.”
JEFF PERRY (Cyrus)
Rhimes and Beers knew they wanted Perry from the start, but ABC already thought of the actor as Meredith’s (Ellen Pompeo) father on Grey’s. “We knew we were going to have to hold him until last because it would be easier to get him through because they’ll be so thrilled with everything else. We held him until last and that’s what happened,” says Rhimes. Notes Perry: “I laughably thought I was playing the Sam Waterston moral center of a version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and thought Cyrus was a passionate Boy Scout — a pragmatic and career politician.”
KERRY WASHINGTON (Olivia)
“I hadn’t done a lot of television, and my agents said they read this script from Shonda Rimes that was as if she wrote it for me,” says Washington. “In my lifetime, I had never seen a black woman at the center of a television drama. There was a void to fill a hunger, and we were able to fit that need.
BELLAMY YOUNG (Mellie)
Rhimes initially told Young she’d be around for three episodes or so. “I want to write a presidential divorce,” she had said. But, says Rhimes, “The more we used her, the more interesting she became.”
A version of this story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.