Female writers and producers are no longer a rarity in television—think Chelsea Handler, Whitney Cummings, and The Good Wife co-creator Michelle King—but it’s hard to not notice that most of these shows are written by and for and feature white women. All that changes with Scandal on the spring lineup. When the hourlong drama—the brainchild of Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes and starring Kerry Washington—debuts in April, it will be the first time in 30 years that a single African-American woman leads a primetime show on network TV. (The last time was Teresa Graves’s turn as an undercover detective in the 1974 made-for-TV flick Get Christie Love!)
Scandal is inspired by the real-life story of Judy Smith, the noted African-American political-crisis-management expert and former White House aide. Smith’s work over the years has included cooling the fires of such high-profile controversies as Monica Lewinsky, Michael Vick’s dog-fighting charges, and the disappearance of D.C. intern Chandra Levy.
Though the show is only “inspired by” Smith’s career and has a few embellished details, it promises to keep audiences engaged with sizzling storylines straight from recent news events. One steamy subplot suggests that Olivia Pope—the main character, played by Washington—had an ill-fated romantic liaison with the commander in chief. (“I can assure you that didn’t happen,” says Smith, laughing.)
Smith was introduced to Rhimes more than two years ago by Rhimes’s producing partner Betsy Beers. “I remembered having a meeting with Judy that was supposed to last for about 20 minutes,” says Rhimes. “We ended up talking about two hours or more that day, and I knew she was my next show. I was spellbound.”
At the time, Rhimes wasn’t familiar with Smith’s nearly 20-year career, which dates back to the Iran-contra hearings. She was doubly surprised to learn that Smith happened to be African-American. But Rhimes says that in early pitches to the network, the race of the lead character wasn’t discussed. “A good story is a good story,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what the race is, and that’s always been my belief.
“That said, it was wonderful to have a story based on an African-American woman that called out for an African-American female lead. There didn’t need to be a discussion about it because it was what it was.”
Before meeting Rhimes, Smith—who is more accustomed to working behind the scenes—never thought her life would soon become the stuff of television drama. “You do your work, and you do the best you can,” she says. “That’s what my parents taught me, and I think what they were saying was, ‘If you do a good job, other things may come your way.’ That’s really been the way my career has unfolded throughout the years.”
Smith—whose new book, Good Self, Bad Self, hits shelves next month—says much of her impressive résumé has happened by chance. “I remember having lunch with a friend who worked at the White House,” she says. “I’d just graduated from law school, but kept telling my friend what they needed to do and weren’t doing right about the Iran-contra affair. The next day, I got a call from the White House, offering me a job.” She would go on to work as special assistant and deputy press secretary to President George H.W. Bush before starting her own company in the 1990s.
With such a rich backstory, and with Rhimes on board, all that Scandal needed was a strong actress able to convey Smith’s seamless blend of in-your-face confidence and steely intellect. Enter Kerry Washington. Rhimes knew she’d be perfect for the role of Olivia Pope—but she doubted that the regularly employed film star would commit to the rigors of a weekly television show. She was wrong.
“I read the script and was sold from the first page,” says Washington. “Any actress wants a role that showcases a woman with power and smarts.
“I did very much relate to this character. I understood her strength and work ethic as well as her desire to help others. It’s a fascinating mix.”
Washington, Smith, and Rhimes spent several weeks bonding and discussing how to give the show the tone they wanted before cameras started to roll. Both Rhimes and Washington seemed to get a kick out of calling Smith to get her reaction to current hot-button political situations. “I’d get calls from them at all times of the day saying, ‘Hey, Judy, what would you do about this?’?” says Smith. “It was pretty funny, really.”
All three women say they feel a tremendous responsibility to offer characters that differ from the regular negative portrayals of African-American women, particularly on reality television shows. (“I don’t want or need to see those images,” says Rhimes.) It’s a task that Rhimes has already been dedicated to on her award-winning ABC medical dramas Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, which have become TV-industry darlings with their sexy plotlines and attractive multicultural casts.
Indeed, Rhimes is one of few African-American producers, if not the only one, with enough clout to get a green light for a network show—particularly the first one written by, based on, and starring African-American women. (Even Tyler Perry’s work usually appears on cable.) “Let’s just say I have a track record that allows me a certain amount of opportunity,” says Rhimes, smiling. “After you prove what you can do, it makes sense for them to allow you to keep doing it and give you room.”