Shonda Rhimes says the Washington she's created for the political drama Scandal is a dark, amoral one — and "a little Shakespearean," in the way it's a place where big themes play out among powerful people who aren't afraid to make bold moves.
"In the world of the show, [our] America sees Washington as this fairy-tale-beautiful place, and everybody who works there is really helping keep that illusion alive," the series creator tells Morning Edition's Renee Montagne.
"But they're all very much aware that with that peeled away, they're just monsters set adrift in a world where there are no rules."
Rhimes says the casting of star Kerry Washington was a choice driven by some very specific ideas about the character. And yes, those ideas included some of the racial cluelessness Olivia Pope might encounter, as someone singular and powerful enough to often be the only black person in a room — even a modern-day room.
"There were certain things about that job ... there were ways in which she [might] be treated that I thought were very specific to the black experience," Rhimes says. "We did an episode where she walks into the room, and the client immediately assumes that Abby — the tall, white redhead she works with — is Olivia Pope."
"That's a thing that's happened to me," Rhimes says.
The End Is In Sight (Not That She's Telling How Far Out)
Unlike the long-running medical drama Grey's Anatomy, another of Rhimes' hit shows, Scandal is a project with a clear expiration date — in Rhimes' head, anyway.
"I knew the end of Grey's Anatomy, and then we kept going, so that I finally just had to write that and move past it," Rhimes says. "Who knows, at this point, how long that show's going to go? It's going to go as long as I feel interested in what happens to those characters."
Not so Scandal -- most likely. Currently in its third season, it's a "different kind of show."
"It is very political," Rhimes says. "The political landscape on the outside, in the real world, will change — possibly before Scandal is over."
"But I feel like there is a finite amount of Scandal to be told," she continues. "So I know what the end of Scandal will be, and I feel really good about that. And I can see where the end point is. And I don't think I'm going to change that. ... I know how long I think it will be. But we'll see."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
For nearly a decade, Thursday nights on ABC have belonged to one woman: Shonda Rhimes. She's the writer-creator of smart, sexy dramas that get people talking, and keep viewers watching.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: First, there was "Grey's Anatomy," set in a Seattle hospital where the love lives of its interns and residents are as complicated as their work lives. Then, "Private Practice" and now, "Scandal."
(SOUNDBITE OF "SCANDAL" THEME MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: "Scandal" features the glamorous Washington, D.C., insider Olivia Pope. She's a crisis manager, a fixer with wizard-like skills to make all manner of problems go away. She also used to work for the president, the dashing Republican Fitzgerald Grant, and remains connected to him in a deeply personal way. In this scene, Olivia, played by Kerry Washington, confronts a young woman who claims to have had an affair with the president.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCANDAL")
KERRY WASHINGTON: (As Olivia Pope) I'll give you some free advice: Hand in your resignation and pack up your dog and your things, and get in your car and go. Find a small city - Minneapolis, maybe, or Denver. Get a little job. Meet a boring boy. Make some friends because in this town, your career is over. You're done.
MONTAGNE: As dreamed up by Shonda Rhimes, the Washington, D.C., at the heart of "Scandal" has a Camelot-like veneer, concealing some very dark deeds. When we sat down together, we spoke of murder, torture, blackmail.
SHONDA RHIMES: It is a dark, amoral world. We're working on the idea that for America in the world of the show, America sees Washington as this as this very fairy tale-beautiful place, and that everybody who works there is really helping keep that illusion alive. But they're all very much aware that with that peeled away, they're just monsters set adrift in a world in which, you know, there are no rules.
MONTAGNE: Well, Olivia Pope - the main character - she's basically working behind the scenes; and she was inspired by a real person, an expert in managing crises. And this woman, Judy Smith, she has a few things in common with Olivia Pope.
RHIMES: She does. Judy Smith is pretty amazing, and when I sat down with her the first time and met her, I really got a sense of how complex and strange her daily life must be. I mean, she's done Monica Lewinsky. She's done Michael Vick. She's done lots of politicians; and she's very, very good at what she does. But it's also a very dark job, to some degree, I think. I mean, obviously, you know, she's not Olivia Pope, but she is very powerful. And a lot of the qualities that Olivia Pope has, when she's solving these crises, are things that I sort of gleaned and took from Judy.
MONTAGNE: She's strong. She's stylish, very attractive.
RHIMES: Yes. Very stylish, very attractive.
MONTAGNE: African-American woman.
MONTAGNE: Were you intending to make Olivia Pope African-American from the beginning?
RHIMES: Yes. Being an African-American woman felt, to me, like there were certain things about that job that would leave her as being the only black person in the room a lot of the time, and there were ways in which she would be treated that I felt were very specific to the black experience. We did an episode where she walks into a room, and the client immediately assumes that Abby - who is sort of the tall, white redhead who she works with - is Olivia Pope, simply because she's the white woman in the room, versus the black woman in the room. And, you know, that's a thing that's happened to me; and there were things about it that I thought were very interesting.
MONTAGNE: It's no spoiler to say - because this is actually at the heart of this show - that Olivia Pope has been having an affair with the married president of the United States.
RHIMES: Yes. They've been having an on-again, off-again affair for a while. And it is the biggest scandal of them all; that they spend a great deal of time trying to cover up, and Olivia spends a lot of time trying to sometimes hide even from herself.
MONTAGNE: It would seem there would be a risk in setting that as a kind of a basis for the story because Olivia being with a married man - all by itself - could make her somewhat unsympathetic.
RHIMES: I wasn't really interested in whether or not the characters felt sympathetic in traditional ways. I feel like that is an old-fashioned notion for television, at this point in time. I mean, everybody's favorite character right now is Walter White, and he was a meth-making drug king over on, you know, "Breaking Bad." So I wanted her to feel watchable, and I wanted her to feel incredibly flawed in this sort of Shakespearean tragedy that also should feel a bit realistic, in terms of her pain.
MONTAGNE: I'm wondering, when it comes, especially, to writing single women who are complicated - like Olivia Pope, like at least two of your main characters on "Grey's Anatomy" - if it's changed, if you've even created the change; that is to say, they can be likeable, but not always likeable. They're not stock characters.
RHIMES: It's very interesting. There's a lot of - I remember having a discussion with - an early discussion at ABC with people who no longer even work at the network, before "Grey's" was picked up; where I was sort of brought into a room, and a bunch of older guys told me that nobody was going to watch a show about a woman who had casual sex and threw a guy out the night before her first day of work - that that was completely unrealistic, and that nobody wanted to know that woman. And I remember sort of sitting in that meeting and thinking, wow. They don't know anything that's going on in the world right now.
And that kind of conversation, I think, would never happen now. I mean, now we're in a world in which nobody's worried about whether or not the women are likeable. If you have a show with a female lead - which was a fairly rare thing to do a little while ago. Because it was so rare, everybody wanted that person to be perfect because she had to represent everybody. Olivia Pope is very rare because she's an African-American woman; and everybody wants her to be perfect because she has to represent everybody. So there's a box that you get placed in. My goal, really, is to blow that box wide open.
MONTAGNE: Where do you think you got this love for telling stories that just pull people in and hold them?
RHIMES: I have no idea. I feel like I've always been a writer. I've been a writer since I was a kid. I've been a writer since I was, you know, dictating stories into a tape deck and trying to get my mom to type them up - when I was really, really little.
MONTAGNE: You did that? You - your mom...
RHIMES: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
MONTAGNE: But, I mean, you were not an only child. I know you have five older brothers and sisters.
RHIMES: Yeah. I'm the youngest of six.
MONTAGNE: Did you ever, I mean, being the little one, did you ever look around and observe what they were doing, and imagine their lives?
RHIMES: Yeah. I have alarmingly normal, madly in love, boring parents who are fantastic and interesting, but definitely not in any way dramatic. But watching my brothers and sisters, who - some of them were teenagers when I was little. You know, peeking through doors and listening at doors and sort of being the little kid in the room, they seemed so amazing to me, when I was a child.
MONTAGNE: "Scandal" is in its third season now. "Grey's Anatomy" is 10 years. Do you know the end?
RHIMES: I knew the end of "Grey's Anatomy," and then we kept going. So then I finally just had to write that and move past it. Who knows, at this point, how long that show's going to go. It's going to go as long as I feel interested in what happens to those characters. "Scandal" is a different kind of show. I feel like there is a finite amount of "Scandal" to be told. So I know what the end of "Scandal" will be, and I don't think I'm going to change that.
MONTAGNE: I guess we don't know how long that'll be.
RHIMES: I know how long I think it will be. But we'll see.
MONTAGNE: Shonda Rhimes, thank you very much for joining us.
RHIMES: Thank you. I've had a wonderful time.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: Shonda Rhimes, creator and writer of "Scandal." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.