So the story goes like this: I did a Random Roles interview with Kelly Lynch, she told me the greatest Bill Murray / Road House anecdote ever, it got picked up by several major publications, and when it did, I decided that I was damned well going to make the most of my 15 seconds of fame. As a result, one of those publications – the New York Post – was kind enough to give me a shot at writing for them.
My debut piece for the Post, an interview with Tony Goldwyn, who plays the President of the United States on ABC’s Scandal, premiered today. As per usual, my conversation went way longer than I was ever going to be able to utilize in the piece, but rather than let it go to waste, I might as well share the rest of what we chatted about with you guys, right?
So here’s the New York Post piece, and I’ll include links to it wherever there’s a quote from it as well, just to clarify that, yes, you’re reading a crossover line. (Credit where credit is due, right?)
Read on…and enjoy!
News Reviews Interviews: It’s got to be a long road to tread from being one of Jason Voorhees’ victims (in Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI) to being the President of the United States.
Tony Goldwyn: [Laughs.] It is a long road. Luckily, it’s been uphill from there! It was my first job in front of a camera, so I was thrilled to have it, but I just remember long nights in a swamp, trying to make some really, really bad dialogue not be awful…and given that I was standing there holding a gun, saying, “Step aside, scumbag,” or something like that, it was a challenge! But, yeah, man, I was grateful to have the job!
NRI: You worked with Shonda Rhimes as a director, but how did it come to pass that you ended up working for her in an acting capacity on “Scandal”?
TG: It was just a surprise, really. Because, as you said, I directed in the first two seasons of Grey’s (Anatomy), and then…I think the first season of Private Practice. And I just got a call asking if I’d be interested in playing the President of the United States. [Laughs.] And when I heard that Kerry Washington was going to be playing Olivia Pope, I barely had to read the script. I’m just such a huge fan of Kerry’s. I have been for years. I just think she’s one of our great actresses. So that was an easy decision. So, yeah, Shonda just…I guess she thought of me. So it was really a nice reunion.
NRI: This is your first series-regular role ever.
TG: It is, yeah. I did a pilot once in the mid-‘90s for Tom Fontana that ended up not getting picked up (Under Fire), but other than that, this is my first, yeah.
NRI: Was it something that you’d been actively looking for in the past?
TG: No, not at all. In fact, really, I had not wanted to do it because, in the past 10 or…more now, almost 15 years I’ve been directing, I didn’t want to sign on to a series because it would inhibit me from directing. But I’ve sort of learned in my career to just be open to opportunities. You never quite know where anything’s gonna go. I just thought this was such a great, fun piece of material and a potentially fantastic role that I just wanted to give it a shot. And I knew the people involved were so good. And the other thing is, in terms of directing, while I probably won’t be able to direct a feature film for awhile, because that’s a larger venture, if Scandal keeps going, I have been able to direct television, and I’ve done a pilot for AMC that I’m executive-producing and co-created. So I was able to fit that into my schedule, and Scandal has been really flexible and helpful with that. So it’s not like I can’t…I’ve been able to manage to do both. So it’s kind of worked out really well.
NRI: As far as that pilot, does it still have the unwieldy title of Untitled Richard LaGravenese / Tony Goldwyn Project?
TG: [Laughs.] Yes, unfortunately. All through production, we were coming up with different titles, and AMC finally said, “You know what? We’re not ready to commit to a title yet. We’ll just continue to call it Untitled Richard LaGravenese / Tony Goldwyn Project.” So, yes, it’s still untitled, but we’re almost done with it. We’re in the editing phase right now, and I must say it’s looking great. But hopefully we’ll have a title soon. Hopefully before they green-light it to series! [Laughs.] Now I’m just trying to make sure that what we deliver is worthy of a title.
NRI: You’ve obviously been behind the camera, but what’s it like to be in the formative stages of a pilot like this?
TG: It’s very exciting, because this was something that evolved out of a film that I did called Conviction two years ago, with Sam Rockwell and Hilary Swank, which was a true story about a wrongful conviction. And I got fascinated with the gray areas in our justice system and how, sort of as a society, we like to have answers and have things be clear and in black and white, and the system is rarely like that. So Richard LaGravenese and I had this idea of creating a story that dealt with those issues from the point of view of a prosecutor, so it’s a wonderful thing to kind of look back on a conversation that started over a drink in a bar in New York that’s now evolved into this wonderful project that’s at this great network at AMC, which is just such a creative place to work. So it’s very satisfying.
Oftentimes as a television director, when you’re directing episodic television, it’s a great job and it’s great fun, but it’s different than being a movie director, where you’re…y’know, as a feature film director, you’re really the decider. You’re the creative center of it. Whereas in television and I’m working for Shonda Rhimes, it’s Shonda’s show, and it’s my job to serve her vision, and I’m happy to do that, but it’s a more limited sort of function. When you’re the creator of a show and the director, you’re once again back at the center of the decision-making process and a creative sort of source of it with your writing partners. So that’s really fun to be now looking to creating a series. And it’s different from a movie. One of the things that I find so exciting, particularly, is the bar has risen in television in recent years, creatively. To have something that’s going to be open-ended, the thought of being able to start telling a story and you can keep telling it, like a serialized novel, is great fun, and it’s a new thing. So I’m excited that this might go forward.
NRI: As far as splitting your time between directing and acting, I think that the first time you ever managed to combine the two was on an episode of The L Word, correct?
TG: Correct! That’s right.
NRI: Okay, good, because I actually did the research, so I was hoping it was! [Laughs.] What was that experience like? Was it like walking a tightrope?
TG: Well, you know what? I was nervous about it. Often, when I started directing television and movies, people said, “Would you want to direct yourself?” And I thought, “No, I like keeping it separate.” I know that I’ve done my best work as an actor when I’ve had a good director to collaborate with, and my less good work as an actor was when I felt that I didn’t have a good director to collaborate with. [Laughs.] So I was hesitant about it. And Ilene Chaiken said, “I’ve written a part for you on the show. Would you do it?” And I thought, “Well, that’s kind of a perfect opportunity,” ‘cause it’s an episode of television, and if it’s terrible, then it’s an hour of TV and it’s not so much of a mistake. And what I discovered was that it was actually really creatively satisfying to do it.
When you’re directing, sort of by definition you’re really maintaining an overview of the whole story, and you’re very conscious of how all the different threads need to come together to work. So as an actor within that, I already had a consciousness of what were the right choices to make as an actor. Whereas when you’re an actor with another director, you’re sort of blind to that. You need to look to the director and go, “Well, is this heading in the direction that you want?” So what I found was that I was able to…I kind of knew what to do, and I must say that I found working with the other actors a very intimate, interesting kind of relationship, where you’d be doing a scene with somebody and then sometimes, without cutting, just say, “Keep the camera rolling,” and whisper something to the other actor and just keep going. And it was sort of a sensation of ultimate power, I guess. [Laughs.] And then I did it again in Dexter. So I look forward to continuing to act and direct. And now I’d love to find a movie to do that I’d want to play a part in.
NRI: With Scandal…well, actually, when I pitched this to my editor at the New York Post, his immediate response was to suggest that it’s the fastest-talking show on television. The rapid-fire dialogue delivery has got to be challenging.
TG: Y’know, it’s its own kind of challenge. It’s really very similar to working in the theater. A lot of times, with a lot of writers in film and television, and with some great writers, there’s a certain flexibility where you’ll adlib on set or improvise, but Shonda is more like a playwright, where she really wants to hear the words exactly as she wrote them. She made a request early on, saying, “Look, I’m happy to rewrite anything, but I need to know ahead of time what your notes are, so I can incorporate it.” So she’s extremely disciplined about that, and one of her requirements is that we talk extremely fast except when Kerry and I are together. In the scenes with Olivia and Fitz, everything slows down. I love it. First of all, what we’ve discovered is that the scenes tend to only work well when you talk fast. Actors love to take pauses and sort of have “actor moments.” And in general as an actor as a director…well, you know, there’s the old (Laurence) Olivier thing: “Well, darling, just try it twice as fast and see how that works.” [Laughs.] And it’s true! As a general rule, that’s pretty well true, and it’s certainly true in the rhythms of what Shonda writes. So it’s a really fun challenge as an actor.
The thing I find about it, where it’s tricky, is if you just talk fast, it sounds like you’re rushing. And that I find annoying, as a viewer. When people are just talking fast, it feels like a stylistic choice, and it feels forced to me. So what we need to do as actors, and we talk about it a lot, is that you really have to think fast. These are really smart people who are incredibly busy and living in a pressure cooker, so the world happens at a very rapid pace. So as long as you’re thinking fast and your thoughts stay ahead of your mouth, you’re okay. [Laughs.] If you’re just cramming dialogue out in rapid fire, then it starts to feel false to me. So that’s really the challenge.
NRI: Looking back at the episodes to date, it seems like Jeff Perry’s signature fast-talking scene has got to be his monologue where he’s reeling off Fitz’s possible future.
TG: Oh, all the things about how I’m going to fail, and when I’m going to put a gun to my head? [Laughs.] Yeah, that was the first one where…I think that was Episode 4, and Jeff, at our table read, he had a four-page monologue. Which was eventually cut down a little bit, and, of course, he was brilliant when we were all sitting around the table reading it, but the poor guy just thought, “Oh, my God, how am I gonna do this?” So he was just sort of memorizing for days. But, yeah, that was when we kind of realized what we were in for. And I think still that one takes the cake in terms of length.
NRI: Is there any comparable equivalent for yourself as far as having a moment where you went, “Oh, man, this is gonna be rough”?
TG: No, not so much. I haven’t had any multi-page monologues. I’ve had a couple of speeches that I’ve had to learn. So, no, I’ve been kind of waiting for my big one. Especially this season, I’ve had some very chunky speeches which…I think are still coming up. And some stuff with Olivia, where I kind of unload on her in rapid-fire. [Laughs.] I guess there was this one speech I had in…I guess it was last week or two weeks ago, in the hunting scene, where I kind of nail her about her relationship with Edison. But there’s still nothing like multiple pages. It’s more scenes that need to be played at a high pitch, where there are big chunks of dialogue, so it takes a lot of work to have it be just in your bones and just second nature and you don’t even have to think about it, so you can just play the scene. Because one of the things about Scandal that just makes it so much fun for the actor is that everything happens in the subtext. You know, there’s just so much underneath the surface of what’s being said, especially in my stuff with Olivia, but even with Jeff and Bellamy (Young), who plays Mellie, who’s such an incredible character and such an incredible actress. There’s all this subterranean stuff, so you have to kind of have the dialogue just…you can’t even think about it. You just have to let it rip. So there have been a number of scenes like that, but I have yet to have my four-page monologue. [Laughs.]
NRI: Speaking of Bellamy, she and Joshua (Malina) got upped to series-regular status, and, of course, you had some departures as well, like Henry (Ian Cusick). How much notice do you have with these fluctuations in the cast? Is it something that’s discussed in advance? For instance, in Henry’s case, was that always destined to happen from the beginning of the series?
TG: No. We never know anything. [Laughs.] We don’t know what’s going to happen with our characters, we don’t know what’s going to happen with anybody. Shonda decides these things. And I don’t think it’s that she’s withholding with us. I think she often…you know, the story kind of tells her what it wants to be. And so with Henry Ian Cusick, we were so sad to lose him, ‘cause he’s a great actor and a wonderful guy, but, y’know, that’s where the story went. So that was sort of a sad surprise to us this season. And with Bellamy…I wasn’t surprised at that. You know, I think that Mellie initially could’ve been a character… I think, if I’m not wrong, her expectation was that it was maybe only going to be a few episodes. But Shonda has this gift for seeing the potential in an actor that others haven’t seen, and Bellamy is truly a huge talent and has always done great work but has never had the opportunity to really show her stuff. And Shonda saw this complexity within her. So Mellie Grant, being someone who seems like a very conventional First Lady, buttoned-up and appropriate in all things, there’s this darkness and complexity underneath that Bellamy tapped into, a kind of craziness that Shonda just went for. So by the end of the first season, Mellie was such a complicated, interesting character that I was certain that was going to go some distance.
NRI: Yeah, between those last two episodes of Season 1, it was pretty evident that there was more to her than anyone might’ve ever believed at the beginning.
TG: And in Season 2, what’s happened with her is just so great. So I love our scenes together, ‘cause they’re always…y’know, like the scene we had in the limousine two weeks ago, when she asks me to forgive her, and I forgive her lovingly and then turn away from her… [Laughs.] Those scenes are just so great to play. And she’s got this great sense of humor and irony and power…I just think Bellamy’s amazing. You know, she’s constantly revealing new layers of herself as an actress.
NRI: When you have the scenes between Olivia and Fitz, which proves the most challenging for you: the ones where they’re getting emotionally close or the ones where they’re getting physically close?
TG: Emotionally. Physically close is like…I mean, luckily, Kerry and I just have this kind of chemistry together. As people we do, but…you know, even before we really knew each other as actors, we just clicked. And we have a physical chemistry and a kind of actor chemistry that we almost…we rarely even have to talk about the scenes. You know, with a lot of actors…Jeff and I, for example, talk all the time about the scenes. Like, we really talk everything through, and we like to work that way together. With Kerry and I, we find we don’t need to say much to each other. Sometimes we’ll sort of check in about one or two things that we want to remember to keep in mind as we’re working, but we have a kind of deeper level that we connect on as actors, and that translates for our physical chemistry. And at the same time, the challenge for us is…y’know, the stuff Shonda writes for us is so informed by the tortured subtext between these two people. [Laughs.] The greater challenge comes from the tortured subtext between these two people. There’s more in what’s not said between Fitz and Olivia than what is. With the tormented history that they have together, what is said is so informed by what’s not said, and that that’s really the great challenge, I think, probably for both of us. Otherwise, y’know, the scenes can be dangerously melodramatic or sentimental, which you want to avoid as actors and which Shonda really wants to avoid in this show. You know, it’s really the trap, that stories like these could descend into melodrama, but Shonda’s writing too smart for that. So those are the ones that are really the challenge. You know, the physical scenes are…I mean, sex and nudity, not that you can do that much on ABC, but it’s always one of those weird things that actors have to do, and you just have to commit. And Kerry and I, we go for it because we’re invested in the relationship, and aside from the bizarre nature of looking at each other and going, “Can you believe we do this for a living?” [Laughs.] Which is weird. But we just kind of go for it. So it’s not so bad. And we trust each other, and that’s very important.
NRI: As far as playing the President, I’ve read various places where it’s suggested that you’ve taken a little from Mitt Romney, a little from President Obama, but is there any Richard Nixon in the mix, given your ties to the film (Oliver Stone’s Nixon)?
TG: Oh, um…gosh. [Hesitates.] Yeah, y’know, not so much. I mean, I guess there’s some Nixon in the sense that Nixon found himself caught up in such a web of his own making. So that fascinates me, and I often think of what it must’ve been like for Nixon to be caught up in Watergate in that way. I suspect that Nixon, who was a man of such gifts, even thought all of his mess was totally self-created…that’s very similar to Fitz. But Nixon, I think, was a very emotionally complicated guy who was very paranoid and closed off to a lot of people. And Fitz is a guy who’s very open-hearted. That’s his Achilles’ heel, I think, and why he gets himself into so much trouble. I sort of feel there’s much more of Clinton in Fitz. Or…Obama in a different way. Obama’s very careful and methodical in a way that perhaps Fitz is not, but he’s charming and brilliant as a speaker, which is why I’ve watched him a lot for Fitz. Romney less so. Romney is someone who is very polished, but I find Romney also very, very controlled in a way that I think Fitz is not. So, anyway, that’s an interesting question about Nixon. I hadn’t really considered it before.
NRI: Have there been any fictional Presidents, either big screen or small screen, that you’ve drawn from?
TG: No, you know, I’ve tried to sort of not reference that, because as an actor, you always feel like a fraud if you do that. [Laughs.] Frankly, with no false modesty, I’m not… that’s not a job I’m qualified for, I’ll put it that way! I don’t have the brains to be President. I just have so much respect and awe for those who have been able to really do that job well and have the intellect for that. So those are the ones who I try to study, as opposed to actors who’ve done it, because I’m already once removed by a big margin, so to be twice removed would be…I try to avoid that. [Laughs.] Even though there have been some great ones. But I have not been watching The West Wing, as great as Martin Sheen was.
NRI: Can you offer any teases about what we’ll see in upcoming episodes of Scandal?
TG: Oh, what can I say? I can’t say much, otherwise the President would be impeached by Ms. Rhimes. [Laughs.] All I can say is just that the screws keep tightening on Fitz, and Fitz and Liv’s relationship will continue to get complicated. You know, one of the things Shonda has done in the show that I think is what makes it so much fun is that she makes very bold moves constantly. And that continues. She’s always making moves where you think, “She’s never gonna…how are we gonna get out of this?” At one point last year, I was just sure that Fitz was gonna be written out of the script, because I didn’t know how she was gonna get me out. I thought she’d painted me into such a corner that I was, like, “Oh, well…” But she continues to make very strong choices, certainly about my character, but also about everyone else. But I can’t give away anything else about the plot, because…that would be against the rules. [Laughs.] And, frankly, other than a couple of episodes ahead, I don’t know! We never know what’s going to happen!
NRI: As far as possibly directing an episode of Scandal…well, I know, for instance, that Bryan Cranston has tried to only direct season premieres or finales of Breaking Bad because it’s so complicated. Would you feel that’d be the same case for you?
TG: I don’t know. When we first started, Shonda and Betsy Beers asked me if I would direct some, and I said, “Sure, it’d be really fun!” But they didn’t want me to do it in the first season because they really wanted me to focus on the Oval Office. [Laughs.] So it would be really great, but we’ve not discussed it specifically this fall. Obviously I’ve been too busy with my other show to entertain it. But maybe in the second half of Season 2. And doing a season opener or closer would be great, but we just haven’t discussed it. The best part for me would be to work with all the people in Olivia Pope and Associates, ‘cause I’m really never in that world. Guillermo (Diaz) and Darby (Stanchfield) and Katie (Lowes) and Columbus (Short), I just have so much admiration for all of them as actors, and we never get to work together. So that would be a great joy of directing the show for me.
NRI: If your pilot does get picked up, how would that affect Scandal? Would you just be working behind the scenes on the new series as you’re able?
TG: Yeah. I mean, you know, my first commitment is to ABC, of course. But it’ll work out, because if the AMC show gets picked up, it would shoot pretty much in our hiatus from Scandal. So during Scandal I’d be prepping the show and working on scripts. And I always have holes in my schedule on Scandal because I’m usually only shooting about half of every episode, so I’d be going back and forth. And, y’know, I’d be directing whatever I could during the hiatus. Otherwise, with Richard LaGravenese and David Manson, who’s our show runner, between the three of us… [Trails off.] Anyway, if we get going, once everything gets moving, yes, I’d be able to do it in conjunction with Scandal.
NRI: Do you have any idea when they’re planning to make a decision? Obviously, you’re not even done with it yet, but…
TG: No, I think the schedule is that we deliver in a couple of weeks, and then I think they’ll make a decision in December. You never know. But we would need to get going in the writer’s room and stuff in January, so I think they’ll need to decide pretty quickly.
NRI: Well, I should be at the TCA tour in January, so hopefully they’ll have an announcement by then.
TG: Yes. That would be very, very nice. [Laughs.]