You hear that, Gladiators? Connie Britton was the first choice to play Olivia Pope in the political drama Scandal. Creator Shonda Rhimes and ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey revealed the casting switch in honor of the show’s 100th episode.
“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,” Rhimes, 47, recalled to the Hollywood Reporter. “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.'”
Rhimes, who also produces Grey’s Anatomy, How to Get Away With Murder and The Catch, wanted to stay true to the character, who was based on Bush Administration press aide-turned-real-life-crisis-management-expert Judy Smith.
“Shonda said she felt strongly that Olivia be black,” Dungey said. “It was inspired by Judy, and she wanted to honor that.”
Rhimes and the network would go on to test Jill Scott, Anika Noni Rose and Kerry Washington for the part. Washington, 40, would end up landing the wine-loving D.C.-based crisis manager opposite Tony Goldwyn, who played love interest President Fitzgerald Grant.
“I’d known Shonda from Grey’s and Private [Practice], and Kerry and I had been friendly,” Goldwyn, 56, told THR. “The combination of the two I couldn’t pass up.”
Britton, 50, meanwhile, would go on to star in ABC’s Nashville, now on CMT. (Her character, Rayna Jaymes, was killed in the February 23 episode, “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” in season 5.)
Still, Washington thinks that Britton would have made a fantastic Olivia. “[It] would have been a great role for Connie Britton!” she said. (Oddly enough, Katie Lowes, who plays Quinn Perkins on Scandal, used to be Britton’s nanny.)
Rhimes immediately knew that Washington was the right choice. “She could talk Washington, [D.C.] more than I could talk Washington. She was different than what I originally envisioned,” the TV producer recalled. “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.”
Scandal debuted in 2012 and is currently in its sixth season. Rhimes told THR that she had specific story lines planned for the series, but they were derailed when Donald Trump won the presidential election. Most of the cast supported his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, during the campaign and even got a visit from her on set.
“We were all very upset; we’d worked hard to get Hillary elected,” Goldwyn said.
Rhimes added: “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.'”
Goldwyn admitted that all of the costars still talk about the loss. Washington chimed in: “Now, we have a hard time competing with reality.”
Scandal airs Thursdays on ABC at 9 p.m. ET.
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