This week all eyes are on Washington, D.C.—and it’s not because of the government shutdown. On October 3 Scandal, ABC’s beloved political thriller, returns for its third season of intrigue, deception and an exceedingly steamy affair between a Kerry Washington’s Beltway fixer and Tony Goldwyn’s smoldering President.
An integral part of the show is the staff of self-professed “gladiators in suits” who work for Washington’s Olivia Pope, handling everything from bribery to espionage and worse without breaking a sweat. Her chief consigliere is Columbus Short’s Harrison Wright, a 28-year-old lawyer with a murky backstory and unwavering dedication to Pope.
DuJour spoke to the actor about his character’s mysterious past, how fans react to him and why he almost didn’t take the job.
Scandal has become a prime example of that exceedingly rare thing: appointment TV. Did you know from the start that the show would be a hit?
I had zero inkling of that. To be completely honest, I was small-minded enough to believe that I didn’t want to do TV. I would only do movies—films—and my manager and agent called me to say Shonda [Rhimes] wanted to have a meeting about a TV show. I was like, why are you calling me about TV? But I love and respect Shonda so much that I said I would go to the meeting to tell her this myself.
What happened to change your mind?
That night I woke up at 1:27 in the morning and something inside me said to read that script, which I wasn’t going to do. But I read the script and didn’t get to bed until 3:30. Our meeting was the next morning at 11, and I went into that meeting asking please to do the show.
Kerry [Washington] hadn’t been hired yet; her character’s original name was Olivia Price. And when I walked out of that meeting, I asked who was playing Olivia. Shonda said they were testing five women and the final of them was Kerry. I told her that’s the one—if it’s not Kerry, I won’t do it. Not that I had any real weight in her being hired, but I knew right away it could only be her.
Now that we’re getting into the third season of the show, we’re getting to see as much of the lives of Olivia Pope’s associates as we are of their clients. What’s in store for Harrison?
Here’s the thing: I had no idea who the hell this guy was. There was no backstory; there was none of that. All of us on the show were molding the characters as the show was happening. That’s how Shonda works. Nobody knew anything and I think that was the most uncomfortable position I could be in as an actor.
Kerry and I sat down and we came up with this whole backstory and we emailed it to Shonda and she loved it. That gave me some direction for this character. As far as his quirks, those are all little things I created as the character was evolving.
Is that backstory something we’ll learn about?
Yes. It’s going to unfold. I think maybe at the beginning Shonda didn’t know where he was going enough to do that. Then not knowing became its own thing, so when it happens it’ll be something that will knock my socks off. I have my own theories about what she’ll do, but once it unfolds it will be special. She knows how to do that. When you think Shonda doesn’t have any more rabbits in her hat, she pulls one more out.
A number of your costars have talked about how fans approach them to dish about their characters. Are people coming up to you on the street to talk about Scandal?
I’m a very socially awkward person, but there are all of these older women who come up to me; it’s very strange. The weirdest was when I recently went to a bar mitzvah and my wife and I were the only black couple there. We walked in and everyone was staring at us and my initial thought was that it was because we were the only black couple there, but then a friend came up to say, ‘Everyone here is freaking out that you’re the guy from Scandal. You’re huge!’ It was a very strange moment for me.
A lot of the action on Scandal seems far-fetched, but really anything can happen in D.C. How close to the truth do you think the show gets?
To be completely honest with you, last season I got nervous about a lot of the content because I didn’t know if we’re supposed to be doing and saying certain things. The way that the show presents things, with the romantic, tragic love between Olivia and the president distracts from some of the truth that’s being presented about things that go bump in the night. Obviously I’m not a high-ranking White House official, but I know that we’re close.
Is there any avenue you’d like to see the show explore?
What I’ve learned about this show as we go along is that they keep going to places you wouldn’t even imagine. I have no idea what will come next; I’m just along for the ride.
Scandal’s third season premieres October 3 at 10 p.m. EST on ABC.