Editor’s note: This story, one of our staff favorites mentioned in City & Shore’s 15th Anniversary issue, first appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of the magazine.
By Deborah Wilker
City & Shore Magazine
Even if you’re not watching Scandal, the off-the-wall political thriller on ABC, you’ve probably heard about it. Its wayward White House, escalating body count, social moralizing and “viewer-discretion” warnings have made it the rare network drama to cultivate a growing audience.
On Thursday nights when new episodes air, the show generates so much social chatter among real-time viewers it tends to dominate Twitter’s entire list of Top U.S. Trends. That’s about 150,000 to 200,000 tweets per show.
Like the other ABC shows from screenwriter/creator Shonda Rhimes (Private Practice, Grey’s Anatomy), Scandal features a large, ethnically diverse cast – and characters who don’t necessarily behave within the usual broadcast parameters.
Even the show’s heroes do some pretty ugly things. They scrub murder scenes, kill judges, have sex in closets. But unlike Rhimes’ other shows, Scandal makes much less attempt to redeem them.
“Audiences have a much bigger appetite for darker behavior,” says Tony Goldwyn, who stars as President Fitzgerald Grant. “They expect it now. They don’t want things sanitized.”
That Goldwyn, 52, became the leading man in all this was a bit of a surprise to him. Not because he’s not dashing and presidential. But he’d been devoting much of his time in recent years to directing. From making the rounds of important film festivals with Hilary Swank, to suddenly shirtless in primetime wasn’t precisely in his plans.
Among the dozens of TV shows he’s directed is the Miami serial-killer series, Dexter, produced for Showtime by his older brother John. His other directorial efforts include Justified, Damages, The L Word, Without A Trace, Law & Order, the Diane Lane movie A Walk On The Moon, and early episodes of Grey’s Anatomy.
It was while he was directing Grey’s nine years ago that Scandal mastermind Rhimes saw something in him. “Shonda has this ability to see the potential in an actor that’s never been shown before. She seems to understand me as an actor better than I do.”
Yet when we caught up with Goldwyn last month he was actually back behind the camera again – directing Scandal no less – shepherding one of the series’ three, high-stakes season-ending episodes airing this month. Making time for a few questions he tells us why he thinks Scandal hits a nerve, how he handles those crazy love scenes with co-star Kerry Washington, what’s the real reason they don’t shoot Dexter in Miami anymore – and does he really write all his own tweets?
City & Shore: What is it about this show? Why are people so fascinated?
Tony Goldwyn: Olivia and Fitz are in the kind of affair that makes everyone really uncomfortable. I don’t know that 10 years ago, or even five years ago on network television, you could have gotten away with an affair like this – that I’m the President and I’m married and it’s adulterous. We take the sentiment out of things. We’re not afraid to be unlikable.
C&S: You weren’t worried when you learned your character wouldn’t just be flawed, but was in fact going to murder a Supreme Court judge?
TG: No I wasn’t. It’s really a dream for an actor to play a character where you get to swing 180 degrees. I was a little concerned at first because I wasn’t so interested in him only as a philanderer. Ultimately I knew it would be messy and complicated and very interesting.
C&S: But can the show continue to make serious statements about race and politics and social justice when the behavior is so bad?
TG: I think so. Scandal is unique because it really mushes genres. Competition [from cable] has been very good for the creative community because it pressures the broadcast networks to be more adventurous. The sex in the closet – it wasn’t very graphic, but I agree it was pretty out there.
C&S: This stuff could not be comfortable to shoot.
TG: It’s just one of those weird things you have to do for your job. The key to it, if you’re working with another good actor – you can just throw yourself into it and not feel self-conscious. Kerry [Washington] and I have a lot of mutual trust. I think it’s harder for Kerry – harder for women. They do feel more exposed.
C&S: How do you feel when you see it? Do you actually watch the show? Does your wife?
TG: I do watch. I think it’s really fun. Our cast gets together, we watch together.
My wife doesn’t watch as much. But she’s used to this. She doesn’t bat an eye. Our daughters are grown – they watch. But whenever there’s anything sexy my younger one will take a screen-shot of the TV and then send me a text that says ‘grrrrooooosssss.’
C&S: Funny – but seriously, what if advertisers agree with her – that maybe it’s all just a little too much?
TG: [Laughing] – I don’t know because I don’t speak to them but I’d guess maybe some are nervous. But they also want the eyeballs. So they’re publicly ambivalent and trying to figure out where it’s all going.
C&S: Where IS it all going?
TG: It’s such a dynamic time in television and all of entertainment right now. The idea of just turning on the TV and seeing what’s on is great. But I think where it’s going, and I can only speak for myself – is the consumer having complete control over what they watch and when.
C&S: It’s interesting how the show started solidly when it premiered last spring, but really took off a few months ago as more and more people talked about it online.
TG: The exponential power of Twitter is mind blowing. I didn’t understand it at first – that’s part of being over 50 I guess – and the idea in general, I just had a knee-jerk reaction against it.
But ABC asked us to get on – we started live tweeting with fans during the show [yes, it’s really him] – and it really opened my eyes, the power of this tool, the opportunity to communicate directly with people.
One of the things I like most about the success of this show is that it just caught on like a brushfire. And as the show kept getting better, new fans kept discovering it, largely due to each other on Twitter – as opposed to a publicity machine grinding out press releases and spending millions to promote something.
And then the more intellectual press got on board – The New Yorker, The Nation, Rolling Stone – people who would have ordinarily been snooty about a Shonda Rhimes show – the guilty pleasure soap opera aspect of it.
C&S: You obviously know a lot about the way this industry works. Your grandfather was [legendary producer] Samuel Goldwyn. Any desire to follow the family legacy into the more corporate side of entertainment?
TG: My brother was a very successful industry executive and is now a producer. My father’s a producer and has had his own company for a long time. From a business aspect it interests me – but only as far as getting a creative idea going. The corporate or network or studio end of it, that’s just not my skill set.
C&S: You directed Scandal’s May 2nd episode. How do you do everything you’re supposed to do as an actor while watching over it all?
TG: I directed myself in Dexter and The L Word. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be, because as the actor you already know in what direction the scene needs to go and how you’re going to stage it.
C&S: You’ve directed several episodes of Dexter. It’s quite a challenge isn’t it, making L.A. look like Miami? The two regions look nothing alike.
TG: Yes, I directed a bunch of Dexters and it was very difficult trying to recreate Florida. It’s doable, but it’s very hard to do it right because Miami has such a unique look.
They have shot in Miami, and they go back from time to time, but Showtime said it was just too expensive to keep it there permanently. I wish they had. I love Florida. I spent about six months in Broward County many years ago, shooting a movie called Traces of Red. It wasn’t very good. But I was living near Pompano – had a house on a canal, it was so pretty. I just loved it.
C&S: You must feel a little like you’re back in time right now. I know you’ve worked steadily the last 25 years, but women swarming you on the street and at airports again as they did [two decades ago] after Ghost, this has to be a re-adjustment for you and your family.
TG: The only other time I have ever experienced anything on this scale was when I was in Ghost. I was completely anonymous before that. The idea of being recognized was shocking to me. THAT was a big adjustment.
Now I find myself just very appreciative of it. I can feel the energy – everywhere I go, people want to talk about Scandal. They want their picture taken. We’ve been chased down streets! I’m glad that I’m where I am now in my life, because at this age I can appreciate it and also recognize, it’s a moment. Hopefully it lasts for a while.
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ONLINE BONUS: The Innocence Project honors Tony Goldwyn
Charitable and social causes have long been a part of Tony Goldwyn’s life, but few are as dear to him as The Innocence Project – the non-profit legal group dedicated to freeing the wrongfully convicted, and seeking justice for those who did commit the crimes.
Goldwyn got his own in-depth look at this public policy organization while directing the true-life film Conviction, about Betty Anne Waters, a high school drop-out who goes back to school – ultimately earning a law degree so she can fight to free her imprisoned brother.
The 2010 film, starring Hilary Swank, was critically acclaimed and led to Goldwyn being honored by The Innocence Project at its annual fundraising gala just last month.
“It’s an extraordinary organization, making incredible strides in the field of social justice,” Goldwyn said, “particularly in Florida, where it has a very big presence. Several high-profile cases have been resolved here with their help.”
Notable local cases include those of three men who served a combined 72.5 years in prison for crimes in Miami-Dade and Broward counties that they did not commit. In one case the real perpetrator was found after more than 25 years, when a Fort Lauderdale police detective initiated a simple review.
The Innocence Project was established more than 20 years ago when a study by The U.S. Dept. of Justice and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York discovered that eyewitnesses to crimes often do not get the details right.
Said Goldwyn, “This group has pioneered the field of DNA testing to hopefully find the real perpetrators of violent crime.”
For more on The Innocence Project, visit innocenceproject.org.