There is a trend in Hollywood with writers saluting actresses by crafting influential TV characters. Gina Torres has proved to be a tour de force in her role as Jessica Pearson in the hit legal drama, Suits. Now Kerry Washington is attracting attention as Olivia Pope, an elite crisis management expert in the political drama, The Fixer. Debashine Thangevelo got the lowdown on her role while the show’s creator and executive producer, Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice), shed light on her departure from medical dramas.
Legal dramas have become money-spinners for TV networks. And the legacy of The Practice, which was around for an impressive eight seasons, as well as Boston Legal and Damages, which enjoyed a lifespan of five seasons, corroborates this statement. That is not forgetting The Good Wife, now in its fourth instalment; Suits, which has been given the nod for season three; and The Fixer (aka Scandal) getting the green light for a follow-on series.
The latest trend among Hollywood’s writers is to put über-sexy actresses in power suits and have them call the shots in a fictional world where politics and the law share a notoriously incestuous relationship.
While the modus operandi works brilliantly for Gina Torres in Suits – her wealth of experience notwithstanding – I found Kerry Washington’s lead role in The Fixer to be a more watered down version.
The saving grace – well, certainly the bait – is the fact that the latter is penned by Shonda Rhimes. Hopefully, as it progresses, viewers will get to experience the masterful storyteller she is known to be, and Washington’s irresolute character will redeem herself at some point.
Interestingly, the story is partially inspired by the life of co-executive producer Judy Smith, who worked as a press aide for the George HW Bush administration.
Expanding on that, Washington says: “I’m very, very blessed that Judy is a producer on the show, and she’s very hands on. She’s been tremendously important for all of us – the writers and the actors – in helping us understand this world and the strategic thinking that goes into it all. Olivia, however, is very different from Judy. For example, Judy never had an inappropriate relationship with the president of the United States.”
The 35-year-old actress admits that she does confer with Smith a lot, especially when her tough-as-nails character undergoes vulnerable moments.
She continues: “Professionally, we have it figured out. I mean, Olivia is often the smartest person in the room. Her professional life is in position. Her personal life is a mess and she is not who she portrays in the outside world. I think we all can relate to that – we all have a game face. That was something that excited me about the character. Wrapping my head around those contradictions and making both sides of this woman very real.”
To put viewers in the picture, Pope used to be the White House communications director. Now she runs Olivia Pope and Associates, a crisis management agency, with a doggedness that ensures her victory with her high-profile cases.
A big part of the story is centred on Pope’s romantic relationship with Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III, the president of the US.
Tony Goldwyn gets to fill those big shoes and sheds light on how he came to be involved in the show.
He laughs: “I received a call saying Shonda would like me to play the president. And I heard that Kerry Washington was going to be involved. Before I even read the script, I knew if Shonda and Kerry were doing something together, I had to be a part of it, because Kerry, and I have told her many times, every single time I see Kerry in a movie, I would sometimes find myself going, ‘Who is this amazing actress in that part?’ She transforms herself in every single thing that she does. She has been one of my absolute favourite actresses for a few years now. And then I read the script and felt that a gift from God had fallen in my lap.”
And for Washington, too, it was a no-brainer when she got the script.
She says: “I never met these amazing women, but I had been a fan from afar. I also was not particularly looking to do television, but I was sent this script. I was told it was by Shonda, which is sort of synonymous with brilliant. And I just fell in love with the script. There was a point when I was reading it where I threw it across the room because I couldn’t believe how invested I was in this woman and these circumstances – and I was only halfway through.”
On deviating from her usual genre, Rhimes says: “Well, you know me, it’s just part of an evolution as a writer. Getting to meet Judy was amazing. Betsy (Beers) kept saying: ‘You have to meet her.’ I did and it was amazing, and coming up with the idea and figuring out if it was going to work was great.
“I feel this is the best work I’ve ever done just because it’s me having grown up as a writer. I learnt to write television writing Grey’s Anatomy. I practised it every day for the eight years I’ve done Grey’s and for the five years I’ve done Private Practice. This was a chance to do something completely new, completely different, without even worrying about what people were going to think of it.”
While Washington finds her foothold in television with this breakthrough role, the snags with the characterisations and subplots need fixing. But Rhimes has written her way to fame before, so perhaps she will surprise us once again.
The Fixer, M-Net (DStv channel 101), Tuesdays, 8.30pm.