On February 27, there is a good chance that many of your friends, relatives, and colleagues suddenly became completely unreachable (unless you’re using #Scandal on Twitter). Then again, if you call yourself a Gladiator, you were probably that friend, relative or colleague. Darby Stanchfield—who plays the over-a-cliff-style Gladiator on ABC’s Scandal—may be on one of television’s biggest shows right now, but the Alaskan native has been on a “slow grind” for years. There’s a reason that amongst killers, dirty politicians and “winged mistresses flying too close to the sun,” Abby Whelan is still a force to be reckoned with, and that reason is Darby Stanchfield. She is the definition of seasoned actor, having moved from live theatre to shows like NCIS, Castle and Mad Men. (She played Helen Bishop, divorcée extraordinaire and probably the first feminist on the show.). She’s someone who watches a reality series about one of the world’s most dangerous jobs, and is reminded of her own childhood on the Aleutian Islands (true story). Three seasons in, a noticeable new look, and her own special man-boo, Abby Whelan is still as tough as nails. Paste recently caught up with Stanchfield about life before Scandal, and we even managed to get some light spoilers about the sure-to-be explosive upcoming spring season.
Paste: The Scandal spring premiere was on the 27th. Were you guys as excited as all of the fans?
Stanchfield: We were! We all met at Jeff Perry’s house [Perry plays Cyrus Beene] to check out the first episode and to prepare for live tweeting. We always try to get together ahead of time. So yeah, we were so excited. We really look forward to live tweeting with everybody.
Paste: So what was it like for you the first time you ever read a Scandal script?
Stanchfield: Wow. Well, I got the script during pilot season, and you typically read a lot of scripts during pilot season. I just remember I couldn’t put it down. I read it straight through—I think I read it twice in a row. I just remember it being like this really, really good dessert that you just inhale because you can’t put it down. It was electric. I knew that I was being considered for Abby, and I was drawn to this character. I’m really attracted to playing strong, outspoken, sassy women. And I love playing characters who have a little bit of conflict, or who can be controversial.
Stanchfield: I was also really drawn to how specific the characters in the Scandal script were. Especially those in Olivia Pope & Associates—these stray dog Gladiators that she’d assembled and their quirks and the relationships between those people. It was the first pilot I’d auditioned for that season, and it left a huge impression on me. I remember feeling like I knew exactly who Abby was. I could see it in my head. I could feel it. It felt natural.
Paste: That’s so true. Now, can we please take a moment to talk about that one scene between you and David Rosen (Josh Malina), when you had your fingers in his mouth?! I read that you improvised it.
Stanchfield: No, that’s not true. What happened was, we did a table read and that scene was not in the script. And—true story—Shonda Rhimes pulls me aside after the read and she says, “Darby, I really think Abby needs to have her way with David.” (laughs)
Paste: Yes, yes, yes.
Stanchfield: And I said, “I Love it! Go for it.” In the original script, she shows up at his house, they have this long, ya know … thing … and then she leaves. So Shonda went home, wrote the new scene, and sent it me that night. We shot it the next day. And every action in that scene she’d written. It was a full page of action without a single word. So all I did to prepare was do it over, and over, and over again. I also sort of prepared my own inner monologue for Abby because there was so much going on in that scene. I said to Shonda and to the director that it reminded me of the Mona Lisa, in that everyone was going to see something different. And on Twitter, sure enough, people had so many different reactions to what that was, and I love that there weren’t any words so it was really up to the viewer to interpret it. So what you saw in terms of the order—me taking his glasses off, and slapping him really hard, and then putting my fingers in his mouth (laughs)—I still remember the order! We did it exactly the way she said.
Paste: Well it was brilliant and very arresting. I won’t soon forget it. You have a unique position on Scandal, as the only Gladiator who occasionally questions the Olivia Pope. Sometimes Quinn has her moments, but you really challenge Olivia. You challenge everybody. To me, Abby reflects the premise of the show, where everything from our traditional ideals of romance, to our misconceptions about American politics is to be questioned.
Paste: You guys have tackled civil liberties, race issues, class issues, sexuality, and there was that powerful episode where we learned about Mellie’s sexual abuse. Your character is also a survivor of abuse. All of this inspires great discussions online among fans of the show. As a cast, do you all ever, amongst yourselves, get into greater discussions about these issues?
Stanchfield: Oh sure. We do amongst ourselves, and we especially try to do so with our fans on Twitter.
And the writers specifically have written Abby as the one to question things. She’s not only the questioner, but she’s also the sort of moral compass of the show. She sees things a little more black and white, and she will definitely speak out against something or for something. I think it’s also interesting that Abby’s never killed anyone … yet (laughs). She’s really sort of one of a few where we haven’t found out anything crazy about her. I know people have their moments where they’re like, “Oh, there goes Abby questioning things again,” and I get the perpetual eye roll from the Gladiators when they’re in character. But I really like that there’s someone on the show who questions things aloud. Our audience is questioning things, and I think it adds to the discussion. And the audience is questioning Olivia, too!
Paste: Yes. I mean I love Olivia Pope, but she can also be an infuriating character. So I like that someone’s there to call her out on certain things.
Stanchfield: It’s a fascinating premise. That this lead crisis manager whose job is to fix things is so cloudy about her own personal life. She’s caught up in a personal mess. She will have a moment of clarity about how much she loves Fitz in one episode, and then in the next it’s, “I’m gonna quit you and protect myself.” So the writers and Shonda have tackled so much and created a lot of grey areas.
Paste: Now I already know that you’re not going to tell me very much about the remaining episodes for season three, but I’m gonna go ahead and ask for some teeny, tiny morsels about the rest of the spring season. Please?
Stanchfield: Sure! I’ll give you a few nuggets. We’ve shot about five new episodes already so it’s hard to remember exactly what happens in that first one, but I can say that in this second half of the season, for those that have been dying to find out who Harrison is, there are some great, great story lines that starts to roll out for Columbus Short. Fans are going to be on the edge of their seats. And Abby is right there questioning him left and right about his past, about what he’s doing in his present. You also see Mellie, the First Lady, get into some hot water. She’s already sort of entangled in the President’s mess, so on top of the president’s drama and her relationship with him, there’s an added story line for her and she’s dealing with her own sense of what it means to be a woman. So she’s got some pretty hot stuff coming up.