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After such a heartbreaking start to the season, Mellie’s finally on the path to achieving what we’ve set up since season two. Did Shonda tell you at the beginning of the season, “She’s going to be miserable, but just wait and you’ll see”?
No, no, Sarah, no. We never know. We find something out when we sit down at the table read — which happens at lunch the day before we start shooting — but we also get rewrites all through the episode. And it can change day to day. So, nooooo, I had no idea. And coming back I had a little [bit of a] hard time finding the tone of “Smelly Mellie,” and Shonda was so helpful with that. But it’s all very this is what you’re doing in the moment. It’s sort of like life, though, you know: You just meet it in the moment in the best way you know how, and then the next moment brings new information. So it’s sort of helpful as an actor, so you’re not foreshadowing anything, because we genuinely have no idea. In fact, we shoot so much more material than winds up in the 44 minutes that we can air. Like Shonda’s final cut is her final draft. So we often don’t even know when we sit down to watch the show what will have made it in. And it’s not real unless it airs. So we have a lot of different story lines in our heads that we just have to sort of forget because it can’t be the history of the show.
You’ve always played Mellie with so much fire, but how have you adjusted the way that you play her now that things are really coming together for her?
It’s been fun of late to be in a kinder, gentler place with Fitz. There’s been that modulation, to not be constantly on guard, walk[ing] around the halls of the White House waiting to fight with someone. Instead, Mellie and Fitz have sort of been allied. So that’s given [me] just a tiny little exhale. Then there’s also the sweeping protocol of learning how to be a candidate, which has added a little formality. But it’s such a blessing to have a job where you never know what you’re gonna be asked to play, and to always be trying to figure out some other little part of your own humanity and how you’d meet a moment. I love it!
Speaking of Fitz, he’s really gone a long way towards redeeming himself because he’s so for Mellie. How do you think her relationship with him has grown? Do you think they could be divorced friends after her, you know, presidential win?
I don’t know if I’d go that far! I think Mellie loves him too much to be a comfortable divorcée. Kennahara, pooh-pooh-pooh, may it never happen. But I definitely do think Mellie’s mind is ever-expanding in terms of how much compromise she can agree to. So I think those first few years in office she was still very much fighting against the straitjacket of the White House, all the “how to be a proper First Lady” and “how to be a wife who is being cheated on” and “how to be in public and how to feel in private.” But I think, golly, I feel like they could be successful as partners, and she could resign herself to that, but I don’t know that she would go sort of quietly into the dark night of divorce.
What kind of real-life examples are you playing off of when you are giving Mellie’s campaign speeches, as an actress?
You know, I have been so fortunate in my lifetime to see great speakers. And I’m also handed beautiful words. Shonda is a very aural writer. I think she says the lines out loud as she writes them. Consequently, there’s a cadence and a poetry to her writing, a rhythm. She’s very fond of alliteration, things always come in threes, like the gerunds always match. You can tell who writes different characters in different episodes, and when you get given a speech that Shonda’s written, you almost only have to read it once. The emotional topography is that solid, and your body drinks it in like water. And you really just have to get yourself out of the way and let the speech back out. But then you also, you know, you’re playing a politician, so you think of watching Bill Clinton speak, watching Hillary Clinton speak. I think Michelle Obama is an incredible speaker. Barack is a little subdued for Mellie, but we’ve had in my lifetime such gorgeous, shining examples that you pull little bits from everything.
So, back to Fitz. One of the things that has been interesting about the story line this season is how Mellie, specifically in her Senate run, navigates the dynamic of how separate and how close she wants to be to her husband in terms of the public eye. What has it been like to play that dynamic?
I feel like this week’s episode is a beautiful demonstration of that exact dilemma. A young female naval officer is raped and, of course, that’s a subject very close to Mellie’s experience. But she’s also sort of hamstrung by the protocol of the White House and having to defer to the naval command to handle it on the inside. But she also has a responsibility to possibly her future public as a candidate to move the conversation forward. For me, it was a really exciting episode to find my way through, because it’s her grappling with that, about how to use her voice, when to use her voice, what do you stand up for, what compromises do you make for, a little bit further in the future, to gain a little ground. But yes, I feel like one of the deepest conflicts Mellie faces is being such a capable human, but having to be wrapped inside a woman’s body and what it means to people to have that filter of womanhood between you and your abilities in this life. And it’s really been fun. It’s certainly something that is frequently frustrating to me personally, so it’s been a real gift to get to have the arena of my work to also be exploring it in.
Olivia’s obviously representing the naval officer, so are we going to get a good Mellivia scene?
[Laughs.] I can’t speak to that. I think that’s something they’d kill me for.
But in terms of Mellie and Olivia, Mellie has had an obviously rocky relationship with Olivia, but she was really ride-or-die for Olivia when she got kidnapped. So do you think that Mellie is more Team Olivia now? Do you think she is more accepting of her and her help?
It’s so funny ’cause I feel like the White House can be such a lonely place. And Olivia and Mellie are so alike. Kerry and I talk about this a lot. We constantly mourn the friendship that could have been between them. So I think particularly, like … that speech [in] that episode, “Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington” … Cynthia Stevenson [played a mom and] her son had died, and she strapped a bomb to her body and Olivia didn’t die. And [there was] that first great Drunk Mellie speech where [Fitz] was like, “I’m sure you wish she was dead.” And I was like, “Oh, honey, no! If she died she’d be a saint in your eyes, and I’d have to live with that forever.” So I think the same thing when she was kidnapped: No, Mellie doesn’t want actual harm to come to Olivia. Mellie just wants Fitz to fall out of love with Olivia. So I think the combination of Fitz being really a partner to her right now and really an ally and Olivia being in trouble, of course she’d move mountains to save her. I think there really is great love, it’s just also immense jealousy. We’re never wearing our best colors when we’re jealous of somebody.
You mean immense love between Olivia and Mellie?
I do. I really do. I mean, certainly inordinate respect. I mean, when they have been a team, they are formidable. It’s just this horrible fact that they both love the same man. And life is complicated that way. It doesn’t make anybody a hero or anybody a villain. Your heart makes those decisions. You don’t decide in your brain, unless you’re a really evil human, to go and fall in love with someone who’s already in love with someone else. But it doesn’t negate everything else that’s going on.
So I keep pushing towards this, and I feel like you’re probably going to say no because you’re definitely saying that Mellie is so in love with Fitz, but someone tweeted recently, “ Why don’t Mellie and Olivia just kick Fitz out and start running things” …
I saw that tweet, too! I totally saw that tweet! I don’t think I responded to it because I was like, “Oh, I don’t know what to say to that,” but it gave me an enormous smile. Who would ever kick Fitz out? Who doesn’t love our Fitz and our sweet Tony Goldwyn? But you know, I mean, truly, if you think about it, Olivia and Mellie: It’s an unstoppable combination.
Do you think that Mellie would ever accept Olivia helping her run for president?
Oh, I do. I think absolutely. Again, I know Mellie knows that Olivia is the best in her field. And I know Mellie’s a very pragmatic human. She’d have to take the temperature of where Fitz and Olivia were emotionally and how much of a compromise she was willing to make in terms of a risk to her heart. But golly, I think anybody that had the chance to get Olivia Pope to help them do anything would be a fool to walk away from it. And, you know, Mellie’s no fool.
One thing that’s interesting about Fitz is that he’s such an idealized Republican. We know Mellie is pro-gun, but we also know that she is pro–gay marriage, so where do you think she falls on the political spectrum?
[Laughs.] Mellie is more of a Republican than Fitz is. Mellie’s just less attached to a time-capsule notion of Republicanism, and definitely more attuned to adapting to now and looking towards the future. It’s still a very conservative point of view, or it seems to be, anyway, but she’s just not in any way handicapped by being too dug into tradition. Like the turnaround to gay marriage, she’s able to adapt. What Shonda does so beautifully is keep people complicated. It’s just messy like life is messy. Like when Dick Cheney’s daughter came out, he couldn’t be so monstrously anti-gay because he loves someone who’s gay. And that truth and knowledge is what melts away the ignorant bias, right? So I really also feel Mellie keeps turning her dial because she really wants this so much. She’s always wanted to be in the White House but, you know, as president. She is where she [wants to be], but she’s also a million miles away from actually the post that she wants to be in. But she keeps listening because it matters to her, all of the stuff matters. So she keeps being open to evolving. I think that’s where she and Fitz sort of diverge.
So in terms of campaigning, why isn’t she using her actual baby?
Who knows! Who knows what the future will bring! I agree with you that that is a tremendous tool, to be sort of evenhanded with it. If I wanted to be sort of more colored with my language, I would say “weapon in the arsenal” of campaigning. But our writers, they never miss a trick, so I suspect you and I will see that come to play.
I’m such a big fan of Mellie. Am I going to cry in this episode?
Let me think about [it]. I think you will be profoundly moved on Thursday night, but I think it’s the finale that will gut you. And again, I just went to ADR and something has already changed. Something that happened now is not happening and so we had to change a line. So I genuinely … don’t rely on what I’m saying! But from my experience of living it and shooting it, yeah, I’d say [tonight’s episode] is gonna be amazing. It’s a really beautiful episode. But the finale you’re gonna need the summer to get over. I know I will.
Do you have any other teasers for tonight’s episode?
My big teaser is just keep your eye on Lizzie.