ABOVE: DARBY STANCHFIELD IN CHARACTER AS ABBY WHELAN ON SCANDAL. PHOTO COURTESY OF DANNY FELD/ABC
In just a year and a half, ABC’s Scandal has blossomed from a fun and punchy—but mostly by-the-numbers—political procedural into the proud bearer of the laurels of TV’s most consistently, jaw-droppingly, gleefully, unbelievably batshit crazy show. Its creator, Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy) and writers play a game of shock chicken with the audience, and they always win: just when you think the stakes can’t get any higher—as when, to cite a spoiler as an example, a character attempts to rip out her own radial artery with her teeth—somehow they do, and suddenly (spoiler, again), another character is secretly pimping out his husband to the Vice-President’s closeted husband. These two things happen in the same episode.
No matter how out-there the show gets, though, its actors always manage to keep the drama grounded in tenable, and often heartbreaking, human emotion. The show’s female performances are especially strong: Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope, a Washington fixer whose mantle of steely resolve is impenetrable, until it isn’t; Bellamy Young‘s Mellie Grant, a First Lady by turns sympathetic and Machiavellian; Darby Stanchfield’s Abby Whelan, an investigator at Olivia’s firm whose professionalism, like Olivia’s, conceals a past rife with trauma. (And a present ripe with drama: Abby’s on-again, off-again relationship with Assistant U.S. Attorney David Rosen, and the murky legal implications that arise when his job intersects with hers, is one of the show’s most relatable elements.)
We spoke with Stanchfield, an Alaskan-born, conservatory-trained actress, in advance of the show’s winter finale this evening.
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: I’m a huge fan of Scandal—I’m sure you must get that a lot. It’s crazy to think how much has happened over the course of 18 months on air.
DARBY STANSHFIELD: Well, first of all, it’s never tiring to hear that someone is loving Scandal, because that just means we get a little bit more job security, maybe, unless someone gets killed off. It felt like a bit of a journey for us—we were a midseason placement, and we shot the first season, which is seven episodes, and then we waited almost a year before it was even aired. That was kind of a solid start, but not an overnight hit. It didn’t really pick up crazy momentum until halfway into season two.
SYMONDS: Abby is an especially good audience surrogate because although she’s very smart and very skilled at her job, she also has these human moments—you can imagine her being a regular person on earth.
STANCHFIELD: Yeah. There’s kind of an offbeat quality about her, something that makes her more human. I think part of that is because Abby doesn’t totally trust her gut, and she’s a little bit of a mess in her personal life. So I think, although she’s a superwoman at picking locks and breaking into places and figuring clues out and bullying people to get information, there is this side of Abby that’s maybe not figured it all out, when it comes to her personal life. She has a good gut, but she doesn’t always trust it, because she came from an abusive marriage, she had an ex-husband who beat her. She’s also discovering this sexual expression, and she’s a little bit in the closet with that, except with David. I think that makes her kind of interesting and not your regular investigator. She’s also kind of got this little kinky side.
SYMONDS: Yeah, and her relationship with David feels true to life. Olivia and Fitz are this big-time will-they-won’t-they-couple in a way that’s more outsized and dramatic. With Abby and David, we all know that couple, who just can’t seem to get it together for more than three weeks at a time—but at the same time, you know how deeply they feel about each other.
STANCHFIELD: Yeah, they seem to be a really good fit in a really unpredictable way. When the story first broke, when you first see them hook up in season two, none of us in the cast saw it coming. None of us. We do these table reads where we get the script and do a cold read and we turned to that page, I think it was the very end of that episode, and suddenly David and Abby were in bed together and it was just this shocking moment: What, these two really hooked up?!
SYMONDS: How did you and Josh Malina react at that table read? What was the look that you guys exchanged?
STANCHFIELD: I think I turned red, and he might have too. We both had our jaws open. Yet, it makes sense to me. As much as it was surprising, it was like, “Yeah, I can totally see these two being together.” It just works, and going back to what you said about them being that couple that people can identify with. They both kind of come from the school of hard knocks—Abby, in past relationships, but Dave, professionally, he keeps getting a job and losing a job, getting a job and losing a job. He’s kind of been out on his luck yet through out the ups and downs of life, they find a little bit of solace with each other, or they try to. It’s really fun how the writers are trying to make them be a normal couple this year. Although they’re not ever totally normal, it’s fun to see them try. How could they be, exactly?
SYMONDS: Do you guys anticipate the table reads as much as the audience anticipates new episodes of the show?
STANCHFIELD: We do. Typically right when I get a new episode, I’m a hundred percent, fully thinking about that particular story and how we are going to execute it and what’s Abby—just sort of crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s in terms of how to say these words and the intention behind it and all of that. So I’d say about three-quarters of the way through, I start really craving the next episode: What’s going to happen next? And not only for my character. It might have to do with Operation Remington, or what’s going on with the voting card that was stolen, or different scandals or plot points through out the season.
SYMONDS: It’s insane how many balls are kept in the air at the same time—just when you’ve been focusing your attention on three different storylines, this fourth one pops up that you’ve completely forgot about.
STANCHFIELD: I also love the way that the storylines aren’t wrapped up with a bow, always. Like, you know, Billy Chambers just kind of disappeared after he killed Gideon with the scissors, and he almost got caught, and he just sort of goes away. I love that the story ines aren’t always just resolved down to the last second. At any moment, any of those characters or storylines could come back.
SYMONDS: I’m not sure exactly how old Abby is supposed to be; do you have an age in mind for her?
STANCHFIELD: Oh, that’s really funny. When I went to test for the role, they were clearly seeing one type of actress. She was written as being round, knits a lot, has a lot of cats, and is in her late 20s, and maybe really cheery. I think they sort of expanded their possibilities. Shonda says that she really literally writes a character description because the network needs one, and that’s the only reason she writes it, but when someone walks in the room, she knows when she sees the character. So she said when I walked in the room she knew. I think of Abby as being somewhere in her mid-to-late 30s—she’s been married before, she’s got to be around Olivia’s age because they went to college together. But they haven’t really specified exactly what age, and it hasn’t really seemed to be an issue.
SYMONDS: Do you ever feel a sort of protective impulse towards her? I would imagine it’s really easy, playing that character, to really love her and want her to be happy and succeed and not make these kinds of mistakes. Do you ever feel like you’re wiser than she is?
STANCHFIELD: [laughs] Wow. I would certainly say I feel wiser than her in many situations. Sometimes I’ve been wanting to take Abby’s side and be like “Abby, relax. Come on. That’s how it goes.” But there will also be, sometimes, a touch of innocence or naïveté every once in awhile; she’ll turn to Harrison and be like, “So what’s the deal with men? Is this how they really are?” As an actor, I actually enjoy the fact that she’s not all together.
I relate to Abby more as an actor than I do as a viewer. With the White House side of the show, I almost feel like I’m watching a different TV show, because we really very rarely have scenes together. I maybe have more viewer-like thoughts about Mellie and Olivia and Fitz and that whole thing. But when it comes to Abby, I’m really connected to her as an actor, and for me it’s fun to play her all messed up, and it’s fun that she has moments of victory and moments where she stumbles and steps back. Sometimes she does mess up professionally, and Olivia wants to have her head, because Abby’s personal history blinds her to the fact that they need to be doing their job. She typically sympathizes with a woman in the situation, whether they have a horrible husband or they’re being put in a politically arranged marriage. [laughs] She’s taking a little of her personal agenda and sprinkling that into the case, and that’s not so good, professionally. But I kind of like her just the way she is. Honestly—we just got done filming episode 10—she’s probably one of the most normal people, right now, in Olivia Pope & Associates, and that’s all right, but I also know that there’s an expiration date on that, like: My time’s coming.
SYMONDS: Is there anything about Abby’s backstory or any kind of narrative threads about the character that have been brought up and been dormant for awhile, that you want to sink your teeth into?
STANCHFIELD: Oh sure. You know just recently—episode four of season three—David Rosen invites Abby to the Correspondents’ Dinner, and she hems and haws and she lies about being out of town to surprise him…
SYMONDS: That dress was the best, by the way.
STANCHFIELD: Yeah! And then she gets the Ralph Lauren dress. But he says, “Oh, why didn’t you tell me your ex-husband was at the Correspondents’ Dinner?” Ever since that was written, I have been yearning for the moment that Abby confronts her ex-husband.
SYMONDS: Oh, totally.
STANCHFIELD: And what that would look like! And maybe even some of that backstory, because there’s only two or three things that I really know about Abby. One, she was in a marriage where he was incredibly abusive to her, and that she would have gotten killed if Olivia didn’t remove her from that situation. Secondly, it was a prearranged political marriage. And thirdly, Abby was clearly a really skilled baker, because all she did was bake as soon as she got out of that divorce. She was like baking cookies and scones at Olivia’s apartment. But really when it comes to the first two, of being in an abusive, deadly, kind of dangerous relationship, and also being in a politically arranged marriage, I have all kinds of questions about that. Who put her in that, was it Olivia, what kind of woman was Abby to agree to be in an arranged marriage, what was she getting out of it. And clearly she was just a much, much different woman. I mean if that proposition was ever given to Abby [now] she would laugh in someone’s face, she’d be like, “Are you kidding me?”
SYMONDS: Even within the timeline of the show, it seems like Abby’s been doing some growing up. You’re styled differently this season: the hair is different; she’s learned how to do a smoky eye.
STANCHFIELD: Yes, there’s definitely been an evolution. I’d say that’s one of Abby’s biggest evolutions, is her fashion sense and her style—and all that does is reflect Abby’s growing confidence, and the fact that she’s fallen in love again, she’s opened up to a man. I used to think of Abby’s style, in the first season and a half, as really being like she was hiding behind layers of clothes; and her hair almost felt like a curtain, she could put her head down and it would just fall right in front of her face. It was really this kind of, “Don’t look at me, I’m not available.” That’s what it felt like wearing that hairstyle and that light of makeup and that fashion, and as Abby’s gone along now she’s a little bit like, “Look at me, look at me!” She spends a little more time in front of the mirror, getting dressed in the morning. So it’s all been intentional. It’s certainly in my mind, and it certainly comes up with every new scene that Abby has. It’s been really fun for me.
THE WINTER FINALE OF SCANDAL AIRS TONIGHT AT 10 PM ON ABC.