Part 1: Dream Teams
These writer-and-actor duos bring our favorite female characters to life
Shonda Rhimes & Kerry Washington
With Grey’s Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes proved she’s a master at writing women who are fiercely independent but also funny and vulnerable. With her latest creation, Scandal‘s Olivia Pope (played by the incomparable Kerry Washington), Rhimes adds ”thrillingly intimidating” and ”almost absurdly sexy” to that mix. EW talked to Rhimes, 43, and Washington, 35, about our new favorite fixer on ABC. —Lynette Rice
I understand you considered many women for the role of Olivia.
I felt like we had a responsibility to see whoever wanted to come in, anybody who had a certain reputation.
My agent said, ”It’s almost as if Shonda Rhimes wrote this script for you.” TV wasn’t really on the table for me. I had explored the idea of doing something on cable. But nothing had come along until this.
After I cast you, a lot of showrunners came up to me and said, ”You got her! She was on the top of our list!”
I remember Shonda asking me, ”Do you think you are up for this kind of commitment?” TV is so different.
I remember her walking in, this very luminous movie star, and I was thinking, ”Ooh, she’s fabulous, but how is she gonna feel about doing this?” We really talked about what it meant. But she got it. Kerry is incredibly smart.
This role is based on real D.C. crisis manager Judy Smith, who is African-American. Was it important that Olivia be black too?
That’s part of what made Judy’s job unique and interesting. There was something about it that spoke to me.
When did you decide Olivia was going to have an affair with the president, played by Tony Goldwyn?
I knew what the pilot was when I decided she was sleeping with the president. For a long time I thought, ”What’s the hook that’s going to keep me fully invested?” [Turning to Washington] Originally, the president was her father. He was much older…which made it much less interesting.
Oh, wow! And she worked for him?
She didn’t work for him at all. She worked in New York City and she flew to Washington to do jobs. Her father had her under surveillance. That was pretty much it.
Not as sexy.
It wasn’t as sexy, and frankly it felt depressing and kind of weird.
It’s a shippers’ show now!
I don’t know about that. It’s a show in which you long for these two characters to be together, but it’s also a show in which them being together is all kinds of wrong.
Michelle King & Julianna Margulies
The Good Wife
While watching Silda Spitzer stand by her disgraced husband, Eliot, at a press conference back in 2008, Good Wife co-creator Michelle King turned to her husband and fellow co-creator, Robert, and said, ”What happens next? What do they say to each other in the greenroom?” The creation of that next resides in the minds (and keyboards) of the Kings and of Emmy winner Julianna Margulies, who continues to bring a subdued ferocity to Alicia Florrick. We spoke to King, 50, and Margulies, 46, about developing, and course-correcting? Alicia through four seasons on CBS.—Jessica Shaw
There’s a tremendous amount of female energy on our show — Michelle, [exec producer] Brooke Kennedy, myself. I know when I hear Michelle’s voice in Alicia. She’s so immaculate with her wording and she thinks before she answers. I wish I could be Alicia in real life.
Robert and I work very much together in terms of writing. But do I feel Alicia Florrick from the inside out? Yes, I feel incredibly connected to that character.
Nine times out of 10 we don’t even discuss a script. But one thing I disagreed with [the Kings] on was the Kalinda story line. They wanted us to get back and be friends in the next season, and I disagreed. They said, ”The show is taking a hit because people like seeing them together,” and I said, ”That’s too bad.” That’s also part of being a team. We compromised.
There is no one we respect more than Julianna in terms of the truth of the character. It’s fascinating to have these conversations of how would Alicia feel and get past it. She’s had to get past certain things in her marriage, though she does fall backwards. Is it the same trajectory with Kalinda? It’s played out more tentatively than we originally conceived. All of us are trying to remain true to Alicia’s psyche.
Claire Danes & Meredith Stiehm
Writer Meredith Stiehm, 44, has similarities to Homeland‘s CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes, 33): Both work in male-dominated places (Stiehm is the Showtime drama’s sole female writer), and both have personal connections to bipolar disorder (Stiehm’s sister, like Carrie, suffers from the condition). The fusion of the writer’s words and Danes’ Emmy-winning performance has led to some of the series’ most acclaimed hours, including season 2’s ”New Car Smell,” where Carrie finally confronted Brody. The pair talked to EW about collaborating to shape TV’s most complicated heroine.—Tim Stack
[Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon] created the character and the show. Around episode 4, they realized that there were all male writers and they had a female lead, so they wanted a female writer. I know [exec producer] Chip Johannessen from my 90210 days. He called and said, ”I’m working on this really cool cable show — do you want to join?” I saw the pilot and I was like, ”Yeah, I want to join!”
With the mania material we were all very anxious to get that right because we didn’t want to misrepresent the community. Obviously Meredith had a lot of direct experience with it. I had done a fair amount of research. I was so relieved when I read ”The Vest” because her articulation of it was so in line with what I had picked up in my research. It seemed incredibly authentic.
[”The Vest”] is when she had her manic break. Chip wrote the [Brody] side, and I wrote the [Carrie side]. It was so fun to write — and so fun to watch Claire go with it.
Meredith is incredible. She has a very wry sensibility that’s so in keeping with who Carrie is. But she also is very warm and feeling, and all of that translates into her work. I owe an enormous amount to Meredith.
Zooey Deschanel & Liz Meriwether
Combine Zooey Deschanel’s desire to play more than ”the girlfriend” with writer Liz Meriwether’s gift for making absurd humor out of messy lives, and you get Jess, the woman at the center of Fox’s hit New Girl. Now in season 2, the show and the character continue to evolve, with Meriwether and her writers finding inspiration from the 33-year-old actress’ chemistry and improvisation with her stellar castmates Max Greenfield, Jake Johnson, and Lamorne Morris. ”Whenever we’ve followed what the actors are doing,” says Meriwether, 31, ”it has always led us to a better place.”—Jeff Jensen
Jess started as a version of me. I was dating this guy. We were friends with this other couple, and then both couples broke up. Our exes started dating, and I befriended the other guy, who became this alpha-male friend in my life who told me what’s what, and I needed that. I was a mess. A flaky, crazy- disorganized mess. Which makes me a great showrunner, by the way.
I totally connected with [New Girl’s] sense of humor. I also loved the emotions, because a lot of times people are scared of female emotions. And I’m like: Go with that! What I loved about Jess was that she was lovable because she was well-meaning but always seemed to miss the mark.
It’s great that the network lets me write to the flaws in the characters, because that’s where the comedy is. The first pilot I wrote was like an early Girls. There was an inability to understand that women could be different things at once. There was a lot of network pressure for ”This is the smart one, this is the dumb one…” A lot has changed, and I don’t have to explain all that. But Zooey has done such a great job of letting the character grow. By the end of the first season Jess became tougher as a result of living with these three guys.
In some ways I feel like I have changed by working with the guys. My sense of humor has gotten a lot bluer.
When you first started, you weren’t used to doing physical comedy.
Well, no one would let me do physical comedy. When you’re playing people’s girlfriends all the time, crossing your arms and bewildering looks is about the extent of your physicality. But I love physical comedy. It’s something I loved as a kid. I would watch Three’s Company all the time, and I loved Jack Tripper so much. But I never got to do it until this show.
When you find new skills that an actor can do, that’s an exciting moment. It’s almost like a game we play. I will put a parenthetical for Zooey to do a voice, like ”sad old woman” or ”Southern flunky,” and she’ll do a completely different thing.
That’s another fun thing people wouldn’t let me do. They’d say, ”We want your normal voice. Just do you.” But I have so many voices to do! I am bored by me! Give me a voice!