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, you were born and raised in Kodiak, Alaska, right?
Stanchfield: I was born in Kodiak, and I was raised in a place called Dutch Harbor out on the Aleutian Islands. There’s a show called the Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel. And they film it on Dutch Harbor where I grew up.
Paste: So you have lots of flashbacks when you’re watching the show.
Stanchfield: Oh yeah! My dad was a crab fisherman.
Paste: So how did you get drawn to theatre from that kind of environment?
Stanchfield: (laughs) As a kid, we had one television channel and a sad little roller rink. And there was not much else to do. So I used my imagination all of the time growing up. That’s the main way I played. When we moved and I went to high school, I did my first play and I was completely addicted to theatre. It felt like home; it felt natural. It was really what I’d been doing with my sister and my friends in Alaska.
And then it was just a really slow grind. I went to college and did theatre. After that, I spent about three years in Seattle doing French theater and community theater and sorting it all out. Then I applied to graduate school and got accepted, so I started pursuing my Masters in theatre at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. It’s a pretty prestigious program. They have a great program showcase set up in New York, but after that I decided that I was more of a West Coast girl. When I moved to Los Angeles, I was straight out of grad school, and I didn’t have a single credit to my name. I knew one person in town—another actor whose name is John Billingsley. I just had to audition, and audition and audition. I was plugging away for 15 years. So I earned my stripes!
Paste: Now, everyone I know remembers and can describe in perfect detail exactly how they felt when they first fell in love with Scandal. A reader for another site I write for told us that she binge-watched 15 episodes one day. She’s a lawyer and she almost missed her court date.
Stanchfield: OMG I love it!
Paste: It was hilarious.
Stanchfield: That’s fantastic! I mean, not that she almost missed court. But we love to hear stories like that.
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: I have to bring up your role as Helen Bishop on Mad Men. I was re-watching that birthday episode earlier, and I just love that scene where the women are accusing you of walking all over the neighborhood alone. You have this great moment where you try to tell them that you’re just walking with no particular destination in mind, and you heard that Einstein did it, and it’s probably the most feminist statement we’d heard on the show at that point.
Stanchfield: (laughs) Yes! Again—another character who’s really strong and subversive. I had the same experience with Helen Bishop as I did with Abby, where I just immediately got a sense of her rhythm. But she’s a lot smoother, and the show is more slow-paced—there’s this sophistication to it.
Paste: It was a great scene and it made me think of some of my favorite Abby zingers from Scandal. There was that “Beltway Unbuckled” episode where you were like, “Let the slut-shaming begin!”
Stanchfield: (laughs) Yeah!
Paste: You’ve been acting for some time now. Do you see a change in roles for women or in the portrayal of women on television?
Stanchfield: Well, I don’t know that I’ve seen a radical change. I do feel like in the last 15 years there’s been a lot more quality television appealing to both men and women, specifically with cable TV. And then with Hulu and Netflix, there are more places for content. It feels like a real golden age for television in terms of the writing and the production value, and the actresses that these projects are attracting. Within that, I do think there are some amazing opportunities for women. It’s really exciting to be a part of the show that celebrates strong women characters and where women are really at the center. Between Olivia Pope and all of the others, there’s not one wallflower woman on the show.
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.
Paste: This is awesome.
Stanchfield: So there are lots of areas where the show is starting to expand, even as we deal with the usual scandals. And then there’s Fitz’s re-election coming up.
Paste: Yes! I’m going to spend the rest of the night fantasizing about the possibilities in all of these story lines, so I’ll be pretty busy. Thank you so much! This has been amazing.
Stanchfield: It was my pleasure!
Shannon M. Houston is a New York-based freelance writer, regular contributor to Paste, and occasional contributor to the human race via little squishy babies. You can follow her on Twitter.