It's hard to imagine anyone else besides Kerry Washington playing Olivia Pope on Scandal. She brings a poignant blend of warmth and ferocity to the iconic Shondaland character—not to mention her casting was monumental for black female representation in Hollywood. Simply put, Kerry Washington is Olivia Pope. (Cue listening to her catchphrase, "It's handled!" on repeat.)
But Washington actually wasn't the first choice for the part. In a new feature for The Hollywood Reporter, Shonda Rhimes and the gang reveal the original casting short list for Olivia Pope was comprised of all white women—and Connie Britton was at the top to slip into Olivia's opulent coats.
"The network was reading us their top choices, and it was Connie and all white women," casting director Linda Lowy said. "I panicked. Somebody finally piped up, 'We're going to have to redo this list.'"
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The list needed a redo because Rhimes always intended for Olivia Pope to be a black woman. "I didn't know that there hadn't been a drama series with a leading black woman for 37 years," she said. "When the show got picked up [to pilot], I got a phone call from somebody who said, 'This would be the perfect show for Connie Britton.' I said, 'It would be, except Olivia Pope is black.'"
The head of drama at ABC, Channing Dungey, confirmed this. "Shonda said she felt strongly that Olivia be black. [Olivia] was inspired by Judy [Smith, a crisis manager in Washington, D.C.], and she wanted to honor that."
Thankfully, ABC got on board—but it actually took the network a few seasons to truly start exploring Olivia Pope as a black woman, even though Washington had the gig. "In the first season [of Scandal], it was as if Olivia Pope was raceless," Washington told Glamour in her May cover story. "There was no denying that Olivia was a black woman because I'm a black woman playing her in badass white trench coats that call to attention the fact that I'm not looking like anybody else on television. But we didn't talk about her identity as a black person...[Since then] the writers have become more and more willing to deal with race."
Of course, Washington is perfect for Olivia just from an acting perspective, but she's also a reason why TV is becoming more diverse. ABC's decision to fully explore the nuances of Olivia—and the success of Scandal—helped make room for other complicated women of color in lead roles, like Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) on Rhimes' other smash How to Get Away With Murder. Just think how different (and horrible) your Thursday nights would be without them.
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