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Scandal’s Tony Goldwyn on Fitz’s Heartbreak, Shonda’s Speeches, and Directing Rowdy Gladiators

For a hot second, it looked like Fitz had outplayed Mellie. In last season’s Scandal finale, he and Olivia constructed a master plan in which Fitz would divorce Mellie and make Olivia his First Lady and get America to love her. He laid it all out in a monologue to end all monologues, rendering Mellie speechless. But then, BUT THEN! Olivia’s maternal instinct kicked in and she decided to pull away and look after her Gladiators instead. What? Why? How? Vulture got ahold of Tony Goldwyn ahead of tonight's season-three premiere (10 p.m. on ABC) to help sort through the many feelings about their breakup. And guess what? He found it just as mind-boggling.

Olivia calls the whole thing off at the end of last season because she wants to take care of her Gladiators. When you read that, did you think, “Seriously? That’s why? Why can’t she do both?”
Oh, totally. I couldn’t believe it. I was very upset. I was upset as Fitz, and for Fitz. But I trust Shonda. It’s rare that I call Shonda to say, “I’m not feeling this. I don’t get it.” Shonda knew what she was doing but it was very hard for me to swallow. Olivia rejects me yet again. And it was such a non-specific reason.

Yes.
Yeah, so I assumed it was her fear acting out again. The worst thing was when I go and lay my head on Mellie’s lap. I couldn’t get my brain around that. Of course, that all becomes clear in the season.

Is this the season when Fitz will make some big moves to be with Olivia? Letting the clock run out is one thing but ...
I’m sure he will, and I guarantee you everything will blow up in his face every time he tries to do it. Fitz has not given up. He won’t. He’d rather die than lose Olivia, I really believe that.

For a minute there, he did have the upper hand with Mellie. That never happens!
I know, and it was so quickly taken away. It was a fantastic speech in Cyrus’s hospital room, wasn’t it? It was basically his fantasy speech, finally being able to tell Mellie the way it was gonna be in his utopian, delusional mind. It sounded so good.

What is the secret to nailing a Shonda monologue like that one?
Shonda writes very much in the same way as Aaron Sorkin. She writes these big, theatrical speeches. The rhythms of them are really natural, kind of like music, so I don’t find them that hard to do. But I find that I really have to maintain my energy level. You have to eat healthy, work out, be ready. For me — and this is like a dumb, technical, actor thing — I have to be using my breath properly. I’m sure people make fun of me, but I do heavy breathing before a scene. I’m always doing breathing exercises. People must think I’m such a freak. But it’s really required.

What’s a good breathing exercise?
Do you ever do yoga? I love yoga breathing exercises; they’re very helpful. Alternate Nostril Breathing or Fire Breath. I also read novels out loud so that my diction is crisp. When you talk really fast, you gotta speak clearly and not feel like you’re enunciating everything. That can feel phony ... or actor-y.

In a preview for the season-three premiere, ABC released a new clip of you and Olivia in the White House bunker. The bunker!
[Laughs.] It was pretty cool. I get this profound distress signal from Olivia. At the end of season two, our secret is out, so the White House is under fire. Olivia can’t make a move, so she sends this signal that means go to the bunker. Mainly, it’s used during a nuclear war.

Right. Exactly.
It’s suggestive of how severe this crisis is, Denise.

Can we talk about Fitz and the VP? You and Kate Burton have played husband and wife before.
We’ve played husband and wife twice, actually. Once, in this Showtime movie called Love Matters, which was twenty years ago, and then we also did a play in New York five or six years ago by Theresa Rebeck.

Of Smash fame.
Yeah, it was called The Water’s Edge at Second Stage. She murdered me in that one [laughs]. After stripping me naked onstage, she murdered me. So we’ve always had a contentious relationship, me and Kate.

So you have fun then.
It’s the best. Kate and I have known each other for 30 years. We met at my very first job at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. We were both non-equity actors. She was at Yale Drama School and I was in college. We’ve got some beautifully written scenes coming up. It’s a different dynamic between Fitz and Sally in the beginning of the year.

You don’t get many – if any? – scenes with the Gladiators. But you did get to work with them in the episode you directed from last season, “A Woman Scorned.” What was that like?
That was one of the best things about getting to direct, and it’s one of the things that makes me sad about the show. They have so many incredible actors over there and they have so much fun. We only see each other at the table reads. Olivia Pope & Associates, it’s like being in high school. It’s not at all like the White House. I mean, we have a good time in the White House, we laugh our asses off, but the Gladiators are constantly screwing around, and the ringleader is Kerry Washington. They're just laughing all the time — screaming, teasing each other, goofing around. You cannot get them quiet to start shooting at all. One of the producers told me, “You just have to yell ‘Action!’ Don’t get them to try and quiet down.” I really felt like a schoolteacher, and they really made fun of me, but I’d literally go, “Action! Okay, start acting! Aaaaaact!” The White House? It’s more grown-up, frankly.

You’ve said your favorite scene so far is inauguration night, when Olivia and Fitz make love in the oval office. Kerry has said she hates doing the sex scenes. What was filming it like?
I try not to take it personally, but she can’t stand it. What I loved about that scene, I mean, the sex part of it, it’s just absurd what we do, but it was such a fabulously conceived scene. It was inauguration night, they’re sneaking in the office together, and we have this flirty thing happening, and then it ends outrageously. Sex on the Oval Office desk. I knew the audience would just go crazy when they saw it. It was fun to do. And it was weird and graphic in one sense, but it wasn’t graphic. What we were doing was like, Whoa, really? And I go down on her. But I didn’t feel exposed. It wasn’t like some of our other sex scenes, which are more about that.

What can you say about Divergent? I know Ashley Judd, who you directed in Someone Like You, is in it as well, playing your character’s wife.
You know, I met Ashley on the first movie she ever did. It was a comedy few people have seen called Kuffs, and I did it with Christian Slater. Ashley got her SAG card on it. She had, I think, one line, and I remember her because she was this gorgeous girl. I remember going, Who’s that? Then, of course, she became a movie star. Anyways, Divergent was a fantastic reunion with her. The movie is going to be really good, I think. They’ve got a great cast of kids, and it’s pretty intense. Shailene Woodley got pretty banged up.

Photo: Paul A. Hebert/Getty