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Scandal’s Joshua Malina on His Addiction to Set Pranks and His Greatest Hits

Joshua Malina. Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/2012 Getty Images

On Scandal, the joke is usually on Joshua Malina’s character, David Rosen: Oh, you think you’re going to prove that the presidential election was rigged? No, you’re not. Olivia Pope and Associates is going to steal your evidence. In real life, though, Malina isn’t the one who gets played for a fool; as an expert set prankster since his days on Sports Night, he’s the one doing the fooling. We spoke to him ahead of tonight’s episode (airing at 10 p.m. on ABC) about his addiction to pranks, how his cast mates respond to them, and why their effusive e-mails only add fuel to the fire.

Did your reputation precede you when you got to Scandal, since you were known for pranking your West Wing cast mates?
It did a little bit. That being said, I didn’t live up to it the first season, when I was a guest. I was raised by fantastic parents, and they told me, “When you’re a guest, behave well, be polite.” Season two, when I was no longer a guest, then I felt more at home and the gloves came off.

And then once the gloves came off, was everyone more wary of you?
Yes, although I have to say, I’m almost disappointed. I think I have them so rocked back on their heels that nobody’s really come at me. I keep expecting that people will do things back to me, but it’s been a pretty anemic response. I like the concept of escalating warfare, but you need someone to fight back in order for things to escalate. If there’s no confrontation or argument going on, it’s too dull for me. I think that’s the nature of the prankster: Things are too quiet. What can I do?

You would think the story lines on Scandal could keep you satisfied.
That is true. But I guess in the end, fictional conflict doesn’t quite scratch that itch. The whole cast and crew, but particularly the actors, are almost freakishly good-natured and positive, and mutually supportive. And these are all good things, but somebody has to go against the grain. Every time there’s a new script out or every time we see a new episode — any time anybody does anything — there is such an e-mail chain of over-the-top mutual admiration, with a lot of exclamation points, a lot of capitalization, a lot of horrific adjectives like amazeballs. Kerry [Washington] will launch a not infrequent amazeballs. So, even through e-mail, I always have to sort of take it down a notch. Bellamy Young [who plays Mellie] is the worst; people with larger hearts than I would say she’s the best. But she’s so freakishly over-the-top that I always have to take a shot at her. I plan some day to do a one-man show based solely on the e-mails of Bellamy Young. And people will think I’ve written a brilliant comedy myself when in fact all the text will be directly from Bellamy.

It sounds like you wish people would flip tables over at your table reads. You need more friction.
That would be fantastic. I trashed [executive producer] Tom Verica’s office very early in the season. I was in [executive producer] Betsy Beers’s office, which is directly across from Tom’s. And Tom, in a hideous example of poor judgment, left his office unlocked. And so I just went in there, turned everything upside down — pictures of his family, the couch. I stuck his coffee table in the closet, I unscrewed lightbulbs. He did get me back: I came to work one day and opened my trailer door, and my trailer was plastered with compromising photos of me, all taken from footage from the show. Having done a lot of topless scenes and shower scenes, there were a lot of very unflattering pictures of me posted all over my trailer with thought bubbles. Me praising my own biceps, and maybe regretting my belly.

If you saw Shonda’s door open, would you have done to her office what you did to Tom’s?
NO. [Laughs.] I’m not financially secure enough to go after Shonda yet. Although, maybe on some small level. But I would not trash her office. The farthest up the chain I’ve gone is Betsy Beers, whom I consider Shonda’s No. 2. And that went very well. She was really collateral damage, because I was really going after my colleagues. I won’t divulge the details, but there’s a way to call somebody’s phone and have whatever number you want appear on the caller I.D. so that the call you’re making appears to be coming from someone else.

That’s more advanced than *69.
It is more advanced. I wish I could say I developed this technology. All I can say is, I did not. But it’s out there. It is perhaps of dubious legality, I’m not quite sure, nor am I particularly concerned. But I made a lot of calls from Betsy’s office. I basically created a fictional assistant — this all being possible because Shonda and Betsy have so much help that you can just make up a name. So I was just like, “This is Charlene.” Oh, I used a voice changer. So I called Columbus Short [who plays Harrison] and said, “This is Charlene in Betsy’s office. She needs to talk to you urgently.” Which of course I know to an actor that means “I’m going to get fired.” And I know he had a horrible, sleepless night, which delights me.

Guillermo Diaz told us that you tweet “I’m horny” from people’s Twitter accounts.
It’s just sort of subtle and elegant, without being really disgusting.

It’s not subtle or elegant, at all.
Well, there are all sorts of unprintable, vile, terrible, specific things I could write. “I’m horny” is just like, Ewww, who says that?

Is there a non-phone-related prank you’re particularly proud of?
I did some of my finest work on The West Wing. One of my favorite things was, when Jimmy Smits first joined the show, I guess it was a few weeks before Valentine’s Day, Janel Moloney and I sent an enormous bouquet of flowers to Jimmy from Brad [Whitford] and used Brad’s personal stationary. Apparently, it was very awkward. Jimmy went up to Brad and said, “Thanks for the flowers. It’s nicer than what I got my girl,” of course working in that he’s both heterosexual and involved.

I wrote an e-mail from Josh Charles’s e-mail account twelve years ago when we did Sports Night that he was very, very unhappy about, and I lied for years. He, being the star of the show, had a computer — this was back when we all had AOL accounts — and he would let me use his computer in his dressing room when he was there. Once he typed his password in the wrong box, so instead of coming up as asterisks, I could see the password. And so I was like, Done. One day when he wasn’t at work, I sent an e-mail to everyone in his address book, coming out. “I know this is an awkward way to do this, but it’s the easiest way for me.”

Did you see any of his friends’ replies?
No. I know that a couple of his friends wanted to kill me. It was messy and bad. But this is the price you pay.

Scandal’s Joshua Malina on His Best Set Pranks