With its final season well under way, Scandal is going to leave a bold legacy on television as we know it. By casting Kerry Washington to play the incomparable main character, Olivia Pope, Shonda Rhimes singlehandedly changed the face of primetime. Rhimes handed the key to Thursday nights to a Black woman, and the rest is feminist tv history. But the very imperfect Pope is just one of the women that make Scandal such an amazing tribute to the talents, strength, and overall value of women.
If we had to rank Scandal characters solely by the quality of their glow up — a productive evolution over the course of time — Mellie Grant is in first place. Played by Bellamy Young, Mellie was introduced to viewers in 2012 as the discontented and ambitious wife of then President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldywn). Her ability to “play her role” as First Lady, even as her husband cheated with Olivia, was an impressive feat in itself. She is a character that many of us grew to love after hating her for at least two seasons. In the five years since the show started, she has morphed into the woman who didn’t stay in her loveless marriage, a state Senator, and most recently, the first female President of Scandal’s United States.
The latter title has added Young to the list of on-screen female presidents, the first one to be inaugurated in the wake of Hillary Clinton losing the 2016 presidential election. I was grateful to have a phone conversation with Young about all of this — women in power, Scandal’s legacy, and the fallout of Clinton’s loss — and so much more. Check out our conversation below.
Refinery29: I want to ask you something that I can imagine is at the forefront of many people’s minds. What does it feel like to play the first female president following the deflation of that dream after the last presidential election?
Bellamy Young: “It’s been remarkable. I’m not sure if this is how Shonda intended our story to go, honestly. She always said she knew where our story began and knew where it ended. We were asking her one night at a dinner with the cast and Betsy (Beers, Scandal’s executive producer) before we began this season if it was all going how she thought. And she was like, ‘Oh no! I thought it was going to end with the inauguration. It was supposed to end last year. The world changed, and I realized I had some more stories to tell with this forum.’ I don’t know if it was supposed to be Mellie being inaugurated. I really do feel so fortunate to have the fire and pure instincts to move a conversation forward, to be able to speak for Shonda and our writers, and officially acclimate America to the idea of a woman in power. Because it turns out, we were all a lot more uncomfortable with that than we realized, and we’re behind the world in that regard. I know how much it means to watch Allison Taylor be president on 24: Redemption and I just think me coming into your house once a week on your TV normalizes it. There are a lot lady presidents on the television right now. I’m proud to be among their ranks but most of all to have Shonda’s mind and heart flowing through Mellie, really moving conversations. Like [episode 4’s] conversation about missing girls who are being ignored because of the color of their skin. It’s contributing to raising everybody’s consciousness.”
You’ve been playing the role of a politician for a while. Even as first lady you were definitely a political player. Part of the reason Hillary Clinton resonates with so many women is because she has been one of the most visible women in politics. Who do you look to for character inspiration?
“When I got the job, I had to really do my homework. They teach us very white male history. So I knew my presidents, and I didn’t know my first ladies. That in itself was an interesting journey to really learn the contributions of the women behind or beside the man. We have drawn from a lot of those stories. When Fitz was in a coma and I was fake president for a minute and signing his name, all of that is drawn from history. Hillary Clinton was a real touchstone. Throughout my lifetime she has really been the front [wo]man of female possibility in politics for American women. I remember when she was First Lady and touched on healthcare, and what that meant for me personally. I had never seen a woman in her position be anything but appropriate, sidelined, and in the background. For her to show up with the full force of her being and offer her brain and her heart and try to affect positive change was breathtaking. It gave me such a feeling of possibility. And then she was beaten down and reviled. So much of what she dreamed she didn’t achieve. But she did achieve some. I watched her struggle, and I feel as a nation we have been taking these quiet but steady steps forward. Particularly now, with everyone speaking up about equality in the workplace — not just in terms of pay, but in terms of respect. I feel lucky to be working in a matriarchy and to be playing a role that allows people to become comfortable with female empowerment in a non-confrontational way. We don’t have to have a conversation about it because it just is. Women are powerful. In the same way we found out Cyrus (Jeff Perry) is gay. We don’t have to talk about that, either. It’s just understood. They’re just people. These are just people who exist in the world: powerful women, people of all colors, people who love all the people they want to love. It doesn’t have to be addressed except to be inclusive.”
Speaking of healthcare, I heard that you have a condition that affects your eyes. You read scripts, you have to cry on camera, so this is kind of a big deal.
“That’s kind of hard. I’m not gonna lie.”
How do you prepare for work under those conditions?
“I’m lucky to have a job, but my days are usually on a dusty set and under really bright lights. I just thought that as I’m growing a little older, this is just how they feel. I kept going through bottles of artificial tears and switching contacts brands thinking maybe that was the problem. From talking about contacts with my eye doctor, she was like “this is the real thing and this is the issue.” I got a diagnosis, chronic dry eye, and she was able to find me my treatment options. I take Restasis Multidose twice a day, and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to make my own tears so I don’t have to use artificial tears.”
What’s next for you now that Scandal is ending?
“I was lucky enough to be in Ava’s (Duvernay) version of A Wrinkle in Time so I have that coming out in March. That book meant so much for me as a child. And then I don’t know, I have to see what’s out there.”
What can you tell me about the legacy that Mellie is going to leave on Scandal’s White House, and for women in TV?
“I don’t know what Shonda has in store for Mellie’s contributions to the White House in particular. I know we’ve nosed around, and I’m hopeful for, some racial injustice and some prison reform. Those would be goals and I’m proud to be part of that. In terms of Mellie in the grand scheme: I just hope that she’s part of visually acclimating our whole country to the notion of a woman in power. Past the suits, the hair, and the ‘Is she going to kiss him or not?’ with a clear sense of what the country needs and an enormous heart that wants to serve. Another outcome is women supporting women. I love Olivia and Mellie together. I love seeing them as a team. We too often narrative women adversarially. [Mellie and Olivia] have their fights but so far, they have always come back to consensus. To see two women functioning at their highest potential, supporting each other, and trying to change the world for the better. Whoo! I can’t think of anything I’d be more proud of.”