Crisis management pro Olivia Pope is the textbook Shonda Rhimes heroine: smart, driven and a complete mess in her personal life. Exchange the power suit for scrubs, and Olivia would fit in perfectly in either of Rhimes’ other shows, “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Private Practice.” Strong but flawed is what the writer does best, though she had a little help conceptualizing her protagonist for the new ABC drama “Scandal” — Olivia is based on real-life crisis manager Judy Smith, the founder of a high-powered strategic and crisis communications firm who also served as an assistant U.S. attorney and president George H.W. Bush’s deputy press secretary.
“The world that I live in is very high-stakes. It’s very fast-paced,” Smith says matter-of-factly. “And what [Shonda and her team has] done is a terrific job at dramatizing that in a very unique setting.”
The setting is Washington, D.C., “the nexus of power for so many different industries and so many different fields,” says actress Kerry Washington, who plays Olivia with equal fierceness and vulnerability. The locale allows the show to delve into behind-the-scenes political machinations, but not necessarily linger there.
“From show to show, who walks in our office is completely unpredictable — whether it’s somebody in the military, whether it’s a politician, whether it’s somebody in the corporate world, whether it’s somebody in the labor movement, whether it’s a celebrity, whether it’s a sports figure,” says Washington. “So [D.C.] is an exciting context for the show, but it’s not a political show because we deal with crisis in all areas, as does Judy.”
So, naturally, when Rhimes is met with her own crisis when trying to write a script, Smith is the first person she turns to. “I would call her up and say, ‘A madam’s been arrested, and she’s got a client list. What would you do?'” says Rhimes. “And then Judy tells us how you solve the problem. And that’s been a fascinating and amazing resource for us.”