When Tony Goldwyn shows up at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, warm greetings from politicians quickly turn to accusations: “You are just a terrible president,” several told him this past year. And they may have a point. In the first three seasons of ABC’s Scandal—season 4 commences on Thursday—Goldwyn’s character, President Fitzgerald Grant, has released a known terrorist from prison, personally snuffed out a Supreme Court justice, and had an ongoing affair with his campaign manager Olivia Pope (the show’s star, Kerry Washington). Heir to a Hollywood dynasty, he’s the grandson of the middle initial in MGM Studios and the son of producer Sam Goldwyn Jr. and Golden Age actress Jennifer Howard. He was a stage actor before getting his first big movie break as the villain in 1990’s Ghost. More recently, he’s the co-creator, with screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, of The Divide, a new We TV drama exploring race and the death penalty in Philadelphia.
Mother Jones: As a Goldwyn, was your Hollywood path a given?
Tony Goldwyn: My parents were very diligent, frankly, at keeping us away from show business, because they didn’t want us to grow up to be Hollywood brats. I initially assumed I would have nothing to do with it. But I started acting in high school plays and fell in love with it. I went to theater school in London for a couple of years, then I came back and started working in the theater in New York. Only after a couple of years working in theater did I start trying to break into movies and television, which required me to spend a lot more time in Los Angles.
MJ: So theater was your way of rebelling?
TG: I wouldn’t say it was rebellious. My mother’s whole family had been from the theater, really. Because I grew up in Hollywood, I wasn’t that interested in Hollywood. But the New York theater was completely exotic and fabulous to me.
MJ: Do you still do theater?
TG: About every five years I do a play. When I was younger, I would do a play every year at least. But then you have to start supporting a family; it becomes a little more difficult. [Laughs.]
MJ: What are your real-life politics?
TG: I’m a moderate Democrat. I’ve always been fascinated and maddened by the way things get done in our system, which as an ideal is so extraordinary, but the way it actually works can be mind-boggling.
MJ: Is that what drew you to Scandal? Or was it more that Shonda Rhimes was the show’s creator?
TG: A combination. I’ve done several projects that centered around the White House over the years. I played Jody Powell, Carter’s Press Secretary, in a movie about the Iran hostage crisis. I played the president’s chief of staff in The Pelican Brief. When the idea of playing the president came along, that definitely interested me. But certainly a combination of being an admirer of Shonda’s and wanting to work with Kerry Washington.
MJ: How did you research the role?
TG: I had read a lot of presidential biographies for the other films, and I’d spent some time at the White House, so I felt familiar with this world. The two that I really focused on for Scandal were Clinton and Obama, because I wanted him to be a pretty modern president and also they had certain attributes I wanted in Fitz—of being very accessible and down to earth, and really good communicators with people: Clinton can make everyone feel they’re important to him; he makes you feel like he’s just a regular guy. I wanted Fitz to have that. Obama’s the same way. So I read their books and watched a lot of documentary footage. I remember Jeff Perry—who plays my chief of staff—and I constantly trading books and documentaries to get ourselves into the world.
MJ: Wait, you modeled a Republican president on Obama and Clinton?
TG: Well, Fitz is about as Democratic of a Republican as you can get. The theory Jeff and I came up with is that Fitz’s presidency is about bringing the Republican Party back to something that makes some sense. Kind of what Clinton did in the opposite way with the Democratic Party. To drag the Republican Party, perhaps kicking and screaming, back to the center, although his vice president is very much of the Michele Bachmann wing. I think he views himself as a pragmatic president in the way Clinton was. I think he would want his own version of Obamacare. There’s been much mention of immigration reform in Scandal, and he has this Dream Act that he’s pushing. Jon Huntsman’s policies would probably not be that different.
MJ: Plenty of Scandal fans would say Fitz is a terrible president. What do you think?
TG: I disagree. You can say the president’s private life takes up so much of his time that he doesn’t focus on his job, so therefore he’s terrible. But in my imagination, the 23 hours of the day that we don’t experience, he’s very hard at work. He’s quite an effective and successful president—in my narcissistic imagination.
MJ: So you’re okay with him murdering a Supreme Court justice?
TG: Well, that’s a bit of a problem. [Laughs.]
MJ: Are you kind of floored when you see stuff like that in the script?
TG: Yeah. That one probably more than anything else, was where I went, “Ooookaaaay…” That second episode was also when I rejected Olivia in a very harsh and brutal way. That was extremely difficult to process. But it connected back for me to two things: Fitz had just found out that they stole the election. His whole undercurrent was to be legitimate, to be the antithesis of what his father represented and what his father thought of him. The murder of [justice] Verna Thorton was this kind of moment of psychosis where it was a decision of survival. She was going to take him down, sacrifice everything, take the country down, which would have proved his father right on all fronts, and he thought, “I could not let that happen.” He belongs in prison, but I kind of get it.
MJ: It seems like the show has been growing ever darker.
TG: I love it! I think Shonda is just pushing the envelope constantly the darker she gets. Have you seen the [season 3] finale?
TG: I couldn’t believe she went there. Shonda does this thing where the show becomes very melodramatic, yet emotionally real. The audience gets drawn in with their popcorn and then they get punched in the gut.
MJ: Do the actors get any advance warning?
TG: Never. She won’t tell us. If a character is going to die, she will take them aside ahead of time and let them know that their execution date is coming. But usually the day before we start shooting we sit down together and read the scripts out loud, and that’s the first we ever hear of it. Which is kind of hairy, but very exciting. I create my own reality and then I have to be ready to turn on a dime if I read a script and go, “Oh my God! I was 100 percent wrong.”
MJ: Would you ever run for office?
TG: Nooooo. The more I learn about it, the less I would want to do it. If you’re in a popular TV show, you can attract attention, and I like to help focus that on stories that deserve to be told—which is what politicians do. But I would lose my autonomy, and to get things done I would have to compromise and get into the weeds of policy. I don’t know if I’m smart enough.
MJ: You’d probably have help. Your fans apparently include Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton.
TG: The first time I went to the Correspondents Dinner, last year, my wife and I walked into a party, and all that these incredibly prominent, sophisticated, impressive people wanted to talk about was Scandal. I was pretty startled and kind of embarrassed. There’s so many politicians! And this year there were 10 times that, from Nancy Pelosi to Mrs. Obama to the president himself—although I expect he doesn’t actually watch it. He’s a little busy. I suspect he was briefed.
MJ: What made you want to do The Divide, a show about the death penalty?
TG: I directed and produced Conviction, a movie about a man who spent 18 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. I got to know Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck very well—he’s a character in the movie—and I got very passionate about the cause. It’s just so inherently dramatic. My co-producer said, “There’s a TV series in this.” Then Richard LaGravenese and I came up with the idea of a prosecutor who gets it wrong. I never wanted to do a polemic. What interested me was the moral divide: In trying to do the right thing, where’s the line you cross?
MJ: Did you look to real-life cases for inspiration?
TG: A few. We were thinking of something like the Petit murders in Connecticut, where a family was brutally, incomprehensibly murdered by these two men. It was Barry’s idea to flip it racially. He said, “Why don’t you make it a white guy who murdered a black family, and a white guy on death row?” He suggested a black prosecutor putting the white guy away. That suddenly became very interesting to us.
MJ: What’s your view on capital punishment?
TG: It makes no sense as a policy: It’s not a deterrent, and economically it’s a disaster. It’s very clear that there are innocent people on death row. And if I put an innocent person to death, that’s murder.
MJ: Do you suppose we’ll ever phase it out?
TG: I think it’s inevitable. That’s one of the reasons why we want to do shows like The Divide. When people understand what’s happening, the tide will shift.
Click here to read more about Tony Goldwyn’s work on The Divide.