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SHOW PATROL

Bellamy Young gives 'Scandal' first lady an edge

By Curt Wagner, @ShowPatrol

RedEye

9:30 PM CST, November 12, 2013

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So much happens in one episode of ABC's hit drama "Scandal," it's hard to point a finger at one actor and say "scene-stealer." Yet Bellamy Young has been something of a thief this season.

Born and raised in North Carolina and educated at Yale and Oxford, Young plays ambitious first lady Mellie Grant, who is unhappily but pragmatically entangled in a love triangle between her husband, President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), and Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), the best crisis manager in Washington, D.C., and his former campaign manager.

Sure, Washington shoulders the weight of the show much like Olivia keeps the gladiators of Pope and Associates on task to "handle" D.C. scandals. Yet Young is causing a stir with fans thanks to watercooler moments. There was the "whore" speech, the "drunk Mellie" scene and the plotting with White House Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry).

The tough, brilliant and manipulative Mellie has become one of the most polarizing characters on TV, so much so it makes you wonder if Young has become creator/writer Shonda Rhimes's favorite cast member.

"No," Young said during a recent interview, laughing. "Because she gives [great moments] to all of us. It's very equitably portioned. But you do think, 'Oh my Lord, I'm the luckiest girl this week.'"

Luck must have been shining on Young again for the appropriately titled "Everything's Coming Up Mellie," airing at 9 p.m. CST Nov. 14 on ABC. The episode flashes back 14 years, before Fitz and Mellie were political powerhouses and just as they were meeting Cyrus. In the present scenes, Mellie still hasn't recovered from the backlash of her accidentally recorded jibes against Congresswoman Josephine Marcus (Lisa Kudrow), so she decides to do a news interview to get back into the public's good graces.

ABC is tight-lipped on details, but Young said the flashbacks to when Fitz and Mellie were "in the cute love" tell a story that will help viewers understand the resonance of the characters' present actions. In other words, we get to see where everything went wrong.

"Well, that's up to you to decide, right? Exactly. But you're definitely going to see where it all changed," she teased. "I think the most fun thing to watch is how this union [Fitz and Mellie] went from a normal happy couple to being very swiftly put on the conveyor belt of politics and in the spotlight ... and how that sort of crucible can change you quickly and what sacrifices have to be made and what secrets have to be kept. And the things that bond you can also wind up dividing you, ultimately."

The episode was especially challenging but also rewarding for Young, because she carries much of the episode's drama, she said, the way Washington does most of the time. During the shoot, Young kept thinking to herself, "What would Kerry do? I'll handle it like Kerry does."

"She's such a great leader," Young said. "She can be fully present for everyone all the time. She's the best mentor in the world."

Young, who has had small or recurring roles in several TV shows including "Criminal Minds" and "Scrubs," still pinches herself to make sure she's still on "Scandal." After all, her character was supposed to appear in just three episodes in the first season. Rhimes wanted to write a presidential divorce story, but three seasons in, Mellie is the person fans love to hate.

"I've been sort of dancing around a long time with this whole life and this career and I've been so blessed because I've never had to do anything else," said Young, a Broadway veteran who is recording her first album this month. "But I don't think I could have even dreamed a blessing as big as this job. And then they gave me a script like this ... The writers gave me, seriously, the greatest gift of my life."

Young talked more about Mellie, how fans love to hate her, and what's coming up for the character and for her.

How far back are we flashing?
Fourteen years ago. So this is before public office, way before we run for governor, before kids. We're young and in love. He's out of the Navy and I'm a lawyer and yeah, we're just fresh and shiny and new and in love. We're in the cute love.

What can you tell about the flashbacks.
I wish that I could get you like a cute little picture of flashback Mellie. I have the cutest wig and the flashback skirt; I love that flashback wig so much ... [Note from Curt: Sorry readers, ABC didn't photograph the flashback scenes.]

It's so fun for us as actors to get to go back in time. Because this is usually work you do as an actor by yourself. You're like, "Oh, I'm gonna make up my bio and I, you know, whatever." So that you're making choices that look informed instead of random. But this—my stars—we're on a show where they write us these thrilling backstories and we get to live these flashbacks. And so we don't just meet our characters in one moment in time. You get the full context of their lives.

Like to meet Huck and then to get to go back and meet baby Huck and to see how he got sucked into Wonderland and what all he went through. And then for him to wind up in the hole; now every time he's on screen it feels like my skin is on fire because I just know his journey and what could have happened and what did happen and what now might happen. And it just hurts in a new, very real way.

I feel like the same will be true for Fitz and for Mellie. You'll see who they were and you'll see who they could have been and who they are now and at what price.

This is even before they even have the idea of getting into politics?
I think they've talked about it. His dad was a politician so it's been discussed and he's tall and handsome and has good hair, so you discuss these things. But they don't have kids yet. They are not in politics yet. They are just real, breathing human beings in young, happy love. And then they come to a fork in the road and you take one or the other and off you go.

What was the real Bellamy doing 14 years ago?
What was 14 years ago—1997—I had just gotten my first lead on Broadway. Actually in just the beginning of '97 my mom was visiting me. I had just moved to a new apartment. She was helping me move in and I almost didn't go to the audition and she was like, "You should go." I didn't even have sheet music and she was like, "You should go. Just sing a capella." And I went and I wound up getting it. It was a Cy Coleman show called "The Life."

And were you young and in love?
I was single.

Were you young and ambitious?
I was arguably young and I was, don't know, happy. I was pretty happy. I'm not really a negatively competitive human so I'm always really grateful to get to work. Like I love to work. I'm a worker bee. But I'm not much on--I should be a little bit better about all that--the ambition and the competition. I'm not very good at that. So I was just happy to have a new apartment. ... I loved that apartment. That was a good apartment.

Anything in your childhood, college or personal life that has prepared you for this role specifically?
Well, we do pageants in the South. And I think for sure that instills a certain like sense of decorum that Mellie definitely calls on frequently. Sense of propriety, you know? ...

College for sure. I mean I went to Yale. I was very fortunate to go to Yale. I was a scholarship baby, but because I grew up in a small town in North Carolina—Ashville, a wonderful place—Yale was the first time that I was like, "Oh, the world is big." If you can dream it, you can do it, you know? It's achievable. Everything is possible sort of. ... I feel like Mellie certainly has a very wide world view and a certainty that she can put into action whatever she can dream up.

Are you smarter than Mellie or is Mellie smarter than you?
No, I think Mellie's pretty much the smartest person in the room. Always. At every turn. I really do. But I'm as loyal as Mellie. Mellie is sort of the more dogged side of loyalty, you know? She's very aggressively loyal. And I'm just sort of devoted.

And are you on Mellie's side?
Always.

But does she do anything that you think that is not very cool.
She does a ton of things that I think aren't very cool, but that's the fun of getting to play her because I'd never do that. It's a ball to get to explore. But, you know, I still empathize. I know why she's doing it and I sort of love that frequently she's doing it spectacularly wrong. But she's so brave and she has such conviction with her passion that I sort of can't help but love her.

Fans love to hate Mellie. People seem to be rooting against her and I have a problem with that. I love how bitchy she is and how vindictive, but I also feel like she's the woman wronged here. She is not the other woman, Olivia is.
That's the genius of Shonda, right? She's written these really complicated people that live in liminal states. They don't do good and they don't do bad. They do human—often complex, rash actions that have unforeseeable consequences. It's just amazing to get to play even some of that, much less all of that, right? All the actors on the show are all so grateful and we're all having the time of our lives.

But Mellie, yeah, I had two lines in the pilot. I was supposed to do maybe a three-episode arc. I think they just really started enjoying exploring Mellie as a fulcrum ... That character really holds so many women's experience. Well, people, I'll go with people. Many of us who have loved, most of us have loved unrequitedly, but for women so often you are the woman behind the man and he gets where he's going and he leaves you and has the rest of his life. Or you have incredible potential that is not able to be realized because of circumstance. And those circumstances may seem incredibly successful to the outside world but still not be personally satisfying.

There seemed to be so much that people could identify with. And then the character of Mellie, like how she's meeting those circumstances, is so sort of galvanizing 'cause she's so—like you say you might hate her, but you can't believe how much you love to hate her, right?

You can't believe the wish fulfillment it is, 'cause she says all those things that you only say in the car as you're driving away from the situation. Mellie just stands right there and says them to your face. And it's incredible.
I know I am conflict averse. All I want is for people to be comfortable, the people in my sphere and in the world at large, in the universe even. Mellie doesn't care two bits about anybody's comfort. And there's something freeing about that and to watch that it's, I do think even the haters have to hate with glee.

I loved the speech earlier this season, too, where she said how bored she is. What does she think she should be doing?
Well, I think she should be president. Mellie thinks she should be president. It should have been, yeah.

Do you think that she more so than Fitz could do "whatever it takes" as president?
You know, I think different leaders for different people. I think probably there are plenty of people who would say that Fitz's leadership is terrific. But I think that there are also plenty of people who would far prefer Mellie's more decisive nature. She's definitely a stronger hand but he's definitely much more considerate. ... It's all business with her, which is a great thing to like turn that gender stereotype on its ear.

You studied literature, right?
Yeah. It was a double major. I thought I was gonna do physics. I wanted to do physics. I wasn't good enough at physics. So I did English and theater.

Comparing these scripts to the literature you studied, do they stack up?
I really do believe that Shonda is like our Shakespeare. She's that prolific and that insightful. She understands human nature in that, you know, once in a generation way. She can hook your heart on character and pull you through like a kaleidoscope of story masterfully that I think very few people could pull off.

The quality of this writing is staggering. ... Every time I sit down with one of these scripts—any time we all sit down with these scripts we marvel. They're beautifully crafted and again just the opportunity to do monologues on television, you know? And the wisdom to not be indulgent or sentimental with it.

The whole "Scandal" pace of it all. These are busy people with busy lives. These are smart people who don't have a lot of time to sort of lean into their feelings, so they get their messages out. It makes it all the more effective and poignant and makes you listen harder, right? So we have these incredible pieces of writing that we get to put over in 42 minutes of television. It's really the chance of a lifetime.

Do you guys want to know what's coming far in advance?
You know, no, ... especially because our episodes are so dense and jaw dropping, it really has become a value and very cherished both for the writers and for us as actors to do the read through. We do it at crew lunch the day before we start the episode. We all find out everything together. And they get to see how everything lands and we sort of get to see the shape of the story.

As a narcissistic actor, you sit down and you read your lines and maybe you don't read the rest of the script. It really depends on what kind of an actor you are. But this way makes you listen and you go on the ride the way the audience is gonna go on the ride. And so it really anchors you in the episode in such a specific way. And the story lives because you're watching it come out of these people's faces and mouths and minds and hearts. And it's really magical. It's really magical.

You are making an album in November. What will be on it?
The album will be just songs that I love singing. ... Oh my gosh, I'm gonna sing a Pink song and a Fleetwood Mac song and some Bonnie Raitt and some Ryan Adams and Tom Waits. Just sort of all over the place. Generally just songs that are positive somehow, because I like to be careful when I can with what I put in the world. But songs you can feel. And maybe sip a little bourbon, too.

Sip a little bourbon—a little hooch as Mellie would say.
A little hooch.

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