Cast members talk about being “word perfect” in the imperfect (but impossibly entertaining) world of “Scandal”

“Scandal” has only been off the air for a few weeks, but it undoubtedly feels like much longer for its die-hard fans. The second season pushed the show from one with interesting promise to one that pound for pound was one of the strongest hourlongs on any network, broadcast or cable. Pulpy, propulsive, and undeniably audacious, “Scandal” features the type of narrative structure that not only keeps its fans happy, but draws more and more to its fervent energy, like moths to a conspiracy-stoked flame.

While planning is only now underway for the program’s third season, several stars of the show traveled to Austin, Texas this past weekend to attend the second annual Austin Television Festival (ATX). In addition to attending a public screening of the season two finale “White Hat’s Back On”, cast members Katie Lowes (Quinn Perkins/Lindsay Dwyer), John Malina (David Rosen), and Dan Bucatinsky (James Novak) sat down with several reporters in a roundtable setting to discuss the season that was in addition to speculating on the show’s future.

What follows is that session broken into two parts. In the first, I offer up highlights based on questions asked by other journalists present for this interview. In the second, I prove full context for the questions I personally put forth. Even hardcore “Scandal” fans will learn a thing or two after this freewheeling, honest analysis from those who help bring the drama to living rooms each Thursday on ABC. These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

On the relation between the show’s engagement on Twitter and its ratings in second two:

Katie Lowes: It’s been a huge asset for “Scandal”. I think if you look at the difference between the first season and the second season, and Twitter being involved in that…it’s definitely been collaborative. The show has such momentum, and Twitter literally explodes on Thursday nights. Now ABC sends out press releases like, “10,000 Tweets Per Minute! ‘Scandal’ was trending six worldwide topics!” Those things are starting to matter, and we got in on the forefront.

Josh Malina: It’s drawing people to watch the show live, which from the network’s point of view is something devoutly to be wished…

Dan Bucatinsky: It’s the name of the game.

JM: …and for us, it’s more fun. It actually makes the broadcast more fun.

DB: Think about the shows we watched and loved growing up. Can you imagine what it would have been like to interact with the people who were on those shows?

On the challenges presented by the show’s dialogue-heavy scripts…

KL: I know the writers get a lot from what they see us do. We have to be word perfect when we come in. Word perfect. We don’t come in and improvise stuff. How we say it and why we say it is our artistic choice. But what we say is what they write. Word for word. But I know they watch the dailies, and I know they watch how relationships are forming based on the acting choices we’re making. And they do use that a lot for where stories go.

On other roles Dan Bucantisky auditioned for on “Scandal” before inhabiting James Novak…

289xzr.jpgDB: My career starting to shift as I started to produce and write television pilots. But my first love is always acting. Throughout all those years I would always guest on shows and love it. And I wound up on an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” in season six, playing the husband of a dying man. And a couple of years later I auditioned for Shonda again, this time for “Scandal,” for this (points to Josh) man’s role…

JM: Did you get it?

DB: I did, but I turned it down.

JM: Oooh! Don’t [mess] with a writer. He’ll get the better line.

DB: I also auditioned to play Huck….

KL: *giggles uncontrollably*

DB: I know! Look at me! I walked in, and I said, “I love this monologue!” It was the most beautiful audition scene. I said to Shonda, “Listen, I am in awe of this writing.” I learned it in like, a day. I had never memorized anything so fast before in my life. Because when the writing is that good, you just learn it faster. So I loved the audition, but after it was over, I said, “I’m so not Huck.” We all knew it…but several months later, they offered me a part in the role of James.

Josh, in the finale, there’s that turnaround from thinking he’s a villain to, “Oh, he’s a good guy after all.” But my interpretation, and I don’t know how accurate this is, is that your character was doing reconnaissance from the inside. You couldn’t be a gladiator, but you couldn’t let Olivia’s actions stand. So, will there be a more antagonistic role in the third season?

JM: I hope so. Because that’s really my take. I mean, it’s not really important for me to have a take, because I’ll find out what is was [when we return]. But to the extent that I have a take, I think that too. He was playing long ball. As I was quietly eating my cereal, I had a lot going on. So I would like to see more of this. I do want to butt heads with her.

DB: Well, revenge is a bitch, and you really got put through the ringer by everyone.

JM: Truly!

DB: And even when you made allies, they screwed you over. And it was like, “Alright, this is not going to continue. I will not stand for it.” I think everyone on the show, every character, has his or her, “I will not stand for it” moment. Everybody is pushed to a limit, and then drives off a cliff. When we read the scripts, we cannot believe what [the writers] are capable of having us do and then what we have to do.

Dan, please rank these in order of importance for James: his profession, his husband, and his child. What does he value the most, and what would he be most willing to sacrifice?

DB: Hmm, good question…

(Another journalist notes: “Things just got serious!”)

DB: I think child, and…and…

(Josh and Katie both wordlessly tease his pause as I wonder if I just broke an actor)

DB: …I think it shifts. I think we’ve seen moments where he says, “I will do whatever I have to do to salvage my baby and my husband.” And then we’ve seen moments where James [Perry, who plays Cyrus Beene] has pushed back. Also, as a dad who has a husband and a child at home…

JM: Yeah, can you rank your real-life husband, child, and job? Just between us.

DB: Work first! No, for James, I do like to think that the baby comes first. Because the number of sacrifices that he has made with his career even when he first got into his marriage with Cyrus…I mean, Shonda clearly wanted the audience to know how we met–because there was a flashback to us meeting on the campaign trail–and very soon afterwards, very soon afterwards, roughly a year and a half after that, we’re married, I call my husband, and I want a baby. Clearly, I quit my entire life so I could have this baby. So, we know that that’s paramount.

And then, as time goes on, the desire to work starts to creep back into one’s psyche–which I think is very true and natural–but ultimately, for James, it’s baby first, and then some shifting ranking between career and husband at all times.

Katie, Pope And Associates is a functional business. But it’s also something of a cult of personality, where it feels like Olivia is leveraging all of your weak points. Are we going to see Quinn once again wonder why she was brought into the fold, especially with the revelations at the end of the season about Olivia and Fitz?

quinn-perkins.jpgKL: No, I…look, I say this now, and who the hell knows. That could be what happens. I have no idea what will exactly happen. But personally, I don’t think so. I really think that Quinn understands exactly what was done to Lindsey Dwyer, she put everything together with the election rigging, and she really had to ask herself the question: “Is she going to put this to rest?” Now, she is Quinn Perkins, and that is what has happened. This is the only world she has no, whether she likes it or not. It’s Olivia Pope, ride or die.

So, I don’t know. But I’m really curious to see where Quinn and Olivia’s relationship goes. I really am so close with Huck right now. He’s my everything in the office right now. So I’m really anxious to see what happens between Quinn and Olivia, Harrison, and Abby in season three. So we’ll see! I don’t even know what her weakness are anymore. It’s really interesting.

Home improvement?

Ha. She’s changed so much. The Quinn I came in and auditioned for is very different from the Quinn now.

(Another journalist notes that the torture scene highlights this type of change.)

Yeah, it’ll be interesting. I know that she likes doing it. So it will be this thing: Is she going to continue to do it? Is that going to be her new role now that Huck can’t do it as well anymore? Is it going to be that she’s crossed a major line and Huck will try and bring her back? Is she going to have to go to AA and deal with her “whiskey” addiction? I don’t know. Or…will there ever be some sort of normalcy in Quinn’s life? Is she ever going to have a boyfriend? A life outside of Pope And Associates?

Josh, before you spoke Shonda, you spoke Sorkin. As one that’s worked for both, what do those two writers do that makes them so distinctive in the television landscape?

JM: Yes, the School of Sorkin prepared me very well for the World of Shonda. I was remembering a time–speaking of being word perfect–when I had a line in “The West Wing” script, which clearly involved the type “the the”. Jokingly, I said, “Are you going to find out of that’s a typo?” And they called up to Aaron! “Should that line read ‘the the’?” He said, “Um, no.” And when we were about to shoot again, I said, “Did you ask which one to cut?” They were literally about to go to the phone, and I had to say, “I’m kidding.”

Memorization-wise, when I was a kid…

KB: This guy is a monster! He’s crazy good at memorizing!

JM: Thank you. Unfortunately, it’s my best talent as an actor. When I was a kid, my great-aunt Jean, may she rest in peace, whenever she’d see me in a school play, she’d say, “I loved it! How did you memorize all those lines?” I always thought, “That is the palest compliment you can pay. THAT’S what really impressed you: the memorization.” Now, I’ve come to accept that that really is my best thing. The night before, I’ll generally glance at [the script] and think, “Yeah, I can memorize that tomorrow morning.”

KB: He learns the day of [the shoot].

JM: Most of the time. And there’s a certain thing–and I learned this with Aaron too, and maybe this this just specific to me–where if I memorize it cold, then it will sound like I’ve memorized it cold. On camera, you want to have a little bit of that spontaneity, that little bit of finding it as you speak.

KB: Which is an amazing acting choice. A lot of actors use that technique, and they are terrible at it, so it screws everybody else. But for him, it actually works. He memorizes it in the morning, it sounds really fresh…

JM: I think that’s what Aaron prepared me really well for: that very dialogue-heavy, intelligent guy dialogue that you have to be on top of. Because there are times, and I’m sure we’ve all done takes, where you can tell I’m a millisecond behind the speech I’m giving. If you don’t own it, then it really doesn’t work. You have to be right on it. So whatever muscle that it, it developed really well working with Aaron and I’ve been employing it a lot for Shonda since it’s a similar type of thing.