Last week the plot of "Scandal" may have centered around a bomb scare, but it was a singular scene of a drunk Mellie Grant "celebrating" Olivia Pope that really blew up the episode. Her monologue was one of many – in addition to some great comebacks – in which Bellamy Young, the actress who plays the first lady, has stolen the show.
Young talked to U.S. News about Mellie's ambitions, motivations and why we never see her kids. Excerpts:
What's it like to get to bring to life these meaty speeches Shonda Rhimes and the writers create for you?
We are all so always awed and eternally grateful because the writing on the show is insane. When do you give a woman – a woman of my age – a complicated and nuanced of a character as this, much less network time to devote to monologues about the complexity of your station in life, what is happening in this moment in your life? That's unheard of.
We've had some flashback episodes that have explained how the characters came to be who they are. Are we going to get a better idea of how Mellie became the person she is now?
Shonda would strangle me if I said anything particular. But yes, you will get to know how Mellie got to be Mellie. Mellie for sure was on a track and had a certain goal for herself in mind but you turn a different corner and one little choice down the road has turned into Mount Rushmore; it really has turned into something enormous.
What can you tell me about tonight's episode?
Mellie will, in true Mellie fashion, put her foot in her mouth and cause a scandal that will sort of introduce how Mellie is looking forward to the road ahead in the White House and women in politics [Lisa Kudrow guest stars as a congresswoman] and how she handles herself. Can Mellie be kept to any sort of sense of decorum?
You have a very impressive pedigree [Young attended Yale and Oxford] and so does Mellie. But she has been told by Fitz [Mellie's husband and the president] that she is "ornamental and not functional." What's it like for her to have to push against that?
Frequently, she's asked to sit in the corner politely and daintily, with her ankles crossed. I think that's part of what resonates so much with the viewership – with our gladiators, with women in particular. Sadly, it is not a unique story to be a woman who is far more capable than her circumstance allow, to be the woman behind the man or to be the person – this is not necessarily gender specific – who has done everything in service to the partnership and then the partner decides, "Well I've arrived and now I am going to go and do the next chapter of my life without you."
Mellie [brings] a lot of wish fulfillment, in the moments that the rest of us – and I would certainly put me in the front of that line – would like to politely cower or walk away or be indignant, but not take the sledge hammer and move forward. Mellie wields the sledge hammer. She is there holding the hammer marching forward for so many of us. It's fun. You can hate her, you can love her, but I think a lot of people – myself included – enjoy her.
Mellie is often posed as the foil to Olivia and she is certainly outspoken about the president's affair. Considering that Olivia is the "hero" of the show, is it fair to call Mellie the villain?
I think everybody is more complicated. We all live in a bit a grey on this show. Mellie certainly had her white moments, her pure moments, her selfless acts, but she's also done some absolutely hideous things.
I like to think that with Mellie, the most heartbreaking thing about Fitz being in love with Olivia is how much Mellie loves Olivia and respects Olivia. If he were in love with someone that she could just disregard, it would be much easier.
The passion is really fueled by the deep hurt of knowing that [Olivia and Fitz] are wonderful partners together. They're a wonderful match and Olivia is a wonderful woman and Olivia is great for the administration. That truth is what keeps Mellie in the ring because she has to keep finding the compromise. She knows that Olivia isn't evil and isn't the enemy, and that is sort of the worst scenario of all.
We don't see much of Fitz and Mellie's kids and when we do, it's almost like they're being used as props or bargaining chips. Do you put any thought into Mellie's role as a mother?
Mellie tends the garden of her motherhood very well. It's definitely off camera, for the purposes of our world. At the end of the day for the purposes of our writers it's difficult to find the right place to put the kids in the White House. They can't be at Olivia Pope and Associates. And we sort of only ever deal with the White House inside the White House. It sort of has not been factored into the equation of that world.
But I think, definitely, Mellie can compartmentalize. And there have been many monologues, particularly the one calling out Fitz on his drinking, that have sort of laid a little groundwork in there that Mellie is absolutely more than pulling her weight as a mother.
Have you researched real-life first ladies?
I'm lucky I get scripts that are so well informed that a lot of the actor homework of personalizing or justifying and historical data, dramaturgy, that sort of stuff – it's so rich that tapestry that I don't have to supplement it. But it's been incredible, as I feel honored to be pretending to be in this station now and to learn more about it. Certainly we have an incredible combination of form and function right now in Michelle Obama. She is both grace and power personified. I think she is doing impeccably well.
The tide for me in my lifetime was with Hillary Clinton when she took on health care. It sort of exploded my mind a little bit. It was interesting to watch people react to that. And first lady, the subtitle is still the nation's hostess. So it's interesting to go back and see from Dolley Madison to Julia Grant to on and on. It's wonderful to be able to honor, to put a little light on their contributions because it has always taken a union to run the union.
Why does Mellie stick around to try, at least in her mind, to save Fitz's presidency?
First and foremost, I think she loves him to her detriment, loves him past anything her head can talk her heart out of. Loves him! And she also is very committed to their potential, and definitely willing to do anything she can to figure out how to maximize that. And she keeps surprising herself in how much she can compromise and what she's not able to give up. She committed to this dream so long ago and Mellie is anything but a quitter. She is resolved to see eight years through. She's not just like, "We're at the White House. We did it." She wants eight years and then she wants her eight years, and she's very goal oriented.
What kind of president would she be?
Absolutely and without question, I think Mellie would be an incredible president and I think she knows that inside herself, and is so frequently frustrated with having capabilities that exceed her present circumstances. She likes to think she would be a better president with Fitz, which I'm not sure I would agree with. What makes them a great couple – not in terms of love or marriage, but in terms of leadership – is that he is very thoughtful and conscience-oriented and Mellie is very decisive and very thousand-yard stare. It would be a very different administration but I would be thrilled to see Mellie call the shots.
I think there's spin-off potential there.