Bellamy Young, who plays Scandal‘s First Lady Mellie Grant, has converted her first-ever acting nomination into a deserved win, at this year’s Critics’ Choice Television Awards – and against stiff competition.
“What’s awesome, I feel, is that I am alive and working in a time when women are increasingly being allowed to be complicated — to be morally ambiguous, to be empowered and emancipated and unpredictable,” the actress shared with TVLine on the eve of her momentous night. Surveying the roster of those who likely will next be vying with her for an Emmy nomination on July 10, she adds: “There are a lot of beautiful talents out there just waiting for the opportunity to shine…. I feel like we’re just at the beginning of an enormous mountain of great female stories ahead.”
Here, Young reflects on her journey to the Scandal White House, the devastating blows she has had to depict on screen and the secret to serving up a truly intoxicating First Lady.
TVLINE | I was remembering the other day that you weren’t even a Scandal regular until Season 2. How was the role first presented to you for the pilot?
Mellie was just two lines in the pilot…. I had gone out the day before [reading for the role] and bought an outfit, which I never do, but I had a really specific idea who I wanted to be. Tony [Goldwyn, Fitz] had directed me not that long before on Dirty Sexy [Money], so I wanted to be the woman who would be a partner to Tony. That’s what I had in my mind.
We shot the pilot — it was very quick, obviously, my bit in it — and then we got picked up to series. For the first table read, [series creator] Shonda [Rhimes] went around and told everyone what their arc would be for those seven episodes. When she got to me, she said, “I think you’ll be here about three episodes. I want to write a presidential divorce” — and my heart sank through the floor, because I was so excited to be there and so wanted to be a part of things. But then a beautiful, miraculous alchemy led the writers to exploring Mellie as a wedge, as a lever, as an obstacle.
TVLINE | I imagine it’s probably an actor’s mission to somehow make themselves indispensable.
But we are only there to serve story, right? And as much as you think you can dig deep — and Lord knows I see my coach and I do my homework and I do everything I can to show up for this incredible opportunity, Matt — I’m 44 and a woman in Hollywood. So this is like lightning striking a ship in a bottle. I worked so hard for it, but at the end of the day we all serve story. I’m just unspeakably lucky that I found myself the obstacle to the central love story.
TVLINE | Is a show like Scandal – a drama that’s so fast-paced, so bananas and existing amid a heightened reality — perhaps the most taxing of assignments for an actor? Since the world is forever shifting beneath your feet?
Oh, no. It’s the best. I can conceive of no greater gift. It’s a challenge, sure, but I’m with a bunch of people that love hard work. Usually when you get a job on a show, which is lucky enough, you know you’re going to serve the same function in the narrative every week. You’re going to do your thing. But when we sit down to a table read, we could be the hero, we could be the villain, we could be the betrayer, we could be the betrayed…. You have no idea. And internally in that episode, you’ll wriggle back and forth on yourself a million times. It’s actor heaven. And we’re a bunch of theater actors, so we all get real Poindexter about it as we work on our backstories and run our lines. We work hard, but it’s a thrill.
In terms of brainpower, I remember Season 2, Episode 220 and 221… I did my 9-5/8 pages for one day while I was trying to learn my 7-1/4 for the next…. So baby, your brain has to be so willing to sponge up goodness — and it can, because the writing is so beautiful. We don’t have to do the part to make it make sense and to figure it out for ourselves.
TVLINE | And it only ups the ante that you’re working alongside the likes of Jeff Perry and Tony Goldwyn and Kerry Washington…. No one can phone it in on this show, because you’ll get steamrolled.
No, it’s like stepping into the ring. We put our little gloves on, we step right in and we look in each other’s eyes and all the rest of the world goes quiet, and we let Shonda and our writers come out of our brains and our mouths and our hearts. It feels like the most elaborate acrobatic high-wire act in the world. And then they call cut and you kind of shake it off and you sit back down in your corner.
TVLINE | Do you and Tony or Kerry ever touch base beforehand to talk about just how hard you’re going to go at each other in a volatile scene?
We don’t talk about it like that, but the lines of communication are quite open and we like to prepare as much as we can. We keep our secrets secret, because you’ve got to bring your secrets into the room so that you can surprise the other person, but we do find some solid common ground between us — especially when we shot [Fitz], there was a beautiful little one-act play that Shonda wrote for me and Kerry and Jeff Perry while Fitz lay prone in a coma. At midnight the night before we were first up the next day, we got an email from Shonda saying, “Please don’t kill me, please don’t hate me, but that scene has never felt right for me, I just rewrote it, and I really love it” — and it was like five pages of perfect stuff. We all had monologues, we all had twists and turns, and we were first up the next day. It’s times like that when you know that you’re in the best hands possible, because she cares so much.
TVLINE | What was the very first moment where it struck you, “Shonda is doing something really interesting with this character of Mellie”?
She gave me some not quite verbal moments of “noticing” in Episode 103; at the State Dinner, she allowed Mellie’s perspective a moment to breathe. I thought, “Well, that’s nice.” And then in “The Trial,” Episode 106, you really started to see things from Mellie’s point of view.
TVLINE | Yes, like when she catches Fitz and Liv in the hall….
Yeah. Yeah. And even that little moment on the bus where they were trying to figure out how to do something. Mellie’s supposed to be listening and thinking and I’d asked to file my nails [during which I] get the idea of the “I lost a child” monologue. And then in Episode 7, Shonda had written that gorgeous little one-act for me and Kerry [toward the close of the Season 1 finale].
TVLINE | How daunting was it to dive into a character-shaping moment such as the rape?
That was a giant episode for Mellie, bless their hearts, because I had a full arc in the present, and I had that very full arc in the flashback narrative. But sitting at the table read and finding that [plot point] out was one of the very quiet moments where all your cells kind of aligned and everything makes sense in a way that it didn’t before. It was terrifying to think that in a matter of days, that’s what you’re going to do onscreen with someone, or have done to you. But it put the ground under Mellie’s feet in a really tangible way in terms of not victimization, but being a survivor. Also, in that beautiful way that Shonda has, as much as the episode was about finding that out, she didn’t make the episode about that, so it is therefore enormously more resonating and speaks volumes for those to whom it has actually happened. I continue to be really grateful to be able to have played a part in bringing that story to light. I think that story happens to women far more often than we like to talk about…. This is why I think acting is a gift, because we get to act these things out that allow other people to watch, heal, discover.
TVLINE | At the point afterward when Mellie crawled into the bed with Fitz, do you think she had decided how she was going to proceed, or was it something she sat with overnight?
I think Mellie continues to put one foot in front of the other the best way she can. And when she got back into bed with him, it was all she could do to only cry forward. All I was thinking about, at least in acting, was to not let my body shake. Like, I’m breaking down but he can’t see my face, so my face can do whatever, but don’t let my body show a thing. I think that’s been her ever-present mindset going forward, to just get through this moment, now get through that moment.. Mellie’s like a little bonsai tree. You can feel the achingly absent limbs of light and love and levity that have had to be pruned away to get through every succeeding moment that she’s had to survive.
TVLINE | And now she’s got the tragic death of her son to deal with. Have you and Tony confabbed at all over how you plan to play that?
No, because I don’t know if we’ll come back immediately [in time]. One year, we skipped 10 months in the middle, so I have no idea where we’ll start back. But I can tell you that and as much as [the rape episode] “Everything’s Coming Up Mellie” was a devastating table read, that script for our last episode of Season 3…
TVLINE | I could not believe they went there.
It killed me, I’m telling you. That episode just kept going ugh, ugh, ugh, you know? At the table read we’d finish the first little bit and Shonda would say, “It’s just Act 1 people. Just Act 1.” Because there was so much more to come and we were just not ready for it. I feel I’ve never known such devastation.
TVLINE | Ending things on a much lighter note: What’s the key to playing Drunk Mellie?
The key to playing drunk for me is that it’s such a different physicality for Mellie. Usually, Mellie’s musculature is sort of like a ballerina’s, right? You draw it up through the spine to the core and out the top of your head, everything’s very controlled and moving upright. But for a drunk Mellie, your belly hangs out, your shoulders slope, your head does this bit of a rocking thing, you know? She’s a little unleashed that way. But I think the key is that your mind has to focus on appearing sober, to not let anyone notice that I’m drunk. Your body can’t control itself, but your mind has to be really trying to appear perfect. And when it all comes together, I just love it. I love it. I love it.