Tony Goldwyn isn’t just the 54-year-old sex symbol at the heart of Scandal. He’s the co-creator of the legal drama The Divide about the fight to exonerate a death row inmate.
Tony Goldwyn knows what it’s like to become the toast of Hollywood, as he was after 1990’s Ghost, and then to have it all slip away. As his acting jobs began to dry up, he discovered a productive second career as a director of films (A Walk on the Moon, Someone Like You, Conviction) and TV shows (Dexter, Justified and Scandal). Once he returned to the acting spotlight —care of his role as President “Fitz” Grant on ABC’s hit drama Scandal — Goldwyn didn’t want to waste a moment of his comeback. So the actor also co-created his first series: the compelling drama The Divide, which debuts as WE tv’s first original scripted drama Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
The eight-episode series — which Goldwyn and Richard LaGravenese initially developed for AMC before it was moved to the retooled sister network— follows an Innocence Initiative caseworker (Marin Ireland, Homeland) as she looks to stop the impending execution of a death row inmate (Chris Bauer), and examines how the revelation of his possible innocence upends the soaring political career of the Philadelphia district attorney (Damon Gupton, Suits) who put him away.
The Divide has its roots in Conviction, the 2010 film Goldwyn directed based on the true story of Betty Anne Waters (played by Hilary Swank), a waitress in Rhode Island who went to law school to free her brother, who was wrongly convicted of a 1980 murder. While making that film, Goldwyn became involved with the Innocence Project (upon which Divide’s Innocence Initiative is based), the legal organization that works to exonerate wrongly-convicted people via DNA testing.
Meanwhile, the actor is also preparing to start filming the fourth season of Scandal, where Fitz will be left to cope with the half-dozen jaw-dropping twists from the Season 3 finale: he was surprisingly re-elected as President, but endured the shocking death of his son Jerry (who died of bacterial meningitis at the hands of Olivia Pope’s father, Eli, though Fitz thinks that Olivia’s mother was the guilty party), finally learned that his father had raped his wife, Mellie, years ago, and is about to discover that and his on-again, off-again lover Olivia (Kerry Washington) has fled to parts unknown with her sometimes-boyfriend Jake (Scott Foley).
Goldwyn sat down with The Daily Beast to talk about taking on two full-time TV jobs, what’s in store for Fitz this year and the joy of becoming a “sex symbol” at 54.
You have two full-time jobs with Scandal and The Divide. How do you juggle them both?
It’s so funny the way life is. You can’t really control when stuff happens, so you pile it on and then you figure it out. On Scandal, they wrote the first 10 episodes of last season and we shot them, and then they took a five-week writers’ hiatus to get a real jump on the last eight episodes. And that enabled me to slot in the shooting of the first two episodes [of The Divide] in that. They gave me an extra week or so off on Scandal, so I was able to direct the first two and get the show up and running. Then Richard and I made a deal where he stayed on location in Toronto, because he really loves writing with the actors and being on set, and we set up the cutting room out here, so I was able to manage post[-production].
So what happened when Scandal started up again?
“God bless Kerry. That woman, she’s just indefatigable. I don’t know how she did it, nine months pregnant and working like a dog with the best attitude, and looking damn fit!”
The way Scandal works, you tend to schedule by location. Even if I’m in a lot of a show, most of my stuff is in and around the Oval Office, so I usually work about half the schedule. Sometimes more: the hairiest one was when I was directing as well. I directed the 15th episode, which was right in the middle of a maelstrom of shooting and cutting The Divide. And the hilarity of it was, I was in practically every scene of that episode of Scandal. It was the one where you meet our children, and I find out that Mellie’s been unfaithful to me, and we had this huge fight, and I tell her that it’s her fault that our marriage fell apart. So it was just insane. I would go back and forth between Sunset Gower Studios [where Scandal films] and our cutting room in the back. I would work at night a lot, wrap, and then go to the cutting room. Or sometimes in the mornings, before I would go to Scandal. Whatever you had to do.
Before you directed Conviction, did you have any passion about the death penalty issue?
Nope. I really knew very little about it. I was ambivalent about the death penalty. I thought, “Well, I don’t agree with it, but then if my child was murdered, how would I feel about it?” I was really on the fence about it, but hadn’t thought deeply about it. I heard this story on the news, or my wife did, and I got involved in telling this woman’s story, of Conviction, and got to Barry [Scheck] and got to know the Innocence Project. And at the same time, while I was developing that, I did a play called The Exonerated. That was the true story of six exonerees, and I told the story of a man, Kerry Max Cook, who spent 19 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. And I thought, “Oh my God, there’s so many mistakes that can be made. If there’s errors in the system built in, then that’s murder.” So then, my views really changed about the death penalty.
After your years of development with AMC, when they said The Divide was instead going to WE, were you worried about being the test case for that network?
No, I loved the idea. Because selfishly, I knew it would be a priority. AMC had an extraordinary track record, that team of executives, with what they did with Mad Men. As they said, “We did this on Mad Men, and we learned a lot doing that, bringing this to a new network.” So I thought, “We’ve got a great team, they know how to market, they have good taste; we trusted them.” We were really thrilled with it. It’s a new age. Because there were people that went, “Really? Are you sure? What is WE?” And I thought, “Boy, you are behind the times. You’d better wake up and see what’s happening in this industry.”
The case will be wrapped up by the end of Season 1, but your plan is to make this an ongoing series with these characters?
Yes. What happens is this case sufficiently derails all of these people’s lives and opens up real problems for all of them that will launch us into a second season. So the Butler case, while I can’t say it’s tied up neatly, because it’s a mess, there’s resolution there, but it leaves a lot of metaphorical bodies in the road.
None of the Divide characters are all good or all bad; they’re all flawed. Was that something you had purposely incorporated from Scandal?
Absolutely. It was just an aesthetic taste thing that happened to align. From the get-go, Richard and I, the reason we loved the idea of telling the story through this prosecutor’s eyes, is so it wasn’t, oh, look at these do-gooder saints! There’s two sides to every problem, and we really wanted to be honest about that and not have anybody be squeaky clean, because none of us are. We’re very interested in looking at people who are invested in things being black and white, and how they get hoisted by their own petard in that way. We crave that as human beings, that certainty, and we’re really interested in looking at what happens when that’s challenged and when we really have to look at ourselves in the mirror.
How has serving as a creator changed your appreciation of what Shonda Rhimes does on Scandal?
Oh my God. It’s so hard. It takes so much creative courage to produce a television show. I don’t know how they do it, and I don’t know how they do 22 episodes and maintain the quality that they do. Because I know how hard it was for us to do eight episodes and to keep our standards high, and not rush, and not settle. I have so much admiration for Shonda and all of our writers on Scandal. We never read the Scandal scripts ahead of time. We sit down at the table read, which is usually a day or two before we shoot, and we read them out loud together. Which at first freaked me out—I was like, “When do I prepare?”—but it’s such an exhilarating experience to share that. We read this stuff week after week and we’re like, “What?! What drugs are you on? What crack do you guys smoke in that writer’s room?” It’s amazing to me.
When do you start shooting Season 4?
Have you heard anything about what to expect for Fitz?
I know nothing! Where we left Fitz was not a pretty place—I mean, it’s a fantastic place for an actor. I’m dying to see the first script. I got an email from Shonda, and she just wanted us to know that the writers room is on fire. They’re so excited and they’re all buzzing, and she can’t tell us anything, but they’re so thrilled, so we’re all dying to see what happens. Just like the audience!
Last year, it became a parlor game for viewers to count how many different ways they hid Kerry’s pregnancy on the show.
Oh, yeah! I know, it was pretty comical. When I was directing, I’d go, “So we’re going to do this shot!” And then Oliver, our great cinematographer, and the operators would look at me and go [shakes his head], “No. Can’t do it. Can’t do that shot because…” [Points to stomach] I’d say, “Oh, OK. Well, give her a handbag! Or hide behind the chair!” So we were always strategizing about it. And God bless Kerry. That woman, she’s just indefatigable. I don’t know how she did it, nine months pregnant and working like a dog with the best attitude, and looking damn fit! She’s an amazing human being.
How awkward was it shooting love scenes with a pregnant woman last season?
I don’t think we did. She and Scott [Foley] had a sex scene, but if you think about that scene, you didn’t see a lot. But I don’t like watching the love scenes with her and Scott, frankly!
Your acting career was on fire after Ghost, and then it cooled off. You’ve been directing consistently for more than a decade, but what has this Scandal resurgence been like?
It’s been so great. I’m glad I’m older. I was always a working actor, but with Ghost, I’d be acting for six years and struggling. And then all of a sudden, I got this huge opportunity, and I was hot. I was looking to all of my representatives like, “OK, guys, what happens now?” My career changed markedly, and I was suddenly able to earn a living and support my family, and I always worked, thank God, but then I got not hot. And I did some movies I wasn’t happy with. That was why I wanted to take more control, I wasn’t happy with what was happening with me as an actor. Then, becoming a director enabled me to really love acting again, because it didn’t matter.
How did you approach acting after that?
I only started taking acting jobs that I really thought I could be good in, or that I really wanted to do or working with people I wanted to work with, because I had this directing thing going. So my acting career became much more satisfying. It wasn’t just like, “I’ve got to get another job!” That became very fruitful and fun. And then out of the blue, to be hot again and have this resurgence and become this leading man in my 50s, this sex symbol… [Laughs]. He’s just a very sexy character and women dig him, and it’s given me all these opportunities now. And it gives me, frankly, leverage in my other projects. It’s awesome! But also, I have a sense of humor about it because it’s a moment that won’t last, so I’m just trying to have as much fun and be as creative as I can while this Scandal train is on the tracks. And it’s wonderful.
You also squeezed in Outlaw Prophet, Lifetime’s Warren Jeffs movie, and Divergent. Did you think, ‘Well, I have five free minutes during the week where I’m not doing anything?’
Kind of, yeah! Now that I have creative momentum, I do not take that for granted. So during my last hiatus, I really wanted to do a movie, and Divergent came along, so I did it. And then in this hiatus, I got offered this incredible role of Warren Jeffs, a really ambitious piece of material, and I grabbed it. So you fit it in. I’m lucky, because my kids are grown up. I could never have worked this hard when my kids were in school. I turned down a lot of opportunities earlier in my career because I wanted to be a good father. And I do not regret that for a second.