What It’s Like To Play The White House Press Secretary On “Scandal”
“I think power is the most tempting thing, and while we want to obtain it, at what cost?” Cornelius Smith Jr., who plays the White House press secretary on Scandal, told BuzzFeed News.
It didn’t take long for Marcus Walker to rise up the ranks on Scandal. From his role as a community organizer in Season 4 to an Olivia Pope & Associates employee in Season 5, the character has solidified his place on the show as a trusted Gladiator. And now, as revealed in the Season 6 premiere in late January, Marcus officially made it to the White House where he's press secretary.
“I was fairly shocked that he took this turn,” Cornelius Smith Jr., the actor who plays Marcus, told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “I was looking forward to being in OPA again…that’s the last thing I remember like everybody else. Then I learned, Oh no, your boy is in the White House.”
"Your boy is in the White House.”
When Olivia (Kerry Washington) saw a flirtation (perhaps even a spark) between Marcus and Mellie (Bellamy Young), she immediately called up Abby (Darby Stanchfield) to get Marcus a job in the White House and, therefore, off of Mellie’s presidential campaign. But that was something neither Marcus nor Mellie was aware of.
“You have a job,” Mellie told Marcus when she found out.
“But now I have the job,” Marcus responded, embracing her.
Having the job of press secretary holds a different meaning now than it did when Abby held the same position in Seasons 4 and 5. Not because there’s a different president on Scandal — as of now, Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) is still the leader of the free world — but because while Scandal is a work of fiction, it's now airing in a world in which the job of White House press secretary has dominated the news cycle.
While we’re watching Cornelius Smith Jr. play the fictional role on TV, America is also watching Sean Spicer occupy the position at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in real life, a job he's held since Donald Trump’s inauguration in January.
After a series of televised press conferences that made headlines earned more than 4 million viewers, and confirmed his place as one of the most talked about members of the Trump administration, Spicer even got the SNL treatment: Melissa McCarthy impersonated him in a skit that’s now been viewed over 23 million times on YouTube. Her satirical rendition of Spicer poked fun at his temper, his contentious relationship with the press, and his constant mentioning of “fake news.” It's the first time in recent history that the White House press secretary has been made the central joke of an SNL skit.
“I think things are funny because to some degree it resonates, and there’s an element of truth that makes it funny,” Smith said of McCarthy's Spicer impression. “I thought it was a brilliant way of, from a comedy standpoint, achieving that. I love [Melissa McCarthy], I’ve always been a huge fan of her work, and, listen, I laughed a lot. And I think that was the point.”
The actor has also seen a few of Spicer’s actual press conferences, but he doesn’t make it a point to tune in daily since Marcus's transition from Gladiator to White House press secretary on Scandal.
“I do pay attention to, and have always paid attention to, what is going on in the world, and I always want to stay aware of the most common affairs and events,” Smith said. “While I’m aware of the job and what’s required to do the job … who [Marcus] is and how he does that job in that fictional world is all created and imaginative.”
Smith also doesn’t see anything “negative about playing” the press secretary in the current political climate because, he said, “people recognize that it’s fictional.”
“It’s just been a joy, at least from my standpoint, to imagine, What if I was the White House press secretary in that world?” he said. “But I think what’s going on today is obviously a different tale totally, and what happens today affects real people and affects real lives, whereas we’re just in the business of telling stories and entertaining.”
For the past five seasons, Scandal fans braced themselves for bombshell after bombshell. Recently, however, many have joked that the once-unrealistic plotlines on the show feel tame compared to the political news coming out of Washington. On Feb. 16, Kerry Washington tweeted, “Wow. At times I'm LEGIT getting confused about whether people are tweeting about our show or #Scandal in the real White House.”
That said, the first five episodes of Scandal Season 6 were shot before the 2016 election.
“Some things just kind of coincidentally share some things in common with what’s really going on,” Smith said. “And I think that’s what makes the show really addictive, is that it kind of has this great element of wanting you to want more, because it’s so bizarre but yet so real and true.”
Most recently in Episode 4 of Scandal Season 6, titled “The Belt,” Marcus did his best to avoid answering questions from the press about what the White House had to say about Cyrus Beene’s (Jeff Perry) possible involvement in the assassination of Frankie Vargas, who was killed shortly after becoming president-elect. In the past, Marcus has acted as a moral compass on Scandal when so many other characters “cross the line,” as Smith put it. But it's possible that things may change.
“Power is the most tempting thing."
“The statement you gave an hour ago is what you chose to say. I want to know the truth,” Olivia said to Marcus about his press briefing after Frankie Vargas was shot.
“When Fitz was shot, it was me behind that podium. It was on me to keep America calm, to keep the stock market from crashing, to keep an entire country safe. So, I bent the truth,” she pressed on. “I said he was better off than he really was because that’s what the country needed to hear. Is that what you’re doing? Are you bending the truth?”
Marcus admitted that he was, in fact, “bending the truth” in that instance. And Smith said the audience will see what happens when his character is given the opportunity to test those boundaries.
“Power is the most tempting thing, and while we want to obtain it, at what cost?” Smith said. “At what level are you willing to go or not go to obtain that power, and then once you have it, can you stay true and not be corrupted?”