Thanks to the genius of Shonda Rhimes and an amazing writing team, ABC’s Scandal has some of the most terrifying and beloved characters on television right now. Cyrus Beene, Eli Pope, Huck, even Mellie Grant—they’ve all sent some serious shivers down our spines over the past three seasons. But Charlie (no last name, obviously) is a very specific breed of scary. Everything this guy says is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, and that would be fine if everything he said didn’t somehow reference killing or torturing someone, AKA what he did at work that day. George Newbern has been on a slew of television shows over the years, including Nip/Tuck and Providence, and many will recognize him as the voice of Superman/Clark Kent from Justice League. But his career took him for an exciting, twisted turn when he was cast as B6-13 CIA operative and, now, über-creepy boyfriend to Quinn Perkins on Scandal. Paste caught up with Newbern to talk about his early days in Arkansas and this crazy, wild ride in Shondaland.
Paste: So, I noticed that someone was kind enough to upload an old Chevron commercial that you were in on YouTube.
Newbern: Oh my God, that’s so funny.
Paste: I had a blast watching that. I know some of your first acting experiences took place at at the Arkansas Arts Center. Can you talk a little bit about your early days and how you first got introduced to theatre and the arts?
Newbern: I started when I was about twelve or thirteen and I was in Little Rock, Ark. It’s a very small town, but they had a great children’s theatre. When I was in the 8th grade they got me a scholarship to the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre, so I lived part of the year up in Minneapolis, where I did a musical. I did a lot of musicals when I was younger. And then I went to Northwestern University, and I did more musicals. I went on to do more work in Chicago, and then while I was in college I got flown out to Los Angeles to do a screen test for Back to the Future. When I got to Los Angeles I was like, “Hmmm, this is different.” And it just seemed like something that was at least worth trying. So I put my shoulder behind the L.A. thing. It was very different, clearly, from theater, but it was the right thing for me.
Paste: You’ve been doing this for such a long time, and you’ve also known Tony Goldwyn [President Fitzgerald Grant on Scandal] for a really long time, right?
Newbern: Yeah! Tony and I were in acting class together. We hadn’t seen each other a lot in the last ten years. He’s just a great guy and one of the most genuine folks that I know. He’s actually directed two Scandal episodes so far, and it’s hilarious! But he’s great—great with the actors and great with the crew, too. He knows his way around a camera.
Paste: “Seven Fifty-Two” will always be one of my favorite Scandal episodes. Today I came across a photo of you when you were holding Huck’s baby. You were so terrifying in that scene!
Newbern: He was so bad! He was. Charlie, he’s just kinda creepy. He doesn’t want to be, but he is.
Paste: Well it’s funny, because you also had this compassion. You end up saving Huck in that same episode.
Newbern: Yeah, that’s true.
Paste: What’s your take on Charlie? Do you have your own theories about how he developed this complex personality?
Newbern: It’s interesting. They’ll write something in the script, and we won’t even necessarily talk about it. It’ll just marinate. So there’s that moment where I don’t shoot him. And it’s either that I’m irritated by the whole thing, or there’s a flash of compassion. And I think that’s what came across. And once we see things like that, sometimes the writers will run with it and say, “Okay, let’s go in this direction.”
The relationship between Huck and Charlie started, really, before Quinn and Huck—he brought Huck into this community. Although, they’re also like brothers in a weird way—they have this older brother/little brother relationship. And now that Quinn’s involved, it’s turned into this playground love triangle. Which is really funny. Except, you know, there are knives and guns involved.
I think these are clearly damaged people. This is what they do for a living. For better or worse, it’s the only world they know. I think they have a sense of right and wrong, it’s just unfortunate that they enjoy the thrill and danger of it. (laughs) Though, usually, they’re not just hurting innocent people. All the people they’re dealing with are usually enemies of the “republic”; they’re not innocent people. Now Charlie has fewer scruples than maybe Huck or Quinn, but not by that much.
Paste: I’ve been lucky enough to interview some of your fellow cast members—Guillermo [Huck], Darby [Abby Whelan] and Jeff [Cyrus Beene], and I’ve asked all of them about their first time reading the Scandal script. What was your first experience with the show?
Newbern: My experience was different from most of the other folks because originally I was just supposed to do one episode. I showed up and auditioned for a guest spot. I thought it would be a cool show, and I love Shonda Rhimes, so I went in. Then I read the character description and saw that I was gonna be, like, naked and tortured with power tools and I was like, “What the hell is this?” (laughs). I think it was the fourth episode of the first half of the season, and nothing had aired yet, so I didn’t know much about it—it all had to be explained. So it was just kind of weird to me. After I shot two episodes, they let me screen the pilot and then I got to see how things were working stylistically. Toward the second season I got my sea legs, and I was like “Oh!” But I was really in the dark for the first couple of episodes.
Paste: Every character on Scandal is so layered and complicated. It’s been especially excited watching Vice President Sally Langston’s transformation.
Newbern: Oh yeah, definitely.
Paste: As a man of faith, I’m curious to know how you might see her character. I’m thinking specifically of the way she’s always reciting scripture, even as she’s, you know, murdering people.
Newbern: It’s really interesting because something clearly has snapped in her. I think any politician, regardless of their religious conviction, has to be a megalomaniac—they have to be! (laughs) Anyone who works in that kind of job has to be so full of himself to do that kind of thing. To say, “Hey I’m a leader, I’m a badass, you have to follow me”? So the same is true for her, and I don’t think her religious convictions are any less convincing, but something in her has crossed over. And when she snaps, her spiritual background kind of betrays her. She can’t deal with it.
I thought it was so amazing the way she did that “piggy pig” thing [in “No Sun on the Horizon”]. She did it at the table read, and we were all like “What?” But then when I saw it on the show I thought it was genius.
Paste: It was hilarious. Now, one of my favorite lines of yours was the one you said to Quinn a while back: “Think of it as a real relationship, except when you talk, I’ll actually listen to you.”
Newbern: Yes! I loved that line! They give me such great dialogue—its crazy.
Paste: I know you’ve been married for thirteen years, so I’m going to assume this isn’t your actual philosophy about relationships.
Newbern: Well, you said thirteen? Try twenty-three years.
Paste: No way!
Newbern: Yeah, I got married in 1990.
Paste: That’s amazing. I’m curious to know what your wife thinks of your role on the show.
Newbern: She’s pretty psyched. She’s been an actress for twenty-five years. She did the Dear John series and The Hughleys. She was the white neighbor. (laughs)
Paste: That’s right! I used to watch—I was a big D. L. Hughley fan.
Newbern: Yup! She was the one with blonde hair and blue eyes. But I think she likes it because it’s something different for me. It’s really been the biggest gift ever, this role. As an actor, you always feel like you’re not going to work again. (laughs) You’re always unsure about how things are going to work out, and you start thinking you’re going to just fade off into the distance. So this has been such a surprising, refreshing jolt in my career and blessing in my life. I’ve told Shonda before—she’s my angel.
Paste: It sounds a little like being a freelance writer. You’re constantly on the prowl for new gigs and new assignments—you love your work, but that searching factor never ends.
Newbern: Oh, exactly! It never ends. You just have to make peace with that, and you almost never do. But it has to hurt less than it did yesterday. That’s the goal. (laughs)
Paste: That’s a good way of looking at it. Now, one thing I find really fascinating about your relationship with Quinn on the show is that there are elements of it that feel totally real and like a legitimate relationship. For example, if you guys weren’t out killing and torturing people right now, you could just be another couple going through that awkward time where one person wants to live together, and the other doesn’t. Obviously, I’m dying to know if Charlie will find out about Quinn and Huck, but I suspect you won’t tell me that much.
Newbern: I can’t, I can’t! But I will say, they’re all a little emotionally stunted. Charlie feels like he does love her, he actually does. But it’s not in a mature way. It’s in more of a possessive way, like a first girlfriend in the 8th grade or something. But Quinn is in a tougher position because I think she has feelings for Charlie in one way, and then feelings for Huck in some other weird way. She’s also torn between her role in B6-13 and Olivia Pope & Associates. So she’s got a whole other journey going on. I can’t speak for her character, but she looks like she’s really messed up there.
Paste: Well, obviously I’m excited for the rest of the season.
Newbern: Me, too! It’s just been a blast.
Paste: Thanks so much! I really appreciated this!
Newbern: Thank you!
Shannon M. Houston is a New York-based freelance writer, regular contributor to Paste, and occasional contributor to the human race via little squishy babies. You can follow her on Twitter.