Three seasons in, and we’re all still trying to figure out the varying moral compasses for the characters on Scandal. Who’s bad, who’s good, who’s really bad? Because on Scandal, even the good guys are bad sometimes. The one exception (so far) has been Joshua Malina’s character, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Rosen. Malina has had quite the career, and many Aaron Sorkin fans remember him as Will Bailey from The West Wing and Jeremy Goodwin on Sports Night.
Paste caught up with Malina to talk about transitioning from Sorkin-land to Shondaland, being in a relationship with someone who’s “nine kinds of crazy” (on Scandal), and of course, the Twitterverse.
Paste: I saw that you grew up in the Westchester area! I went to college in Bronxville and live in Nyack now. Did you find that places like New Rochelle and Scarsdale played a big role in your exposure to the arts?
Joshua Malina: Well, New Rochelle itself—in addition to being the hometown of Rob and Laura Petrie—was famously referred to as being “only 45 minutes from Broadway” in the George M. Cohan musical of the same name. That proximity to wonderful theater was a boon to me as a kid. My dad had some involvement in Broadway, co-producing Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death and The Rothschilds. And his best friend, Manny Azenberg, was—and is—a major player in New York. This all afforded me the opportunity to see a tremendous amount of terrific theater as a kid. At a young age, I was able to point and say “I want to do that.”
Scarsdale certainly played a role too. My cousins are very talented and were active in Scarsdale High’s drama club. I saw them in many plays and musicals over the years. One of their compatriots at the time was Aaron Sorkin. I saw him in his high school production of Godspell! Yes, he was good. And yes, he would go on to figure prominently in my career, bless him…
Paste: Can you tell us a little bit about how working with Aaron on shows like Sports Night and The West Wing might have prepared you for this point in your career, maybe even this role on Scandal?
Malina: I knew Aaron a bit as a kid. After college we became close poker buddies. With his courtroom drama, A Few Good Men, he made my lifelong dream come true, and cast me in the Broadway production. It was an act of true friendship, for which I am eternally grateful. Those 15 months in New York were a very special phase of my life.
On top of this, he has consistently continued to employ me over the years. Sports Night and The West Wing were important milestones for me professionally, but they were also the projects on which I learned to act for the camera. Sports Night was my first opportunity to work as a series regular, and shooting 45 episodes with that group of actors and Aaron’s brilliant dialogue and Tommy Schlamme’s direction, well, that was not a bad screen actor’s bootcamp. And yes, there are enough similarities between Aaron and Shonda’s sharp, snappy, dialogue-heavy writing that Sorkin school was a great prep for Shondaland.
Paste:Everyone I know who watches Scandal remembers exactly how they felt the first time they saw it, where they were, how it changed their life, etc. And I’ve heard from your fellow cast members [Guillermo, Darby, and Jeff] about their initial reactions to the script. Can you tell me what some of your thoughts were when you first read it?
Malina: The honest answer is that I was a fan of Shonda’s and would have signed on without reading the script. Of course I did read it before I went in to audition, and though I really liked it, it wasn’t until I saw subsequent scripts that I began to discover what she was up to. Every time I read a new episode I had a different take: “Oh, it’s a procedural.” “No, it’s a serialized drama.” “It’s a political thriller, with darkly comic undertones!” It dawned on me gradually that Shonda was breaking the mold and creating a new TV beast that was all these things and more.
Paste: Twitter is also somewhat of a beast. It’s this cool, strange place that gets even stranger on Thursday nights. How do you deal with the highs and lows of the Scandal fans, some of whom truly seem to believe that what they’re watching is real and you are, in fact, David Rosen?
Malina: I adore it all…almost. The love, the malice, the obsession, the shipping, the blurring of lines between fantasy and reality—all pretty entertaining. You want to hate David Rosen because he might be the mole? Bring it. You want to hate me because I play him? I will gladly interface with you on the subject, and I’ll sink to your level so quickly it’ll make your head spin. Gladiators—or “gladioli” as I like to call them—are a wonderful, diverse, creative, vocal bunch with whom I love to interact.
Paste: David and Abby are now in the least dysfunctional relationship on the show. Is this a nice change of pace, or do you miss the days of her stealing Cytron cards from you and shoving her fingers in your mouth? Loved that scene, by the way.
Malina: I don’t know how David can still be with Abby. She’s nine kinds of crazy, and she has treated him atrociously. But I don’t write ‘em, I just act ‘em out, and yeah, I suppose they really are the healthiest couple on Scandal. But let’s agree that it’s a low bar indeed that has been set to claim that title.
Paste: I love the Gladiators, I love Olivia Pope, I sometimes love Fitz. But right now you are still the only character on the show legitimately wearing a white hat. Now that the show has really taken a turn with the death of James Novak, are Olivia and David really going to be some kind of new super-team? Or should we expect things to be a lot more complicated than that?
Malina: I got out of the “guessing-where-Shonda’s-going” game long ago. I was invariably wrong, so now I just sit back and wait until a juicy new script is available. If you forced me, I’d have to guess that Olivia and David will continue to be friends one day, and antagonists the next. I love the fire in their interactions and it’s always a blast to work with Kerry [Washington]. I hope they continue to plot, plan, spar and share the occasional bourbon.
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.