‘Scandal’ Star Tony Goldwyn on Shondaland, Mellie Vs. Hillary Clinton, and Standing Up to Cancer
The swoon-worthy POTUS talks about his mother's cancer battle, how Shonda Rhimes inspires her cast, and the episode of Designing Women he still gets asked about.
More than 22 years ago, long before he became President of the United States and an indispensable member of the most progressive and impactful show on television, Scandal star Tony Goldwyn lost his mother to a battle with lung cancer.
“They literally just threw up their hands,” he tells The Daily Beast. “It was awful.”
It’s why, two decades after losing his mother, actress Jennifer Coleman, the 54-year-old actor is lending his voice to Stand Up To Cancer’s latest campaign with Bristol Myers-Squibb, which promotes the importance of empowering lung cancer patients and their families with information about the therapies, special trials, and breakthroughs available to them.
For Goldwyn, who was best known for his turn in Ghost before leading the free world and romancing Kerry Washington in Scandal, it’s a personal cause that’s taken a bit of a professional push to speak out about.
It’s hard to live in Shondaland, the network of actors and TV professionals who work on the series created by the indomitable Shonda Rhimes, and not feel an urge to mirror her message: Take the fire burning inside of you and fan the flames; don't put it out. Speak out about what you believe in, do work that’s important, and then maybe light some fires under other people, too.
“It’s the kind of people that Shonda attracts and is interested in working with,” Goldwyn says. “Pretty much all of us are engaged in various levels in some sort of activism, whether it’s political or charitable. It’s just a group of really outward focused individuals.”
Whether it’s Rhimes herself speaking about the imperative of normalizing diversity in Hollywood, Kerry Washington delivering a searing call to arms for all those who have been “othered” to work together for change at the GLAAD Media Awards, the quiet storylines with loud messages about tolerance, equality, and representation on Rhimes’s shows, or Goldwyn now working on behalf of Stand Up to Cancer—the Pledge of Allegiance for citizens of Shondaland vows that they will do good work, on and off-screen.
It’s how Goldwyn, after three decades in the business, from Ghost to Broadway to playing the President of the United States, has arrived at this very crucial point in his career: the one where, both personally with this lung cancer initiative and professionally with his work on Scandal, he’s saying something.
“I feel that if I’m given a voice because I happen to have a job that puts me in the public eye, and I can use that voice to call attention to important things like Stand Up To Cancer, then I feel both grateful and also a responsibility to do that,” he says.
Part of that impulse derives from being moved by the memories of his mother’s cancer battle. Jennifer Coleman was 68 when she was diagnosed with lung cancer after a tumor was found on her lung. “They said there’s really no cure for this kind of cancer,” Goldwyn remembers. The doctors tried radiation, which helped for a few months. “But it came back and they said you have to get your affairs in order,” he says. “We had no alternative, so it was about embracing how she wanted to spend the last year of her life.”
But that was 22 years ago. Lung cancer remains one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. In 2015, more than 221,000 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with it, and it will take the lives of approximately 158,000.
“The truth is, pretty much all of us are affected by cancer in some way in our lifetime,” Goldwyn says. “One of the difficult things about an illness like that is that there’s a certain shame factor associated with it and people want to keep it a secret. I think it’s critical to talk about it.”
The goal of his PSA, he says, is to encourage speaking out and to encourage advocacy. There are so many options available to patients that weren't afforded his mother, and they can only be accessed if you speak up and ask for them.
Speaking up and asking for things—even demanding for things, like change and attention—has been a hallmark of the last four years of Goldwyn’s life, since he joined the cast of Scandal.
It’s a show that has been shameless, in a way that changes the definition of that word into a superlative, in its insistence to “say something,” both subtly and explicitly, with its episodes and even with just the visibility of its characters. It says something each week about gay rights, about race and power and interracial relationships, and about entitlement and responsibility. Just last month, even, it halted its continuing storylines veritably in their tracks in order to produce an episode sparked from the race riots in Ferguson and the murder of Eric Garner.
“They sort of stopped and decided they needed to do this, and they just wrote this amazing episode of television because Shonda felt it needed to be talked about,” Goldwyn says. It was blistering and controversial in every way you'd expect an episode about those issues to be. But it was also extremely entertaining, excellent television.
“That’s the gift of Shonda,” Goldwyn says. “It’s one thing to be in an ivory tower talking about important things—and I’ve done that, too. And I’ve done things that were very socially relevant that nobody saw, no matter how high-minded and good they were. But Scandal is a show that everybody wants to watch, and yet it does talk about stuff that’s uncomfortable and needs to be talked about.”
Take, for example, one of the show’s most exciting new storylines, laying the groundwork for the possibility that Goldwyn’s character President Grant may soon be supporting his wife, Mellie, as she makes a run to be the first female president of the United States. That's the other thing about when Shonda Rhimes says something: Her timing is impeccable.
“I think it’s a mirror of what’s happening in the world, which is great,” Goldwyn says, referring, obviously, to Hillary Clinton’s just-announced presidential campaign at the same time Scandal’s exploring the storyline. “But for me, personally, it’s such a wonderful new direction to take Mellie and Fitz’s relationship.”
Already, for example, we’ve seen Mellie get frustrated at Fitz for not properly playing the role of the campaign spouse, one she’s dutifully played for years. It’s a refreshing turning of the tables for a couple whose borderline dysfunctional relationship has already been dramatically explored every which way to Sunday.
“Mellie’s got a tough ride, learning what it takes to do these things,” Goldwyn says. “Because up until recently, Mellie’s been a very impulsive woman. Often her impulses are self-destructive. It’s one thing to do that when you’re not in the hot seat. This is a very different thing.”
Of course tackling radical issues and saying something with his work isn’t an entirely new venture for Goldwyn. As any member of the gay community—or fan of campy late ‘80s television—can tell you, he played an unshakable role in one of the most important episodes of mainstream TV the LGBT community had seen at that point.
In a 1987 episode of Designing Women, he played a gay man in his early twenties who is diagnosed with AIDS. He goes to the women at Sugarbaker & Associates and asks them to design his funeral, much to their shock and heartbreak—and delight of a bystander woman who claims that he’s getting what he deserves for leading a religiously immoral gay lifestyle.
What follows is an episode that confronts bigotry, clarifies myths about AIDS, raises awareness of the crippling epidemic, and is staunchly gay-positive in an unexpectedly overt way. It would take more than a decade for any TV series to confront the issue in as in-your-face a manner.
Goldwyn remembers being hired for the job as a young actor, and talking with Designing Women creator Linda Bloodworth-Thompson, whose mother died from AIDS contracted from a blood transfusion, about the storyline.
“I wasn't totally aware of how absolutely significant it was, but I felt like I was on the front lines of something critically important,” he says. “It was 1987 and I had already lost so many friends to AIDS that it had made a big impact on me. What really has stunned me is that to this day people come up to me and talk to me about that.”
Right before he started work on Scandal, Goldwyn was starring in Promises Promises on Broadway, and one of his co-stars dressers came up to him with tears in his eyes to talk about the episode. “‘We were going through such a dark, horrible time, and you don’t understand what that meant to our community,’ he said,” Goldwyn remembers. “He literally had tears in his eyes, 25 years later. I was really shocked about that.”
It brings him back to talking about what Shonda Rhimes is doing on Scandal, with characters like Jeff Perry’s Cyrus, who is allowed to matter-of-factly exist as a gay man, while at the same time serving as a catalyst for discussing crucial civil rights issues. It brings him back to what he’s able to do now, too, speaking out with Stand Up To Cancer about the era the medical community is in of new options for patients.
“It all shows you the power of television,” he says. “The power of what we do is immense, and it’s easy to take for granted. So I just try never to do so.”