Sometimes I think it was all a dream, except for the fact that it changed my whole life.
I auditioned for Scandal during pilot season 2011. I’d arrived in L.A. in 2000, having spent nine years doing theater in New York after college. I’d been lucky to work steadily (pilots, guest spots, recurring roles, films), but nothing that had popped. I auditioned for Scandal the day before my part started working: I only had two lines in the pilot, so I was a very last-minute addition.
At the first table read after we got picked up to series, [creator/showrunner] Shonda Rhimes went around and told everyone what their arc would be for those first seven episodes [of season one]: she said I’d be around for three episodes; that she wanted to write a presidential divorce. It is the greatest gift of my lifetime that somehow, before that happened, the writers found the usefulness of Mellie as a fulcrum in Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) and Olivia’s (Kerry Washington) relationship, and by the second season, I was brought on as a regular.
I got extra lucky because that second season, Mellie was pregnant, so as a first-time series regular in Hollywood, I didn’t have to worry about my weight. I began to realize that working in a matriarchy means there are a million worries you have taken as fact after all these years that simply do not exist in that paradigm. Weight is one of them. Agency is another. Respect, yet another. As I began to settle into my first work family in Los Angeles, I found myself in the company of some of the most supportive, hard-working, open-hearted people I’ve ever known. And in an environment that nurtured everyone’s evolution, both personal and professional. Over the course of our seven seasons together, I’d get to watch these folks I love so dearly (crew, writers and cast) have families of their own, buy houses, give life to their own projects, move ever upwards in their field or try another (like watching Kerry and Darby Stanchfield blossom as directors!). Getting to experience how life can flourish in a nurturing environment gives me pause even now, and has indelibly set the bar for how I want to live my life — both on the clock and off.
It’s funny: we used to say that when Shonda sleeps, she goes to place where All Truth is, because without revealing things to her, each of us has, on more than one occasion, found ourselves reading one of our deepest truths cold, out-loud at a table read. But surrounded by love, there was never any shame. Only growth. From my own #MeToo moments and Mellie’s rape (how she dealt with it, how it changed her life) to my personal history with grieving “inappropriately” (though I never made it to the operatically glorious plane of Smelly Mellie) … well, I can only share what’s mine, but each of us had deep moments of exorcism and healing over the course of this show. Secrets were brought into the light and loved away — and I got to watch each of us put down our baggage piece by piece and walk a little further toward the sun.
I think about Mellie, too. Her incredible journey; how much she taught me. I try to stay objective and accepting of my roles: the minute you start judging them, it all goes sideways — just like life, when we’re too self-aware. But by the end of the series, I really did find myself rooting for Mellie, appreciating her journey as our time together drew to a close. I’ve buried a lot of family members, and not to belittle human loss in any way, but saying a final goodbye to the parallel life you’ve been living — and family you’ve been living it with for seven years — holds a very similar grief. Surreality. Disbelief. As noted above, my grieving often surprises me, so I make no claims to have processed this gift, this loss, yet, but I can say that I watched each of us do our deepest best to stay present over this last season to say a very mindful goodbye and thank you to every moment and every person. We never took it for granted. Not for a minute. And really, in the face of inevitable loss, that’s all you can ask of yourself.
I marvel that I got to be a part of a show that always tried to contribute to the important conversations going on in the world without ever being ripped-from-the-headlines. “The Lawn Chair” remains one of my proudest moments in our series in its response to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, as does the episode where I filibuster for reproductive rights and Liv has an abortion. Learning that Cyrus (Jeff Perry) is gay in season two simply by his husband James answering the door — no “special episode” or sudden marginalization. Watching how being raped informs the rest of Mellie’s life, how Abby’s (Stanchfield) history with domestic violence shapes her, how Huck (Guillermo Diaz) deals with PTSD. Watching Quinn (Katie Lowes) handle becoming The Boss — even of her fiancée Charlie (George Newbern) — and be pregnant: confronting so many “issues” about women and power in one non-issue of a situation. Quinn was simply in charge. Because she was the right person. Or that amazing conversation between Olivia and Fitz about consent in the recent episode “The List.” Consent is sexy, y’all.
I remain so proud of all Shonda has done to normalize the vista of television: everyone has a seat at her table, regardless of how they look or whom they love. She is interested in souls. In story. And she knows how important it is to get to see your story represented: to not feel alone on this planet in your journey.
I also remain proud to have gotten to play a president. Our country is behind most of the rest of the world in its comfort with female leadership; I’m certainly hoping that era is ending, and I loved every moment of getting to bring a female POTUS into living rooms everywhere. And loved that I had such good company in that endeavor on TV this year.
I’m often asked whether I’m happy with how it all ended. What I can tell you is that in terms of story, we had no idea where it would land until the table read for the final episode. It’s so thrilling to work on a show that surprises you at every turn, to the point that as you’re finishing the penultimate episode, you still have no idea how it will all end. I bow down to our writers for never taking the easy way out or over-planning: they wrote themselves into corners time and time again, and found bold but organic ways to get out of them. I feel like the end of the series is no exception. Those characters live on for me now (well, with one notable, spoiler alert exception) in ways that feel true to who they are, that honor the path they each were on all along. In terms of family, I hold hope that that will never end. I know life pulls you in different directions, but we’re all very aware of how special this chemistry is: no one’s ready to let it go any time soon.
I guess the glitter that I’m still blinking back in my eyes is that feeling that with the right support, we can all flourish into our best selves. This loving family I got to share seven season with healed me in ways I may never fully understand. Getting to play Mellie taught me, unequivocally, how it feels to fight for your dreams and never give up. Working in Shondaland taught me that love is the supreme motivator: not fear. And emerging from this gift of a lifetime, I am inspired to pay forward the gifts of these seven seasons: to support enthusiastically, to love boundlessly, to delight in other’s successes, to keep listening to my heart and moving in the direction it shows me with as much resilience and grace as possible.
It wasn’t a dream. But it sure felt like one. And now I know dreams are achievable if everybody joins hands and leaps together. ‘Til next time.
Bellamy Young next stars in ABC drama pilot False Profits, with the cosmetics drama marking her first time at the top of the call sheet.