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‘Scandal’ Star Darby Stanchfield on Her TV Directing Debut and the Return of the White Hat

Darby Stanchfield has inhabited the role of Abby Whelan on “Scandal” for seven seasons, but for the upcoming episode “The Noise,” she takes on one of her most important positions yet — director.

“I feel really grateful to have been given this opportunity before the end of the series,” Stanchfield tells Variety. “Shondaland is a great example of one of the companies in this town that’s all about empowering women and people of color, and it was a really, really good opportunity to get in there.”

Stanchfield started shadowing the series’ directors during season 5 after watching co-star Tony Goldwyn behind-the-camera and wondering why she wasn’t trying the thing she, too, had always been interested in. Last season, she took the first step when she teamed up with the show’s writers and producers, including Shonda Rhimes, for a web series entitled “Gladiator Wanted.” She helped develop the series, and directed it as well.

She finally was handed the reins with the fourth to last episode of the season. “My intent was really to just help tell the very best story we can with the script,” she says. “This is a special episode in that it’s the first set up piece for the end.” It also marks the return of a character we haven’t seen for a long time: The white hat.

Ahead of her television directorial debut, Stanchfield talks with Variety about what she learned from past “Scandal” directors, how she approached the intimacy of her episode’s one-on-one scenes, and the return of the white hat.

From what previous “Scandal” directors do you feel you have taken the most lessons for your own style?

Tom Verica is our producing director, and what I want to say about him is he is a natural leader. He comes from being an actor, so he has this beautiful sensibility of being an actor’s director, but also he has a sense of leadership on set and he just kind of lifts you up as you go. He’s a real morale booster and a good time. So I was really inspired by [him]. And the other one is Tony Goldwyn. When I shadowed him, it was like film school. I watched the first couple of features he directed, and we talked about camera moves and all sorts of stuff. I took advantage of the history of him directing for 20 years, and above and beyond he gave me so much time. He’s a master at capturing the story and not moving on until you get it. There’s a lot of pressure, directing TV especially. We have huge scripts — we have to shoot eight or nine pages a day, and they’re not little scenes! A lot of times there’s tears or there’s sex or there’s something exploding or there’s torture. Tony has a real fantastic sense of, “We’re getting the story, and if we get behind it’s not a big deal. I’m in control and we’re going to make it up.” So I also really drew from his sense of calm and authority and really really staying true to the job of just telling the story.

“The Noise” features a lot of scenes where characters pair off in duos. How did you approach these to differentiate them in style and tone so they’re not all just shot-reverse shot?

It’s a very character-driven episode, so for me as a new director, it was a great script to get. It’s very juicy! One thing I’m learning about my style of directing is the technical aspects of shooting a scene are always infused by the feeling of what the story is. So it was really about connecting to the story and distilling “What is the most important thing here?” and then allowing that to be the backbone. There’s a cinematographer that I got to work with — Daryn Okada, who’s one of our two cinematographers on the show — and we really worked hand in hand. We were like two kids in a candy shop! He was another person who really empowered me and supported me and was like, “Don’t worry if you don’t know everything about lenses! Let’s just focus on the story.”

Was there anything you meticulously planned that you had to completely rethink when you actually got on-set, and if so, how did you handle that?

Something that I noticed shadowing and that I was expecting was you can prep as much as you want — I blocked everything out and I had shot lists and storyboards — but then you get there and the actors do something even better than anything I ever saw in my imagination, and we’re throwing out all of those plans. So I’m learning very quickly that’s the key to being an effective director — it’s collaborative and even though you’re a leader, you’re not a dictator. You’re also curating all of these talents. You have a point of view and you do your research, but then in a way you’re not too proud to throw it all out the window when you’re served something better.

What was most important about the way you shot the return of the white hat?

It’s a very special scene for these characters. It’s pretty key in terms of what happens and what it sets up for the rest of the series, so we really took our time, probably rehearsing that scene more than any other to get to the heart. In terms of the way we shot it, when Olivia discovers the white hat, it’s filmed like it’s its own character. She sees it, it sees her, she’s looking at it, it’s looking at her. It wasn’t something that I had planned, but when we were filming it, I was like, “That’s the way it’s got to be edited.” Her self-examination with that white hat is as powerful as what she’s going to say to Quinn [in the scene]. That moment really is the catalyst of where she goes for the rest of the series. So it was important for us to see her face when she discovers it and get low with the white hat in the foreground and see her approach it and pick it up. What is symbolizes is, for me, in this episode is Olivia goes through some vigorous self-examination about what she’s doing and why she’s doing it. She hasn’t grappled with her moral compass for many, many episodes, if not seasons.

With only a few episodes to the end, how much did you feel you had to know about what came next in order to infuse the final scene of “The Noise” with the right emotions and direction?

Shonda has always known how she’s wanted to end it, so there is connective tissue, but they write from script to script, so they didn’t have the last three outlined [when we were filming “The Noise”]. So it was important for us to get some versions in the bag, and I had a few conversations in tone meetings and through emails [asking] about where we would pick up. My instinct was to keep it as much of a cliffhanger as possible.

“Scandal” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.

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