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Joshua Malina on ‘Scandal’ Series Finale: ‘I Like That Shonda Didn’t Wrap Everything Up So Neatly’

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Over a Cliff,” the series finale of “Scandal.”

While “Scandal” fans said goodbye to Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and the rest of the gladiators during the season finale Thursday night, there was one character whose goodbye was literal — suffering a gruesome ending before the final credits rolled.

David Rosen, portrayed by Joshua Malina for the show’s seven-season run, was deceived, poisoned, and ultimately suffocated to death by underhanded vice president Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry). David’s death came a few scenes after he convinced Jake Ballard (Scott Foley) not to shoot him, catching the audience off-guard.

Malina said when he first saw that he had a missed call about discussing the series-ender from creator Shonda Rhimes, he went through multiple scenarios in his mind. “Maybe it’s because Shonda’s got more work for me,” he tells Variety he jokingly thought. “We’re going to talk Netflix.”

But instead Rhimes let him know David wouldn’t survive the final episode. “I actually got a tip-off from the boss herself,” he says. “I got a call the night before [the table read] from Shonda letting me know that it was curtains for David Rosen, which was nice of her.”

Here, Malina talks with Variety about learning his doomed fate, saying goodbye to the character, how to interpret the finale, and how he has grown since he was first cast on the show.

How did you feel when you received that phone call? Did you anticipate David would die?

Originally, I never worried about getting killed off [but] then there was the storyline [when] James, played by Dan Bucatinsky, got killed off. First it built to a scene where it looked as if they were going to kill either James or David. I remember Dan was very worried at the table reading, but I kept saying, “Dude, she loves us! Shonda loves us. There’s no way. She’s not going to kill anyone off, and if it looks like someone’s going to die then nobody does because you never know what’s going to happen in ‘Scandal.’ It’ll turn out one of us gets wounded or he shoots and misses on purpose, there’s a deer in the back, I hope, somewhere that gets hit.” I just kept reassuring him like, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. Don’t worry.” Then finally one day he texted me, “Yeah, I’m dying. I just spoke to Shonda, and it’s me.” After that moment, I was like, “Okay, wait a minute. This is real. This could happen.” I realized that the stakes of “Scandal” were as high as can be and nobody was safe.

Then I did worry a lot and I was the guy who would always come into the table read and look at the last page just to see whether I survived. By the time I got to the finale of the final season, my guard was down. I thought, “No way did it seem like this was going to happen.” And Shonda called. I had to gather myself before I called her back, and I said, “What could this be? I could be in trouble. That’s happened before. Am I in trouble right before the final finale? Did I do something wrong? Have I played a joke on someone that went too far? No. I don’t think so.” Then I thought…“Oh wait a minute. This could be the call. She’s going to tell me that they’re killing me off.” I called her and she basically said, “Hey, look I’ve got some news. It’s neither bad nor good news.” I said, “Oh my God, you’re killing me off?” She said, “Yeah, yeah. David’s got to go.” My heart started pounding in a way that sort of surprised me. I just realized just how big my binding to the show was — it really meant something to me. I was actually excited at the idea — having made it to the finale, why not go out big? It’s funny. My heart was pounding. She said, “Look, you’re going to have some great scenes. I’ve written you some wonderful stuff.” Then I just started to get excited about it. She said, “Don’t tell anybody else.” Then I just started to anticipate the table read.

Was it hard to keep David’s death secret?

It was. I think I only told my wife and my parents and nobody off of the show. I also wanted to kind of watch everybody else as they found out, so it was sort of fun for me because I knew I would enjoy seeing people’s reactions at the table read.

What was the hardest part about saying goodbye to David in the show?

You kind of have to fall in love with whomever you’re playing and I just really, really liked the character Shonda and the writers wrote. I loved the terrific, sort of interesting, complex guy. I also like the fact that in the world of “Scandal” and the universe of “Scandal” as created by Shonda Rhimes he was as close to a good guy as you get, I think. It sort of made moral sense to me that in that universe that’s why David had to go. He was kind of maybe too good for the world of “Scandal.” I felt sad I guess for Abby because David and Abby were finally reaching what it looked like happy end game and I thought, “Oh, that’s kind of sad. It’s not to be.”

He was the only true white hat left and he didn’t survive to the end. Is that a pessimistic view of the political system?

It could have gone any way and would’ve worked. I get why Shonda decided to do it. I’ve seen it now, and I love that’s the decision she made. I do think she was wise to resist overall having too much of a happy ending even with Fitz and Olivia. You know, it ends with a “Hi.” “Hi.” — kind of a sensitive thing where [if] you’re a hardcore Olitz fan you can image maybe that they’re going to go off to a happily ever after. You’re left inclined to imagine what you want. I like that Shonda didn’t wrap everything up so neatly. I don’t like finales when all of sudden it seems like the world is over and everything is resolved, which never happens in real life. I like that even with the two young girls in the National Portrait Gallery seeing the picture of Olivia Pope, it’s not entirely clear what’s going on. I think that was obviously by design on Shonda’s part — sort of clever of her to allow the audience to kind of use their imagination to what may have taken place afterwards.

What was it like to film the death scene with Jeff Perry?

It was actually great fun. I think I avoided the real heaviness of it. I tend to not wallow too much in sentiment if I can avoid it. I really just concentrated on filming it like any other scene — what are the beats and how’s it going to work. It was a very physical scene. We shot for five hours, something like that. It was actually pretty physically demanding. There was a lot of flopping around, flailing of legs, tossing chairs over, and then being suffocated by Jeff. By the time I was down on the floor, largely dead but not quite finished and he had to suffocate me, I was exhausted and panting and then all of a sudden he was pretty ardently suffocating me with a pillow. We decided there should be a safe word or phrase so that I could let him know he was killing me. I thought if it came to that I would shout it. It was pretty impressive. It was close enough, I think, to a simulation to how he would die by suffocating that I hope to go some other way.

How do you think you’ve grown as an actor since the start of “Scandal”?

It’s hard to articulate how, but I can say certainly that I have. I know that having to perform a wide variety of scenes and emotions [was why]. Shonda and her writers have taken us through our paces and put us through all sorts of things and situations that I would never imagine ever being in — many of which I hope never to be in myself. I would just say to the experience of having to play that kind of range, I think I’ve just improved on the job. Also to be supported and surrounded by excellent actors is always helpful. Kind of through osmosis, I think it brings your game up.

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