Playing steely press secretary Abby Whelan on Scandal, Darby Stanchfield looks like a natural.
But this Alaska native came by the gig honestly, spending years honing her craft with roles on shows like Jericho, NCIS and Mad Men. And though Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes had a very different type of person in mind for the part, Stanchfield came in and nailed it.
We think that’s really cool. So on the set of Speakeasy, we caught up with her to ask for her thoughts about Alaska and Scandal, plus practical advice about job interviews and women. Read and learn.
“To me, it’s the ultimate confidence when you’re at home with yourself.”
You grew up in Alaska in this smallish town…
I was born in Kodiak. I lived there until I was seven. Then my dad moved our family to Dutch Harbor, where Deadliest Catch is filmed. He was a commercial fisherman for 20 years. So my mom and my sister and I lived out on Dutch Harbor and we saw him about once a month when he’d come home to offload his catch and fuel up for the next trip. That was my childhood.
How do you think that shaped who you are today?
Oh, it has everything to do with me being an actor, for one, because there was nothing to do up there. All my sister and I did was pretend and make believe and role-play. So there you go. I’m an actor. She’s a painter. A lot of times someone will say, “how did you do that?” in a scene. I’ll be like, “Oh, just my imagination.” They’re like, “Oh, you didn’t think of your dead cat?” No, I was my own imagination training school for the first 17 years of my life. So it really stuck for me.
Would you say Alaskans are tougher?
It’s a very rugged place. You kind of have to be tough. I went up there last summer to shoot a documentary and my team was trying to work out all the logistics: a hair and makeup trailer and that kind of thing. I was like, “No, that’s not how it works in Alaska.” You put on some waterproof mascara, you shove a hat on your head and you go out there. Sure enough, we were shooting in the snow and the rain and the wind. That’s part of the beauty of it.
From what I understand, when you auditioned for Scandal, you really took charge of that situation.
The role was described in the pilot as someone who was 10 to 12 years younger than myself, round, knits a lot, has a lot of cats. You wouldn’t necessarily think that I would be that person. But I really connected to the words, and I just went in there really focused. She’s a very no-nonsense woman, this Abby Whelan that I play. So after I did three scenes, it was dead quiet, Shonda Rhimes just looked at me for 30 seconds and didn’t say a word. I looked right back at her. I didn’t move. I didn’t thank her. I didn’t get up. There was just something about that moment of like, who’s going to flinch first?
She’s told me since then that I walked in and she knew I was the right person for the role. But I really had come to a place right before Scandal where I just realized, life is getting too short and I really wanted to do things that interested me. I think that really translated even at the end of the audition, just sitting there and being comfortable staring the creator of Shondaland straight in the face without saying anything… It’s that thing of not apologizing or being desperate in any way. To me, it’s the ultimate confidence when you’re at home with yourself.
That’s amazing. How did you psych yourself up for the audition?
I was told by someone once a long time ago that there’s two different ways to approach it. You can sort of act the role or you can be the idea. There’s a difference between owning it so much, committing so much that you really are at one with the character and the idea of what you’re expressing versus playing at something. I heard that at the right time in my life and my process of acting.
The whole audition process for me was very calm. Like even when I got the role I didn’t cry or burst out laughing or anything. I just felt like it was meant to be and I wasn’t ever too high or too low. I just felt super-grounded. I’d been in LA for 14 years plugging away before I got that and this is my first big series. So I’d had plenty of auditions.
What’s your advice to anyone looking to make a great first impression or ace a job interview?
You can never, ever prepare too much. You should know whom you’re meeting and their background and everything about the job. You should dress for the part. But all those things will mean nothing if you’re not at home in who you are and grounded in your own belief and ability. Everybody gets there a different way, but for me some of it’s just been time and practice and life’s hard knocks.
Obligatory men’s website question: What are your tips for a guy looking to approach an attractive woman with more confidence?
I love people who are just… themselves. You know, people get an idea of like, this would be really sexy or smooth or I can impress her this way, and I think when you’re really yourself, your uniqueness and style comes out. That is always attention grabbing because it’s different from anyone else. A compliment is always nice but it’s got to be genuine. If a man were to just go with an open approach that’s always easy for a woman. It’s a nice feeling.