NEW YORK -- Of all the fans of "Scandal" -- and clearly there are lots of them -- none seems more gung-ho than Bellamy Young.
But unlike most fans, who must satisfy themselves by catching every episode, Young isn't watching from a distance. Instead, she's in the thick of this steamy political thriller about a Beltway-based crisis manager (Kerry Washington) who is desperately in love with the nation's chief executive (Tony Goldwyn). Young plays the third corner of this White House love triangle, first lady Mellie Grant.
"It grows more intense and more stuff happens with every episode," Young marvels, "and we talk faster! Off-camera, they're shouting '"Scandal"-pace' at us because they write these long, intricate scripts, and we have to get it all in."
After two months' hiatus, "Scandal" is returning at 9 p.m. Thursday on ABC, with Mellie picking up where she left off in a whirlwind of heartbreak, ambition and behind-the-throne power.
As the "Scandal" saga has spiraled, Mellie has grown into a pivotal figure, a steadfast but beleaguered wife who holds the fate of her husband and his presidency in her hands.
But when the series was cooked up by creator Shonda Rhimes, Mellie was conceived as a passing presence.
Young vividly remembers the cast's first script reading.
"Shonda went around the table afterward, telling all the actors what their story arcs would be for the first seven episodes. When she got to me, she said, 'I think you'll be here for about three episodes,' and I heard her say something about 'presidential divorce.' I'm dying inside, but I'm trying to smile. I'm Southern. I'm trying to be polite."
The 44-year-old Young is indeed polite, as she demonstrates during a recent interview. Firmly but graciously she shoos off an overweening waiter ("We are trying to do an interview, but we will holler if we need you"). A native of Asheville, N.C., she is Southern.
But as a teen she headed north to Yale, where she graduated with dual degrees in English and theater studies, then moved to New York, where, on Broadway, she put her singing skill to work as well as her acting chops in Cy Coleman's "The Life" and in the revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along."
She has appeared in films including "We Were Soldiers" and "Mission: Impossible III," as well as TV series like "Criminal Minds," "CSI: Miami," "Scrubs" and "Dirty Sexy Money."
There were no breakout roles, but Young worked steadily, she says, adding with a laugh, "I am not overburdened with entitlement issues. So I was only grateful to be cast for 'Scandal.' I hoped my character would recur a lot as first lady, so I could run around with these amazing people every once in a while, in a nice dress."
The icing on the cake was her on-screen marriage to Tony Goldwyn, who had directed her years earlier on an episode of "Dirty Sexy Money."
"I knew how hard he would work and how deep he would go," she says. "I felt completely safe. When I went to the audition, I had my two lines and I kept trying to imagine for myself, 'Who would be a good partner to Tony?"'
"It's challenging to work with Bellamy," says an equally admiring Goldwyn by phone, "because she brings it every time. She knows what she's doing. She finds every nook and cranny in the writing."
Fortunately, the writing embraced, and has continued to explore, Mellie Grant, to a degree far beyond Young's dreams.
"Who hopes THIS high?" she beams. "Mellie has become so multifaceted. So wrong and so right. So ambitious and so selfless. A loser and a winner. And however you judge her ability to love, she does love Fitz -- to her detriment!"
TV history is laden with characters who were introduced in a series as little more than a fleeting fancy, then took hold. Just think of Aaron Paul's "Breaking Bad" character, Jesse Pinkman, who was meant to die in the first season. Or, further back, Julianna Margulies, whose character on "ER" attempted suicide in the pilot episode but, in a last-minute plot switch, survived, allowing Margulies to play nurse Carol Hathaway for six years.
Now Bellamy Young has been blessed with a character who, initially a third wheel, has become a major force propelling "Scandal."
For Young, this career break brings to mind a saying she used to hear down South: "As long as you're swinging," she declares, looking pleased, "you're dangerous!"