Scandal’s Cornelius Smith Jr. gets real on what it’s like to be the new guy on a hit show, and why his dream role is in the realm of superheroes and science fiction.
No stranger to acting, Cornelius Smith Jr. attended NYU for his Master of Fine Arts in acting and has honed his skill on the classic soap opera All My Children. Yet he still found himself overwhelmed with awe and gratitude when he was welcomed into the Scandal cast last season. We spoke with the talented actor about how he got hooked on the show, his passion for storytelling, why he almost broke down during his first table read, and much more.
Did you watch the show Scandal before you were cast on the show? CORNELIUS SMITH JR.: I had really no idea about the show until my girlfriend told me about it. I initially wasn’t really interested. I’m an open-minded and open-hearted individual so I watched the whole first episode and I got hooked by the second episode.
Was your girlfriend excited when you got the part? CSJ: My girlfriend has been kind of flipping out ever since. She was shocked, “Oh my God, you’re on my favorite show!” I would’ve been happy with just being a guest star and just doing one episode, but to transition from being on just one episode to being a series regular—it was a dream come true.
Do you relate to your character Marcus in real life? CSJ: Marcus just goes about things in his own way and in a lot of different ways, that’s what I’ve done in my life. That’s what I strive to do—to be my own person, to go about things my own way. I think that probably the strongest point we share in the desire to not only be an individual but to affect change in the world. If you’re on a positive frequency, positive things are going happen. Marcus kind of stands out in that way in the gladiating world, in terms of gladiating his own way. It takes a strong person to continue to stand on their two feet and be their own person in the face of adversity or in the face of somebody ultimately not believing in you.
What kind of drama is in store for Marcus this season? CSJ: In terms of gladiating his own way and being his own person, and kind of going against the grain, that causes friction. So I think we’ll see what kind of trouble is stirred up as a result of all that. It’s a new character; new relationships and obviously new secrets will be told. I can only imagine things are about to get really real. Shonda [Rhimes] has an amazing talent, as well as the writers, to keep it juicy. There’s so much going on with all the characters that there are so many different twists and turns, which keeps you on your toes.
Has the Scandal cast accepted you as “the new guy?” CSJ: Yes, they have accepted me graciously and with open arms. I’ll never forget my very first table read: Shonda introduces me and says, “Welcome Cornelius Smith Jr. to Scandal, everyone,” and the applause—it was a mini standing ovation. They clapped for me and it was such an amazing feeling. I felt so much love, I was so grateful. And if they would’ve kept clapping for like ten more seconds, I probably would’ve broke down right there.
What have you learned from your acting degree at NYU that still comes in handy? CSJ: How to activate your imagination in creating this character that is full of life and that people can feel and understand. I’m always a fan of being challenged to be the best I can be every single time. Whether it’s an intense scene or a light scene, the same amount of work and preparation goes into it.
And what is your dream role? CSJ: I’m a huge fan of Marvel, so something in the Marvel world would be exciting. I’m a huge sci-fi person. But I think the next frontier for me, which I’m really excited about, will be films. There are so many different things that I would like to do, so many different characters and stories that I would like to tell.