Detroit native and Cass Tech grad has watched as his character on the show takes on new dimensions
Gladiator life suits Detroit native Cornelius Smith Jr.
The Cass Tech graduate is enjoying his time as a series regular on the hit ABC political drama “Scandal,” a distinction he earned last year. Now as the show unpacks its sixth and current season on Thursday nights, Smith’s character Marcus Walker is getting to do and be a whole lot more.
For starters, he no longer works for Olivia Pope (star Kerry Washington). Instead, he handles the media for President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), and he’s also Mellie’s (Bellamy Young) secret new boo.
“It’s kind of funny, I didn’t see it coming but when I look back, I can see a little bit of the crumbs get spread throughout,” Smith, 34, said during a recent phone interview. “It’s really nice to see that come together the way that it did.
“It’s exciting to see another dynamic or storyline added to Marcus so we can get to know him better,” the actor said. “I think the fans want to and will get to see more of Marcus and learn who he is and how he got there and just more background information on this wonderful new character.”
Right now, the focus of the show is the assassination of President-elect Frankie Vargas (Antonio Chavira, “Desperate Housewives”) and finding the culprit. Viewers will eventually learn more about Marcus and Mellie and Marcus in general. Until then, Smith said he’s having a blast.
Young couldn’t be more pleased with the way their characters are evolving and said she enjoys working with Smith because of his “radiant energy.”
“Cornelius was a star right out of the gate,” said Young, 47. “We were all so taken with his performance in ‘The Lawn Chair’ (still one of our episodes I'm most proud of) that we missed him when that shoot was over. He already felt like part of the family.”
Smith said that he’s enjoying his love scenes with Young and hopes that she is too. Turns out, she is.
“In those more vulnerable moments, he takes really beautiful care of you,” she said. “Cornelius is a great man, and I feel lucky to be on this ride with him.”
Hopefully, Marcus and Mellie’s love story will give more insights into who Marcus really is, Smith said.
“My guess is that as time passes, we will get some more pieces to the puzzle,” Smith said. “(Executive producer) Shonda Rhimes is somebody who eventually answers those questions and puts some of the assumptions to rest. When and how that comes out, I’m not sure. But I hope we get those answers by the end of the season. We have a lot of information, but we just know so much more about everybody else because they’ve been around longer.”
One thing is for certain: Smith is getting noticed and people like what they see. For instance, the “Scandal” cast and crew just shot its 100th episode, which will air in late March. The milestone and Smith’s role in it has gotten a ton of attention on social media and in the industry as a whole.
“He’s killing it now, and I saw how special he is early on,” said Oscar-nominated actress Angela Bassett, who directed Smith in the Lifetime made-for-TV biopic “Whitney” in 2015. Smith costarred as Whitney Houston’s older brother Michael Houston.
“During the audition, I sat there and just looked at him and I saw something in his eyes and his improvisational skills and that’s why I said, ‘I want him as the brother,’ ” said Bassett, who is married to Detroit native Courtney B. Vance, an Emmy and Tony Award-winning actor. “He brought something to the role that wasn’t there and improved that moment and made it fly.
“So I’m not surprised that Cornelius is on ‘Scandal’ and that they saw what he can do and that he has brought all that he is to that set. Cornelius is very special.”
Singer and actor Major Johnson Finley, who is better known as Major, is friends with Smith and recently worked with him on the NAACP’s ACT-SO program. The yearlong program encourages and rewards black high school students’ academic and cultural achievements.
“He’s my brother, not only because he’s a man of God, but he’s a member of the greatest fraternity known to man — Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc.,” Finley said. “Cornelius is a beast of a human being, and he’s an amazing person inside and out.”
Getting recognized in Hollywood is important to Smith but so is feeling the love in Detroit. So when the former “All My Children” star learned that the Michigan Chronicle chose to award him its 40 under 40 Trailblazer Award, he jumped at the chance to return last week to the city where his acting dreams first took shape.
“Hometown love is the best kind,” said the graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “It’s been humbling at times, but it also inspires me that my vision is manifesting and more importantly, it has been well-received, validated and celebrated by so many people who have had a chance to see my work and others who have been with me since day one.
“This thing didn’t happen overnight,” he said, “but it did happen after 10-plus years of daily grind and preparation. It’s a blessing. I give all the praise and honor to God.”
Mekeisha Madden Toby is a Los Angeles-based TV critic and entertainment reporter.
9 p.m. Thursdays