Studies in Tacoma were one step on Wicked Witch's road to 'Scandal'

Star of ABC drama returning to give talk at her alma mater

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TACOMA — The sixth-grade girls in the small Aleutian Islands fishing village of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, all wanted to be Sleeping Beauty in the school play. All, that is, except for Darby Stanchfield.

“I wanted to be the Wicked Witch,” Stanchfield recalls. And an actor was born.

It’s been a long road from Dutch Harbor to Hollywood — with a four-year stop at Tacoma’s University of Puget Sound — for Stanchfield. Now one of the cast members of ABC’s hit political thriller “Scandal,” she returns Monday to Tacoma for a talk at her alma mater. The actress studied communications and theater at UPS in the early 1990s.

In the over-the-top “Scandal,” Stanchfield, 42, plays Abby Whelan, the right-hand woman to Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington. Pope runs a public relations firm that solves problems for its political clients, most notably the president of the United States. Abby’s moral compass seems to work better than most of the other characters on the show, who routinely double cross, lie and murder their way to power.

“Scandal,” Stanchfield said, has changed her life.

“The show has been such a huge explosion of success. The most obvious change is that now I’m getting recognized. Just going to the grocery store people know who I am,” she said.

Before “Scandal,” Stanchfield could go almost unnoticed. “ ‘Did we go to high school together? You look so familiar.’ I would just say, ‘Oh, I have one of those faces.’ Now I get ‘Oh, there’s Abby from “Scandal,” ’ ” she said.

“Scandal” wraps up its third season Thursday.

Though “Scandal” is Stanchfield’s most successful run, she’s no stranger to television. If Stanchfield’s red hair looks familiar, you might have seen it in an Herbal Essences spot.

She had a short story arc in season two of the AMC drama “Mad Men” and has a recurring role on the CBS military crime drama “NCIS.” Her other credits are substantial: “Castle,” “Jericho,” “Burn Notice,” “CSI: Miami,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “CSI: New York,” “The Mentalist,” “Private Practice,” “Bones,” “Nip/Tuck,” “Without a Trace,” and “Monk.”

But in the beginning, there was the Wicked Witch — an experience that almost ended in disaster. During that sixth-grade play, a piece of the set fell on Stanchfield.

“It hit me square on the head. My mom came rushing in. ‘Are you OK?’ I didn’t even miss a beat. I was in character. I was evil. I was there to put a spell on Sleeping Beauty,” she recalled.

Though she didn’t know it at the time, it was that turn as the witch that turned her into an actress. “I really devoured that experience — that little play.”

In Dutch Harbor, Stanchfield’s father was a king crab fisherman. The small town is now a location in the reality TV show “Deadliest Catch.”

“We had one gas station, one restaurant, one channel on TV, a roller rink for the kids, and a recreation center that would show movies on Sunday night,” she said.

“Because I literally grew up in the middle of nowhere, I spent my life pretending. My sister and I were always make-believing. I was acting before I even knew what it was called,” Stanchfield said.

At age 16, Stanchfield moved with her family to Edmonds and then shortly thereafter to Mercer Island. In high school, she set her sights on UPS.

“I wanted to be out of the house but close to home. When I took a tour, I fell in love with the place,” Stanchfield said of UPS. She was also attracted to the small size of the college and the school’s curriculum. Drama, however, was not on her list.

“I didn’t have the courage to say ‘I’m going to be an actor.’ Who is going to take me seriously?” she said. “There was such disparity in where I came from and where I wanted to be. I just felt overwhelmed as a young adult.”

Still, she crammed as much acting as she could into her life. She was in UPS productions and took acting classes in Seattle. Though she joined a sorority during her freshman year, she quit after a few months.

“I was really sorting out where I fit in and who I was. Because of my upbringing, I was more independent, more of a loner. The theater in a way acted like a social group or a sorority.

“There is kind of a bubble when you are in college so I gained confidence there,” Stanchfield said. But after she left UPS, she struggled for three years in Seattle, waiting tables, working secretarial jobs and taking small acting parts.

“That period spawned a deep conviction in me that I was going to be an actor,” she said.

Finally, she auditioned for and was accepted into a master’s program at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, one of 22 who was accepted out of more than 1,000 who tried out.