Cornelius Walker Jr. as Marcus Walker on Scandal
ABC/Eric McCandless

There’s a new gladiator in town, and his name is Marcus Walker. Well, Scandal fans know he is not completely new. When fans were first introduced to Marcus, he was an activist at the center of a Ferguson, Mo.-esque scenario in which a black male teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer. Back then he was an Olivia Pope & Associates client; this season he’s on the team.

The Root caught up with Detroit native Cornelius Smith Jr., who plays Marcus, to talk about Scandal: how he landed the role, the impact his debut storyline had beyond the show and whether he worries about being viewed as a replacement for Harrison Wright, played ably by Columbus Short before he imploded. And, of course, we had to ask him about playing Dr. Frankie Hubbard, the son of Angie and Jesse, the soap world’s most iconic black love story, on All My Children, for which he won an NAACP Image Award in 2010.

The Root: So how did Scandal come about?

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Cornelius Smith Jr.: It was really just another audition that … my people saw … and figured that I was right for, and then they got me in for it. And I actually was not in town to actually go in for the audition. … So I sent a tape in and didn’t hear anything back, and that was over Christmas break.

Came back at the beginning of the year and discovered that the role wasn’t cast … I went in to see Linda, the casting director, and did my thing again and there it was. I got the call the next day that I booked the role, and I couldn’t have been more excited. I was really excited to just have a role on Scandal as a guest star. At that time it was only one episode, and I was like, “Hey, we in the house, y’all. One episode. Yeah, check me out. We made it.”

TR: Your guest role was pretty impactful. Did you have any idea, even given the high emotions surrounding Ferguson, which inspired the storyline, that those two episodes would hit so strongly?

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CS: No, I didn’t. I think that there was maybe an inkling when we were taping it between myself, Kerry [Washington] and Courtney [Vance]; we were like, “Whoa, this is going to be big. This is what’s up and this is kind of huge.” And even then, even having that discussion with them, I wasn’t really aware of the magnitude [of how] it would be received and the impact that the first episode would have. I guess I expected a large response, but I didn’t expect it to be as relevant, as large, as impactful, as it turned out being.

TR: When did you know that you would come back as an actual gladiator?

CS: It was some time between after I taped my first episode and before I taped my second episode. So after I taped the second episode, I think, before the episode aired, Shonda [Rhimes] and her people reached out to my people and basically said, “Hey, we love Cornelius. We think he did a great job and we want to make him a series regular.”

Obviously, that is a phone call of a lifetime, but it’s like, “Really? Are y’all playing with me? Like, y’all want to do what? I dare you. Do it.” So it was that kind of phone call, and I shot my second episode with the knowledge that they wanted to bring me back and that this would grow into something larger. But it wasn’t really made official-official until after I did my second episode.

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TR: Who is Marcus to you?

CS: I’m still finding that out. He is a fairly new character for myself. I do my homework to discover who Marcus is, but a lot of that is information given to me from the writers. I’m not in the writers’ room, so I kind of have to wait to see what more information comes out that gives me clues about who Marcus is, and maybe some of the things in his past.

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But Marcus, to me, is a man of means, a man of resources, a man of integrity, a man of heart, a man of passion, and he’s a man of follow-through. Someone who doesn’t necessarily dance to the same tune that everybody dances to. He doesn’t follow expectations, but he also, at the same time, blows expectations out of the water. … He’s that kind of guy, [who is] really invested, really kind of family-oriented as well, but a super-super-focused individual.

TR: You played Angie and Jesse’s son, Dr. Frankie Hubbard, on All My Children. Speak about the importance of carrying on their legacy.

It was a blessing. I think it’s a huge honor. … Working with great, legendary actors, that’s always a joy. To be able to play Frankie and to carry that on, I view it as a great opportunity, a great blessing to represent, at that time, an African-American family on television in a positive light.

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I don’t take it for granted because, when you look at television and how African Americans can be depicted, I think we are in a better place now, or getting to a better place now, but certainly a few years ago, and even going back more, we were in trouble.

TR: So far, have fans been able to accept you as Marcus and not as a replacement for Harrison?

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CS: I think so. I mean, I’ve gotten a lot of love from around the world, from family and friends and all across social media. Listen, people are passionate, and I know they’re touchy about their shows. So I’m the new guy and I can understand maybe a little caution at first, but I look forward to winning over anybody who is skeptical, and I look forward to kind of continuing this journey of Marcus.

I don’t personally view it as a replacement because Marcus is his own character. So it’s a new character on the show that I’m excited to play, and I’m really grateful for the opportunity. And anybody who is not a believer, I’m pretty certain, as they continue to watch, they’ll be believers really soon.

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Editor’s note: Scandal airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.

Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.