Sarah Balch for InStyle.com
Samantha Simon
Feb 11, 2016 @ 12:45 pm

TGIT. After a midseason hiatus that felt like it would never end, ABC’s Thursday night lineup finally returns with all new episodes—and on Scandal, Olivia Pope is back to business. Tonight’s episode (9 p.m. ET) picks up six months after the events of November’s winter finale, when Olivia (played by Kerry Washington) finally ended her relationship with Fitz and realized she was officially over playing housewife. Now, Olivia is ready to take on whatever the second half of season five throws her way. Of course, she has her Gladiators by her side.

Cornelius Smith Jr. plays activist Marcus Walker, the newest member of the Olivia Pope & Associates team. Smith stopped by InStyle’s New York City offices earlier this week to chat all things Scandal—and according to the star, there’s tons of drama in store. “This episode is juicy, and a lot of questions get answered,” Smith told us. “Last we saw Olivia, she made a really big decision. Now, we’ll see how that plays out and how she finds herself in this new world, which is kind of a new-old world. It is a new place for her, but she is attempting to get back to her roots, get back to business, and get back to saving the world.”

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As for Marcus, the new Gladiator will be figuring out his role in the OPA crew. “You’ll see more of how Marcus fits in—or doesn’t necessarily fit in,” said Smith. “When you join a team, there’s that time of jelling when you see how everyone works and what their strong suits are.” As Marcus acclimates, his ambitions will be explored. “We will see how Marcus kind of sets the bar, but then raises the bar,” said Smith. “He’s really a character who doesn’t care too much about what other people think. His bottom line is always justice, and the Gladiators haven’t really functioned like that in the past. They lost that line, and so Marcus is going to put that line back in. He is going to hold them firm to it and raise that bar.”

He’s also going to stir up some drama along the way. “People enjoy watching feathers getting ruffled—but when you are the rufflee or the ruffler, it is not so pleasant,” said Smith. “In that regard, I think we will see a lot of tension and things being explored with the Gladiators.” While his character establishes himself as a Gladiator, Smith is still figuring out what it means to be a part of such a fan-favorite squad. “I’m still discovering the secret to being a good Gladiator, but at the heart of it, I think it’s knowing yourself and protecting yourself,” he said. “For a badass Gladiator, faith and follow-through are both on lock. It’s about recognizing the power that we have in ourselves to obtain anything we want, but also being a great person and staying grounded in truth, love, and honor. Actions speak louder than words—so it’s not necessarily what you speak about, but also what you do when no one is watching.”

Of course, it’s also about how you present yourself. “Marcus is a dapper brother,” said Smith. “He gives thought to and is prideful of his appearance, but he doesn’t make a huge effort to be a certain way.” If anything, it’s just a representation of the newest Gladiator’s sense of self. “Marcus is a very educated and intelligent man who is all about business, but as we saw, he is from the streets,” said Smith. “He can do both dances—but now that he’s a Gladiator, you are going to see him leaning more towards the polished side, because that is his job now.”

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Still, Smith hopes that we get to see Marcus for who he truly is. “When we were first introduced to Marcus, he was doing more community stuff and looking really casual and laid back,” said Smith. “It would be interesting to get to know more of that other side of Marcus, where he’s not necessarily so put-together or in an environment where he has to be ‘on’ for Pope & Associates.”

Scandal’s characters may have to put on an act at times, but the cast is comfortable being themselves off-camera—especially Washington. “She is a sweetheart, and from day one, her energy was open, inviting, and professional,” said Smith. “Her vibe trickles down through the rest of the cast and the crew, and she feels like a good friend or part of the family at this point.” For Smith, the magnitude of working with a star like Washington still hasn’t worn off. “Sharing the screen and stage with her is such an honor, and sometimes when we are taping, I have to snap out of it,” he said. “She’s clearly talented beyond belief, and she is a real ambassador of gratitude, peace, and love on set—but she’s also passionate, professional, and acts with integrity. So it really is the best of both worlds, and when you’re around her, there’s never a dull moment.”

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