such as Chenille (Save the Last Dance), Della Bea (Ray), Kay (The Last King of Scotland), Nikki (I Think I Love My Wife) and Susan in David Mamet’s Broadway play Race. And now, there’s Olivia on Scandal.
Leading the Way
“Kerry was selected to be Olivia Pope because her talent spoke for itself. She read for the role and she just WAS Olivia Pope. Kerry brings a lot of intelligence and specificity to the character. She and I have these intense discussions and every time I come away in awe of her thought process and her attention to detail and her
passion for getting every moment right. I’m lucky to get to write for her.”—Scandal creator
I remember eyeballing the first ads for Scandal, making a mental note that Kerry Washington was the star, then shoving it out of my mind because, though a fan of her work, I had thought of her only as a film actress. But a curious thing began to happen: Everywhere I went, people were calling themselves “gladiators” (as the main characters do on the show).
Kerry, the first Black woman to star in a major network American TV drama since Teresa Graves in 1974’s Get Christie Love!, has the kind of power we have never seen in the hands of a Black female character on television. But still, she is very clear that Olivia Pope has, uh, issues.
“One of the things that challenges me most and that I love most about playing her is how flawed she is,” she says. “In her professional life, she is so powerful and is this self-made woman. She is the answer to Broomhilda’s prayers” she adds, referring to her role in Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s controversial blockbuster about slavery, race and revenge.
She goes on to tell me, how humbling it is to be able to have a career in which the lives of two powerful women from opposite ends of history—Broomhilda, a slave, and Olivia—a powerbroker, can overlap. “I’m grateful that these two women on opposite ends of history, on opposite ends of their experience, both strong women but in such different ways, can exist at the same time,” Kerry says, smiling broadly. “But in [Olivia’s] personal life, she is a mess!” she continues. “And I kind of love that. I love that I get to embody all of that complexity because I also think it takes a certain level of progress for us to have a Black woman that powerful be an emotional mess on television. She’s post-Clair Huxtable.”
Although the thespian is quite forthcoming when dissecting her television character, she’s a steel trap when it comes to her private life. When I try to pose a question about her off-screen life, she stops me cold: “I don’t talk about my personal life in the press,”
During one of my Scandal set visits, I am struck by how funny Kerry is, whether sticking one finger in her nose or trying mightily to open a bottle of wine during a take—and failing miserably. “I do not drink and have no idea how to do this,” she admits between scenes. It is wild to see the morphing of Kerry Washington into Olivia Pope: Kerry is always smiling and even engages in back-and-forth ’hood jokes with co-star Columbus Short while playfully shooting video of this writer with her iPhone and answering to “K-Dub.” But once the director yells “Action!” Olivia consumes Kerry’s body: Her facial features become tense, and the free spirit is replaced by a calculating woman who rarely smiles as she goes about her business as a fixer.
So just who is Kerry Washington, considering she does not discuss her personal life and routinely gets lost in these characters she plays? It is a bit of mystery—but who doesn’t like a mystery? Yup, there is something about this woman, and part of it has to do with the fact that she not only has made it in Hollywood, but she is also doing so on her own terms. She is a Black person who is a game changer in a game she did not create. Although Kerry is certainly someone who does not want to ever be limited by her race, she is clear that race still matters, even when it comes to Scandal. When first approached about the role, the actress says she was excited about the show but, as a big supporter of President Obama, did not want to do anything that would undermine his administration. “I was a little concerned because [the character has] a scandalous relationship with the [occupant of the] White House,” she confesses. “I thought, ‘If the president on the show is Black, I will not do the show.’ Because to me, it was too important a moment. I didn’t want to do anything that compromised my