Kerry Washington: Woman on Top

Kerry Washington: Woman on Top

With roles on the breakout TV series Scandal and in the controversial film DjangoUnchained on her résumé, Kerry Washington is a force to reckon with in Hollywood—and that's just the way she likes it

by Kevin Powell, May 9, 2013

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Kerry Washington: Woman on Top

Kerry Washington, our Scandalous March 2013 cover story

I see Kerry Washington standing, back slightly turned, at the appointed place for our interview, Glow BIO Juice Bar on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. Jet-black hair sleek and straight, shiny black blouse, tightly fitted blue jeans and black pumps with monster heels. She possesses a beauty and sexiness that electrifies arteries in the heart. She is honey-brown skin, delicately painted by God. She is that ancestor’s gaze through almond-shaped eyes rooted in her Black American-Jamaican-British-Scottish bloodlines.

She suddenly swings around and greets me: “Hi, I’m Kerry.” There’s no entourage, no assistant, no attitude, even though she’s starring on a must-see TV drama that has spawned a cult following since its debut last April. It’s just the actress, at the location she chose because she is extremely health-conscious and because her nutritionist happens to own Glow BIO. As I would learn while spending time with her at the restaurant, at this magazine’s photo shoot and on the set of Scandal, this falls in line with who Kerry Washington is at her core: unbelievably supportive of friends, strangers, cast mates, production assistants or anyone within reach of her kindness. She is someone whose gratitude and humility comes through with every “thank you” she goes out of her way to extend for any kindness shown her.

Something About Kerry

“I’m an only child. That’s why I pretend all the time,” the actress, 36, offers in response to my query about what growing up Kerry was like before laughing mischievously and purposely slurping her protein drink. “I have a very strong imagination and spent a lot of time daydreaming.”

She then gets lost in just such a daydream about herself, starring little Kerry. Dig if you will the picture: Like the hip-hop culture also born in the Bronx, Kerry is a product of her environment: “I grew up in Jamie Towers, sort of working middle class. We weren’t in the projects, but we were across the street from the projects and on the other side were single- and double-family homes. Same Castle Hill neighborhood where Jennifer Lopez grew up.”

Chris Rock, who starred with Kerry in the film I Think I Love My Wife, shares this: “All you have to do is meet Kerry’s parents and witness her relationship with them and you’ll realize why she’s not your typical psycho actress.” Her dad’s family has roots in South Carolina and Brooklyn; her mother’s, in Jamaica and Manhattan’s Lower East Side. And one of her grandmothers worked as a maid (or “the help,” as Kerry often says) for years on Park Avenue. But it’s the influence of her mother on Kerry that may be the most profound. “I was really lucky to be raised by a woman who taught me that what was inside was much more important than what was outside.” So the energy, athleticism, creativity and artistic cravings that raged beneath the surface of the admittedly precocious young Kerry were carefully nurtured and funneled through positive outlets.

Ask, and you shall receive rememberances from the girl who excelled at acting, dancing and singing. You’ll learn about the young lady who grew up discussing big issues with her parents while digesting the news and PBS. “My mom saw this very active, imaginative, talkative child and just tried to find ways to channel that energy, whether it was the children’s theater company or ballet class or trips to the library. Whatever it was, she was supportive of my brain activity,” the actress says. Tap deeper into her roots, and you get the girl shipped from her ’hood to attend the elite, all-girls Spence School on Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side. While there, the seeds of Kerry Washington the actress and the advocate took root; she fell in love with “pretending” and being a cultural bridge builder. But a glimpse of her then would have borne little resemblance to the fashionista she’s become. She admits of her high school days, “ I wore, like, pajamas to school every day. I was not that girl.”

Fast-forward a few years, and you get the George Washington University Phi Beta Kappa graduate who chose to pursue a degree in liberal arts rather than study acting in a conservatory program. “I have always felt like if my job as an actor is to tell the stories about the human experience, then I was going to be better off studying history, anthropology, psychology and sociology, so I would be able to understand the human experience.”

Years of community and grassroots theater training followed. And there were the eight months spent in India after college; stints as a substitute teacher, a yoga instructor and an East Village vegan restaurant hostess; an engagement to actor David Moscow that was broken after two years, all the while fine-tuning her acting. Suddenly, her name came to be interchangeable with her roles, 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
Shonda Rhimes

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 relationship with the [president] or that made it seem like I had an insider view on the Obama presidency. I thought that would be so disrespectful and so against all the work that I had done,” she says.

But after meeting with Rhimes and being told the president on the show would be a White Republican, “I’m in!” was her enthusiastic response.

Frequently in the fairy tale that is her true story, Kerry Washington has been more “in” than “out” with various projects and causes. To wit, she spoke at the 2012 Democratic National Convention; she is a proud feminist who champions the causes of women and girls; she is a Movado spokesmodel; and she one of President Barack Obama’s appointees to his Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

So what’s next?

Kerry isn’t certain where she’ll go from here. Her next film, We the Peeples (a Black version of Meet the Parents that allows the actress to show her “goofball” side”) will be released in May. She says she knows she needs to write more. Other aspirations include starring in and producing a biopic on the life of 1970s political activist Angela Davis and to one day be the head the National Endowment for the Arts. That day, it was easy to envision her becoming an actress/director on a project, just like Barbra Streisand, one of her childhood sheroes. Asking her about power after watching her wield it comfortably on the Scandal set, it is one of the few times she hesitates before very thoughtfully replying, “Power to me has always been about choices. So I never thought of myself as not having power because I’ve always [exercised] my right to say no.” She continues by acknowledging that in Hollywood, however, true power can come in the ability to say yes, as in approving and moving forward with projects, despite what others might think. “Having the power to green-light something for the sake of green-lighting something is not what I’m interested in. But if I can be of service in this town by adding to the voices of diversity—diversity of thought, diversity of experience, being a woman, being a person of color—then I want to be of service in that way.”

Kerry Washington has moved far beyond the point of just being of service to Hollywood. She’s now on the fast track to joining such megastar Black actresses as Dorothy Dandridge, Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson and Halle Berry. The little girl from the Bronx with the big imagination is now officially in a position of power—on her on terms.

Kevin Powell is an award-winning writer, public speaker, and political activist. Through the years Kevin has written for EBONY, Esquire, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Essence, Rolling Stone, The Huffington Post and Vibe, where he served as a senior writer. He is also the author of 11 books, including his latest, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and the Ghost of Dr. King: Blogs and Essays. Follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell, or email him at kevin@kevinpowell.net.

 
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