Thursday, January 21

Scandal’s Kerry Washington: ‘My mother’s nightmare was that I was a starving actress’ | Kerry Washington

IIn a rational world, somewhere deep within the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, a small staff would be hard at work planning Kerry Washington’s presidential candidacy. “Washington 2028: Tough on the Scandal” or “2032: Mrs. Kerry Goes to Washington” – the slogans just write themselves. Whether Washington can be persuaded to run for office is another matter. She is, he insists when we meet through a video call, too modest for politics. “I feel like you really have to decide that you’re the one, like, ‘I’m the one solving this problem!'”

She is much more comfortable directing attention elsewhere. “For most of my career, I was really a character actress,” she says. “People didn’t connect that Ray’s girl was the same girl from Last King of Scotland, it was the same girl from Save the Last Dance. And I loved that, because I was able to disappear among these other people and it wasn’t about me. “

Washington as Della in the 2004 film Ray, which told the story of Ray Charles.
Washington as Della in the 2004 film Ray, which told the story of Ray Charles. Photography: Universal / Kobal / Rex / Shutterstock

Then, in 2012, the political thriller Scandal appeared, and Washington became the first black woman to direct an American network drama since Teresa Graves played an undercover cop in Get Christie Love !, in 1974. The role of Olivia Pope, a mighty DC fixer, kept Washington in the spotlight for seven seasons. “The year we dated, that’s all everyone was talking about,” he says with a slight roll of his eyes, before trying to downplay the achievement. “But if I hadn’t, Viola [Davis] would have, Priyanka [Chopra] I would have done, Simone [Missick] would have. The public was prepared for it. “

Blame nominative determinism, if you will, but the notion that Washington is destined for a career in politics is hard to undo. This is due in part to Scandal’s huge cultural impact, though even Washington’s less overtly political roles, such as this year’s Little Fires Everywhere, in which she played a nomadic artist locked in a bizarre rivalry with the suburban “super mom” of Reese witherspoon. talk about the current divide in American society.

Many actors have a political drama or two in their catalog. Not many are willing to get involved on the ground. Washington, however, has been stumbling over the Joe Biden / Kamala Harris campaign for months, has been regularly on the podium at Democratic party events since its first conference speech in 2012, and is particularly vocal in its support. to the vice president-elect. Harris. “I have met Kamala Yry a long time, ”she says. “I organized fundraisers for her when she was running for attorney general in California [in 2010]. She is a spectacular human being. “

With Forest Whitaker (center) and James McAvoy in the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland.
With Forest Whitaker (center) and James McAvoy in the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland. Photograph: Fox Searchlight / Kobal / Rex / Shutterstock

Of course, Harris is now poised to become the first woman and first person of color to be the vice president of the US Having worked so hard to achieve this result, will Washington allow itself a moment to celebrate? Maybe a short one. The celebration “helps us restock for work in progress,” he says, “but the work is absolutely continuous. Often we forget that democracy is work and that it requires us all ”.

For those of you who like a moment of respite, Washington is coming to Netflix UK on December 11 at Ryan Murphy’s new musical, The Prom. Washington describes his experience on set as “a playground of joy” after his demanding role in American Son, a dark drama about police racism. A star-studded adaptation of a Broadway musical might be considered a Washington outing, but in many ways it’s his most politically charged and stereotype-busting role yet. Through a series of high-energy songs and dances and camps, The Prom tells the story of Emma (played by Jo Ellen Pellman), a lesbian teenager from a small town in Indiana who wants to attend the end of the school party, like everyone else. It can’t because ultra-conservative PTA director Mrs. Greene (Washington) has banned same-sex couples. It’s a far cry from the conventional Washington prom experience. “My date was my boyfriend, my high school sweetheart, who I was madly in love with, and she was wearing a maroon silk doll-shaped dress with lace and embedded pearls; it was really pretty,” says Washington, who married the NFL. player Nnamdi Asomugha in 2013, with whom he has two children.

Prom’s high school homophobia has its roots in true stories (like Constance McMillen’s in Fulton, Mississippi, in 2010), but so is her satire of self-righteous East Coast liberals seeking an easy victory in public relations. Having discovered Emma’s plight during a drunken Twitter scroll late at night, a band of Broadway stars (Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, James Corden and Andrew Rannells) swoop in to, in her eyes at least, save the day. It is Washington, like Greene, who throws the murderous phrase: “Maybe you should keep acting instead of activism?”

Being on the other side of that spike was a thrill for Washington. “I feel like people have told me that throughout my career! I’ve always been a very active person in the civic engagement and social justice space, so it was fun trying to understand the resistance to that. “For her, the logic behind” celebrity activism “is simple:” I don’t participate because I am a person in the public eye; I do it because I am an American. I will never stop participating in my democracy because of what I do for a living. “

He also appreciates that his choice as Greene introduces a new humanizing layer to The Prom’s study of intolerance. “When Ryan called me and said, ‘I think I want you to play it, and here’s why,’ I knew why. I knew that, number one, this problem of homophobia within families, and that parents cannot accept their children, is a terrible epidemic in the black community ”. The offer also contained a tantalizing opportunity: It is not often that a black woman is seen as the perpetrator of discrimination rather than its victim. Even in Washington’s prolific run, it’s her first, but personal experience helped her understand the character. “It is different, but I could identify with the acceptance struggle in my own family around my artistic vocation. My mother’s nightmare was becoming a starving actress. She felt that life is hard enough for you as a woman, as a person of color; Why would you take on this additional fight? And I think a lot of parents feel the same way about their LGBTQ children, right? Why would you do it choose – as if it were a choice – to make life even more difficult. “

Like Olivia Pope on Scandal, which ran for seven seasons, from 2012 to 2018.
Like Olivia Pope on Scandal, which ran for seven seasons, from 2012 to 2018. Photograph: Danny Feld / ABC

For much of Washington’s childhood, her mother worked as an education teacher; his father was a real estate broker. She was raised in a comfortable middle-class home in the Castle Hill neighborhood of the Bronx, New York, but was sent to Spence, a private girls’ school on the Upper East Side, where Washington’s background was relatively humble. (For context, Gwyneth Paltrow was a student a few years earlier and the two performed together in a singing group.)

However, it was at his home in Castle Hill that young Kerry gained an early understanding of the experiences of LGBTQ + people. Along with a pre-fame Jennifer Lopez, she took dance classes with a neighborhood teacher, Larry Maldonado, and was deeply affected by his early death at the height of the HIV / AIDS epidemic. “I always think of him every time I I find myself as an artist who needs to defend myself, because he taught me that, ”she says. Washington’s efforts to improve LGBTQ + representation, including portraying a lesbian expectant mother in Spike Lee’s 2004 film She Hate Me, and a transgender woman in the 2009 crime drama Life Is Hot in Cracktown, were recognized in 2015 with a Glaad Award.

Unlike Emma, ​​Washington, 43, says she never felt left out of any group, but the ability to fit in can take you away from yourself in a different way. “I think my journey in life has been that I spent a lot of time trying to be who I thought other people expected me to be. It’s less about going out and finding my people and more about allowing myself to be who I am. “

Looking back, you see that the controversy surrounding the 1991 Supreme Court nomination of African-American Judge Clarence Thomas was a personal and professional milestone. In 2016, Washington was nominated for an Emmy for her performance in the HBO film Confirmation of Anita Hill, the African-American woman who testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her. In 1991, however, Washington was 14 years old and beginning to realize the significance of the audience. “I don’t actually remember seeing the testimony, but I do remember the heated and very emotional discussions that were taking place in my home. I think it was the first time that I understood intersectionality. “

Before that, he had always imagined that his parents were on the same side on any issue. “I felt like, ‘Yeah, we’re all black! We all agree! This was one of the first moments that I understood that my father, as a black man, felt a different kind of attraction towards Clarence Thomas’s victimization that was rooted in his deep and lived experience of how black men are persecuted in this culture. And my mother had a very different relationship with this black woman, based on her identification with how women are treated. So it was really the first time that I understood that I had a different relationship with race, since I was also a woman.

The upshot of all this accumulated knowledge is that Washington approaches his career with unusual consideration. “I have never been able to divorce political ideology from the choices I make as an actress, because black women in particular have been so marginalized,” she says. “Even if I’m just doing my job as an actress, bringing full three-dimensional human fulfillment to a character, when you do that as a black woman, it’s a political act. Since the beginning of my career, I have told my agents and manager, ‘I’d rather work three more shifts in a restaurant than take on a role that I think will be bad for women or bad for blacks.’

This, then, is the answer to the question of whether Washington, an actor and filmmaker, would ever pursue a career in politics: he already has.

• The dance is available on Netflix as of December 11.

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