Scandal’s Kerry Washington: ‘My mother’s nightmare was for me to be a starving actress’

Ellen E Jones
·9 min read
<span>Photograph: Jay L Clendenin/Contour RA</span>
Photograph: Jay L Clendenin/Contour RA

In a rational world, somewhere deep in the Democratic National Committee headquarters, a small staff would be hard at work planning Kerry Washington’s presidential bid. “Washington 2028: Tough on Scandal” or “2032: Ms Kerry Goes to Washington” – the slogans just write themselves. Whether Washington could be persuaded to run for office is another matter. She is, she insists when we meet via a video call, too self-effacing for politics. “I feel you really have to decide that you’re the one, like: ‘I’m the one to solve this problem!’”

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

Then, in 2012, the political thriller Scandal came along, and Washington became the first black woman to lead a US network drama since Teresa Graves played an undercover cop in Get Christie Love!, in 1974. The role of Olivia Pope, a high-powered DC fixer, kept Washington in the spotlight for seven seasons. “The year we came out, that’s all anybody talked about,” she says with a slight eye-roll, before trying to play down the achievement. “But if I hadn’t done it, Viola [Davis] would have, Priyanka [Chopra] would have, Simone [Missick] would have. Audiences were ready for it.”

Blame nominative determinism, if you like, but the notion that Washington is destined for a career in politics is difficult to shake. This is partly because of Scandal’s huge cultural impact, although even Washington’s less overtly political roles – such as this year’s Little Fires Everywhere, in which she played a nomadic artist locked into a bizarre rivalry with Reese Witherspoon’s strait-laced, suburban “supermom” – speak to the current divide in US society.

Lots of actors have a political drama or two in their back catalogue. Not so many are willing to get involved on the ground. Washington, though, has been stumping for the Joe Biden/Kamala Harris campaign for months, has been a regular on the podium at Democratic party events since her first conference speech in 2012, and is particularly vocal in her support for vice-president-elect Harris. “I’ve known Kamala a very long time,” she says. “I hosted fundraisers for her, back when she was running for attorney general in California [in 2010]. She’s a spectacular human being.”

Of course, Harris is now poised to become the first female and first person of colour vice-president of the US. Having worked so hard to achieve this outcome, will Washington allow herself a moment to celebrate? Maybe a brief one. Celebration “helps to refuel us for the ongoing work,” she says, “but the work is absolutely ongoing. Often, we forget that democracy is work and that it requires all of us.”

For those who do fancy a moment of respite, Washington is coming to Netflix UK on 11 December in Ryan Murphy’s new musical, The Prom. Washington describes her on-set experience as “a playground of joy” following her demanding role in American Son, a dark drama about police racism. A star-strewn adaptation of a Broadway musical could be considered a departure for Washington, but in many ways it is her most politically charged and stereotype-busting role yet. Via a series of high-energy, high-camp song-and-dance numbers, The Prom tells the story of Emma (played by Jo Ellen Pellman), a teenage lesbian in small-town Indiana who wants to attend the end-of-school party, just like everyone else. She can’t because the ultra-conservative head of the PTA, Mrs Greene (Washington), has banned same-sex couples. It is a far cry from Washington’s own conventional prom experience. “My date was my boyfriend, my high-school sweetheart, who I was madly in love with, and I wore a babydoll-shape dress in maroon silk with lace and embedded pearls – it was really pretty,” says Washington, who married NFL player Nnamdi Asomugha in 2013, with whom she has two children.

The Prom’s high-school homophobia is rooted in true stories (such as that of Constance McMillen in Fulton, Mississippi, in 2010), but so, too, is its satire of egomaniacal east-coast liberals in search of an easy PR win. Having discovered Emma’s plight during a drunken late-night Twitter scroll, a band of Broadway stars (Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, James Corden and Andrew Rannells) swoop in to – in their eyes, at least – save the day. It is Washington, as Greene, who delivers the killer line: “Maybe you should stick to acting instead of activism?”

To be on the other end of that barb was a thrill for Washington. “I feel like people have said that to me my whole career! I’ve always been a really active person in the civic engagement, social justice space, so it was fun to try to wrap my head around the resistance to that.” For her, the rationale behind “celebrity activism” is straightforward: “I don’t participate because I’m a person in the public eye; I do it because I’m an American. I’m never going to stop participating in my democracy because of what I do for a living.”

She also appreciates that her casting as Greene introduces a humanising new layer to The Prom’s study of bigotry. “When Ryan called me and said: ‘I think I want you to play her, and here’s why,’ I knew why. I knew that, number one, this problem of homophobia within families, and parents not being able to accept their children, is an awful epidemic in the black community.” The offer contained an enticing opportunity, too: it is not often that a black woman gets cast as the perpetrator of discrimination rather than its victim. Even in Washington’s prolific career, it is a first, but personal experience helped her to understand the character. “It’s different, but I could identify with the struggle of acceptance in my own family around my artistic calling. My mother’s nightmare was for me to be a starving actress. She felt, life is hard enough for you as a woman, as a person of colour; why would you take on this additional struggle? And I think a lot of parents feel that way about their LGBTQ kids, right? Why would you choose – as if it’s a choice – to make life even more difficult.”

For much of Washington’s childhood, her mother worked as a professor of education; her father was a real estate broker. They raised her in a comfortable middle-class home in the Castle Hill neighbourhood of the Bronx, New York, but sent her to Spence, a private all-girls’ school on the Upper East Side, at which Washington’s background was relatively humble. (For context, Gwyneth Paltrow was a pupil a few years ahead and the two performed in a singing group together.)

It was back home in Castle Hill, though, that the 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 neighbourhood teacher, Larry Maldonado, and was deeply affected by his early death at the height of the HIV/Aids epidemic? “I always think of him whenever I find myself as an artist needing to advocate for myself, because he taught me that,” she says. Washington’s efforts at improving LGBTQ+ representation, including playing a lesbian mother-to-be in Spike Lee’s 2004 film She Hate Me, and a transgender woman in the 2009 crime drama Life Is Hot in Cracktown, were recognised in 2015 with a Glaad award.

Unlike Emma, Washington, 43, says she never felt ostracised from any group, but the ability to fit in can lead 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 been less about going out and finding my people and more about allowing myself to be who I am.”

Looking back, she sees that the controversy surrounding the 1991 supreme court nomination of the African American judge Clarence Thomas was a milestone personally and professionally. In 2016, Washington was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal 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 a 14-year-old with a dawning awareness of the hearing’s significance. “I don’t actually remember watching the testimony, but I remember the heated and very emotional debates that were happening in my home. I think it was the first time that I understood intersectionality.”

Before that, she had always imagined her parents to be on the same side of any issue. “I felt like: ‘Yeah, we’re all black people! 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 pull towards the victimisation of Clarence Thomas that was rooted in his deep, 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 really was the first time that I understood that I had a different relationship with race, given the fact that I was also a woman.”

The upshot of all this accumulated insight is that Washington approaches her career with a rare thoughtfulness. “I’ve never been able to divorce political ideology from the choices I make as an actor, because black women in particular have been so marginalised,” she says. “Even if I’m just doing my job as an actor, by bringing full, three-dimensional, human realisation to a character, when you do that as a black woman, it’s a political act. From the beginning of my career, I have said to my agents and manager: ‘I’d rather work three more shifts at a restaurant than take on a role that I think is gonna be bad for women or bad for black people.’”

This, then, is the answer to the question of whether Washington, actor and film-maker, would ever pursue a career in politics: she already has.

• The Prom is available on Netflix from 11 December.