Telegraph Magazine, Jan 2013
As Quentin Tarantino’s new leading lady in Django Unchained, Kerry Washington is blazing a trail for African-American actresses on screen. She discusses Hollywood, racism and why she’s President Obama’s right-hand woman.
(Photography by Jeff Lipsky)
(Read piece at The Telegraph)
On a sofa in a suite at the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles, she thinks for a moment. Composes herself. And then declares: ‘It’s quite a dichotomy, to go from playing a slave, who isn’t even considered a full person, to playing literally one of the most powerful women in the country. That kind of opportunity was not available to Josephine Baker or Lena Horne. So I’m really grateful to be around now. I know how blessed I am.’
The powerful woman of whom she speaks is Judy Smith, the elite political ‘crisis manager’ on whom Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, is based in the hit American television series Scandal, which recently ran on More 4.
Smith, a PR and lawyer, worked as a press secretary at the White House during George HW Bush’s administration, guiding it through the crises of the first Gulf War and the Iran-Contra affair. She’s also represented Monica Lewinsky and Enron, and is reported to be advising Jill Kelly, one of the two women involved in the recent David Petraeus affair.
It’s a groundbreaking role – Scandal is the first prime-time television series in America to feature an African-American actress in the lead role for more than 30 years.
Meanwhile, the slave she mentioned is Broomhilda von Shaft, a character in the new Quentin Tarantino film, Django Unchained, which is set in the ante-bellum American South. Broomhilda is a much-abused damsel; Jamie Foxx plays her husband, Django, who sets out on an epic mission to rescue her.
During the film Broomhilda is raped, stripped, whipped and humiliated. The role sounds more than usually demanding. ‘This was a hard film for everyone,’ Washington says, gravely. ‘To come to terms with the brutality of that period, when a slave was only three fifths of a person – it actually says that in the Constitution – it wasn’t easy. There was one violent scene I had with Leonardo DiCaprio and it was hard on him. Every time we had a break, he would come to me and say, “Are you all right?” We were really conscious of taking care of each other on set.’
Django Unchained was shot on Evergreen Plantation in Louisiana, which is both a working sugar-cane plantation and a historic site, offering tours to the public of its 22 intact slave cabins – an area known as Shack Row – where slaves were housed and often brutalised.
‘This wasn’t some Joan of Arc story – it didn’t happen to just one woman – this was how people were treated,’ says Washington. ‘On all the trees around us men were hanged and women were whipped, and the sound of that lashing was heard by everyone.’
At the same time, Django is not Amistad [Spielberg’s historical drama about a slave-ship mutiny] – it’s a Tarantino film and the violence is approached with some relish. There’s also a funky Blaxploitation soundtrack and snappy dialogue.
What was it like working with Tarantino? ‘We drank shots after every 100 takes,’ says Washington. ‘And Quentin made sure there was music on set. Sometimes we listened to James Brown. But when the mood was sombre, we would listen to gospel.’
She and Jamie Foxx have history. ‘Yes, we were married before in Ray[Foxx won an Oscar for his portrayal of Ray Charles in the 2004 film]. So we’ve lasted nearly 10 years – that’s not bad by Hollywood standards!’ she jokes. ‘And it’s a better marriage now. He’s not cheating and lying; he’s rescuing me this time.’
This may be her first film about slavery, but it’s not the only time Washington has played a role with overtly racial themes. In the Oscar-winning The Last King of Scotland (2006) she played the wife of Idi Amin. She also starred in David Mamet’s play Race, and in Tyler Perry’s filmFor Colored Girls (2010). But her personal experience of race has been blessedly untraumatic.
‘No one called me the N-word growing up,’ she says. ‘Jamie experienced that, but he grew up in Texas. I grew up in the Bronx. It’s very different to the South.’
She graduated from George Washington University with an interdisciplinary degree. ‘It was sociology, psychology, anthropology, dramatic literature. There was one acting class, “performance studies”, about the role performance plays in various societies and cultures.’
Nevertheless, she emerged with a desire to give drama school a try. Her parents were devastated. ‘They wanted me to do anything but act,’ she says.
What was her plan B? ‘Oh, so many other things. Teaching has always interested me, and social work. It keeps evolving, this plan B. And I still think about it. At lots of different times in my career I’ve thought about walking away and doing something else.’ She laughs. ‘Like at least once a year.’
She certainly has a passion for politics. Obama’s victory was a particularly proud moment for Washington because she has been campaigning for him since 2008.
She serves on his Committee on the Arts and Humanities, helping schools in Washington DC expand their artistic programmes.
And in the run-up to the 2012 election she joined Eva Longoria and Scarlett Johansson as one of Obama’s most visible celebrity spokeswomen.
But what sets Washington apart is her style. While Johansson is an enthused citizen, a spirited advocate, Washington is an orator. At the Democratic National Convention she gave a speech of which any politician would be proud, weighted for emphasis, building to crescendos and pausing, when appropriate, for applause.
And she’s quite happy in a debate, too. The comedian Bill Maher hosts a panel show on HBO that is widely considered one of the most challenging on the circuit.
It’s live, the guests are authors, activists, politicians and journalists, and the debate frequently becomes heated. ‘It can be hard getting guests,’ he says. ‘Because, frankly, a lot of celebrities are terrified. They’re afraid they’ll look stupid.’
Not Washington. She stood her ground in a clash with the conservative CNN anchor Will Cain. The clip was then widely distributed, with fawning comment threads about brains and beauty and so on.
Would she ever consider elected office? ‘No, never! Not interested at all,’ she says. ‘I enjoy being of service and participating in our democracy, but the election process, having to appeal to many people? That’s not something I’m interested in. Even being an actor, I didn’t choose it to be popular. When I thought that acting was about being on magazine covers, I thought it wasn’t for me.
‘But then I learnt that there are labour unions for actors where you could work your entire life and never be a household name, but still make a living doing what you love. That’s when I thought, “Maybe I’ll give it a shot.’’’
Now 35, she’s graduated, over the past 10 years, from bit parts in television shows such as NYPD Blue and Law & Order to feature films. But it’s her return to television that’s made Washington most animated of late.
‘I prefer TV,’ she says. ‘Sometimes in features there are a lot of cooks, and story is not the most important thing. The director has one agenda, the producers have another, the lead actor has another and so the story can get muddied. But in television, the writer is king – or in the case of Shonda [Rhimes,Scandal’s creator], queen. The person in charge of story is in charge.’
When Rhimes met Judy Smith she knew instantly that she would build a show around her. And the programme’s success owes a lot to Washington’s portrayal of the Smith character as a steely and unflappable adviser, with a true moral compass.
As soon as it was broadcast the pressure was on. Would it succeed or would it confirm the industry’s assumption that audiences just won’t show up to see a black female lead? The good news is that the second season is soon to start filming.
‘There is pressure,’ says Washington. ‘But it’s not really on me. It’s on the audiences. Do we, as a society, have the capacity to say that our heroes can, and should, look like more than one thing?
‘Do we have room in our hearts to know that the protagonist should be diverse, with regard to race, religion or sexual orientation or gender?’
She pauses. ‘So I’m really proud that we’re in a second season. It means that, as a country, we’re no longer thinking in a narrow way.’