“Magical.” Kerry Washington’s eyes are closed and she breathes evenly as I quietly panic. We are at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles; the Scandal star wanted to check out the Gamelatron Sanctuary, which involves a lot of hypnotic chimes and gongs. While she is peacing out, I notice looming nearby an electric sign by the artist Sam Durant. It reads, simply, “END WHITE SUPREMACY.” We are having this interview the day after Charlottesville, and now I am supposed to be talking to one of the leading African-American actresses of our time about, um, moisturizer. This is very awkward for one of us. That one is not Kerry. I mention this to her.
“I’m glad you said that,” she says warmly. She admits it has been a tough 24 hours — let’s face it, a tough year — for anyone as politically minded as she is: “I have to dip in and dip out, because it suffocates me. Like, I become unable to function. So it’s a tricky balance between staying aware and also staying connected to a sense of hope and productivity and showing up for life.” And boy, does she show up.
Kerry Washington Plays “Would You Rather?”
With Olivia Pope, the Washington fixer in a political thriller that seemed over-the-top until real life became even stranger, Kerry Washington and Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes have changed the cultural landscape. It’s more than just the rabid fan base (“Gladiators”) and the memes. (Admit it: On at least one occasion, you’ve barked, “It’s handled.”) While there are now several black women playing the central characters of network dramas, in 2012, when the first season of Scandal premiered, there were virtually none. Even now, notes Washington, for a lot of people in this country, their relationship with Olivia Pope may be the most intimate one they have with a black woman. “For her to be three-dimensional and complex and fully human and not anybody’s stereotype or caricature is a big deal,” she says.
Given the icy perfection of the character she plays on TV, Washington likes to remind people that aspiring to Pope’s look is not only unnecessary; it’s futile. “There’s someone who follows me around all day long [on the set],” she says. “Like, literally follows me to make sure there’s not a single hair out of place. This is somebody’s full-time job. Then someone follows me around to add powder so that I never look shinier than I’m supposed to.” The need to make Pope perfect is such that there isn’t just one concealer for her — there are different concealers depending on the day of the week. “Friday night’s concealer is very different than Tuesday afternoon’s concealer. They get thicker as the week goes on and you get more exhausted.”
Obviously, for Washington, having kids has added to the importance of putting societal beauty standards into perspective. Take hair — a subject of importance to many of us, but particularly to African-American women who have, historically, been judged by how they choose to wear it. “I like to wear my natural texture, especially now because I have children and I want them to know that their hair is perfect as it is. They don’t have to change it or straighten it. They can, but they don’t have to.”
Off-duty, Washington’s style exudes warmth: The 40-year-old is in Rag & Bone boots, DL1961 jeans, and an oversize gray cashmere sweater from Hatch, a line of maternity wear. “You want to wear these after you have your baby — they’re so beautiful,” she says. She has a three-year-old daughter, a nine-month-old son, and a stepdaughter. “[These sweaters] are great for nursing. I just stopped, so I’m going to have to let go of this stuff. But see? You can easily hide a baby under here.”
As she talks, she fiddles absentmindedly with a colorful plastic-bead bracelet; I suspect that, like so many mothers of tots, she heads out in the world armored with talismans her kid made for her. There’s a teeny bit of wistful broodiness here, but whether it’s because of letting go of her son’s infancy or letting go of the TV show that’s meant so much to her, it’s hard to tell. This is Scandal’s final season. Since its inception five years ago, Washington has gone from being single to having a husband (former NFL cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha), kids, and an extremely pampered doggo, Josie B. (“I’m very envious of my dog’s spa schedule. She gets a deep condition once a week. I’m lucky if I get a deep conditioning once a week.”) For some of last season, Washington was pregnant, and Pope was decidedly not. “I wore a lot of capes and big coats. And then when they would shoot me, I would be carrying really big Prada bags and standing behind chairs and desks and stuff. They really had it down to a science. There are episodes where you might be asking, Why is she standing behind that bouquet of flowers? So that’s why,” she says.
Washington had success several years after she graduated from college; powerful turns as Ray Charles’s wife in Ray and the wife of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland established her as a star. But for the Bronx-raised actress who attended Spence and graduated from George Washington University Phi Beta Kappa, acting was not plan A. She wanted to be a psychologist and educator. Actually, there was an even earlier plan: She wanted to be “that woman in the Shamu show” who dances with the whales. It seemed like a natural outgrowth of her family history, since “we are a very water-based family. Our happy place is in the water.” Washington’s parents ended their first date at the beach; her father took one look at the nimble girl diving into the water and “he was like, She’s the one for me. That’s my wife.”
Now that Olivia Pope’s going off to — well, we don’t really know, since our current political hijinks have put the show’s ending in flux — but now that she’s off to somewhere, how about Washington herself? She’s not quite as much of a three-moves-ahead chess player as Olivia, but she has ideas. She’d like to do comedy, which, as anyone who has seen her hosting gig on Saturday Night Live can attest, makes a whole lot of sense.
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“I’m working now on 24/7, this comedy about three women in the workplace, and Eva Longoria and I are two out of the three,” she says. “We basically walked into Universal and acted it out for them, and they were like, ‘OK.’ ” And since she executive-produced the Anita Hill story Confirmation for HBO, she wants more of that. “It’s kind of like being the Olivia Pope of television. You get to change people’s lives and fix problems and be grounded and assertive and of service. So it really is a lot of things that I felt Olivia has taught me to do in pretend and then to apply those skills when I produce.”
Pope as a character is a little hard to shake; even now, during her summer off, Washington still feels her in her bones. I had to know: Just how much carryover is there not among fans but among friends? Do people who know her actually expect her to be all “I’ll handle it” in real life? Washington’s eyes light up. “It happens All. The. Time. I mean, part of it is because they know I can connect them to Judy Smith, [the crisis manager] who the role is based on. But people call me to say, ‘I have this problem. Can I talk to you about it?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t even want to know! Just skip over me!’ ”
She pauses for a beat, then looks me right in the eye. “But I know secrets.”
Fashion stylist: Hanna Kelifa. Hair: Takisha Sturdivant-Drew of Takisha Studio. Makeup: Francelle Daly. Manicure: Tom Bachik. Prop stylist: Bryan Porter. Production: Holly Gore for Rosco Production.
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