Kerry Washington never had any intention of becoming an actress — not long term, anyway.
The star of ABC’s political drama, Scandal, thought she’d go into teaching, like her mother, who was a college professor. “Or a shrink,” she says. “I had a real curiosity about how people become the people they are.”
But when she was growing up in New York City, she appeared in all the plays at Spence School (including a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that starred upperclassman Gwyneth Paltrow). And as a teen, she joined the Screen Actors Guild to shoot commercials and perform in an ABC Afterschool Special.
Still, she reasoned, acting wasn’t for her. “I thought that to be an actress, you had to want to be famous,” she says. “And that wasn’t something I was interested in.”
It wasn’t until she attended George Washington University on a theater scholarship that she realized acting was “paying for my extraordinarily expensive education at a private institution.”
A second epiphany occurred during a summer program in New York, which included a class about acting as a business. “I realized there were lots of people who made a living as actors who may never be on the cover of a magazine, but still had fulfilling careers. And I decided, ‘I’m going to go for it.’ But I never really saw myself as someone who would be that girl on the cover of anything.”
The irony that she is saying this during an interview for a magazine cover story is not lost on Washington. She is too smart and self-aware not to connect those dots. But after 20 years as a working actor doing mostly fulfilling projects — most notably, opposite Jamie Foxx in Ray (for which he won an Oscar) and Forest Whitaker in The King of Scotland (for which he also won an Oscar) — Washington is having a major breakthrough moment.
The first African-American woman to star in a primetime drama since Teresa Graves headlined the short-lived Get Christie Love! in 1974, she dominates nearly every scene of Scandal as Washington, D.C., crisis manager Olivia Pope.
A hurricane in heels, Pope once worked at the White House and now heads a team of “gladiators in suits” who fix clients’ high-profile problems and clean up their messy lives. Yet she is also human, unable to stop herself from making serious mistakes, like diving into a tempestuous love affair with the one person more powerful than she is — the very married U.S. President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn).
On top of her TV triumph this year, Washington also reteamed with Foxx in Quentin Tarantino’s genre-bending Civil War–era slave drama, Django Unchained. And she more than held her own on the red carpet throughout Hollywood’s seemingly endless awards season.
In February, wearing a frothy mint green-and-pink Oscar de la Renta gown and Christian Louboutin shoes, she picked up an NAACP Image Award for best supporting actress in a motion picture for Django, as well as best actress in a drama series for Scandal — which was named best drama series. She also received the NAACP’s President’s Award for public service, delivering a prepared address she wrote herself. And in May, as Scandal wrapped its second season, she starred with David Alan Grier and Craig Robinson in Peeples, a film produced by Tyler Perry.
“It’s happening for her now, and she wears it all with total grace and ease,” says Goldwyn, who originally met the actress in D.C., of all places, where they both appeared as advocates for the Creative Coalition.
Nibbling from a plate of pineapple in the Chateau Marmont’s see-and-be-scene restaurant in West Hollywood, she observes the lively courtyard. “This place is crazy!” she says.
Her hair is pulled back and she wears little makeup or jewelry, a striking change of pace from her Armani-clad TV persona.
Wrapped in an oversized camel cardigan thrown over Citizens of Humanity jeans and a leopard-print top, she looks more like a busy career girl running errands on her day off — which is what she is, having rushed in 10 minutes late after putting her parents on a plane back to New York.
Despite the convergence of projects and personal appearances that have won her so much attention this year, it’s primarily the power of series television that has cemented Washington’s cover-girl status.
“There’s nothing like the way television changes the way people interact with you,” she says. “It’s a much more intimate, ongoing relationship with the viewer."
"I’ll be at an airport and one of the flight attendants will say, ‘I’m not going to let you on this plane unless you promise me you’re not going to cheat on the president.’ I don’t control that sort of thing. I’m not in the writers’ room. Besides, he’s married!”
Created and executive-produced by Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice), Scandal premiered in April 2012 to an audience of 7.33 milion viewers.
In the second season, original episodes were up 13 percent, helping make ABC the number-one network in Thursday’s 10 o’clock hour for adults 18 to 34 and across all key female demographics. And the ultimate badge of TV cool: in February the series became the most-social broadcast show in primetime, out-tweeting American Idol by 16 percent.
“The show is very on-brand for ABC because it’s very smart and it’s also very emotional,” says network president Paul Lee.
“When we started, it was slightly more of a procedural. And now it’s become a great balance between a procedural and a serial.
It’s broken through this year in a way that’s been stunning. And its audience is just so passionate — they can’t wait to see Shonda Rhimes turn over another card. And they can’t wait to see Kerry Washington deliver another electric performance.”
With so much real-life political scandal in recent years, it would seem the time was right for a series about D.C. crisis management. And the Scandal lead is no stranger to politics.
An arts advocate since the Clinton administration, Washington testified before Congress twice before lending support to the Obama campaign.
“With all the things happening now — whether it’s [former South Carolina Governor Mark] Sanford or [former New York Representative Anthony] Weiner — it’s not that hard to buy into the extreme situations of the show,” she says. “That’s part of why people are tuning in.”
The other part is Washington herself, who can be as staggeringly beautiful as she is a force to reckon with. and, as Pope, she has a field day fleshing out the humanity of her complicated character.
“She is the most powerful person in almost every room she’s in, except the oval office,” says the actress. “Behind those closed doors, she’s powerless because of her love and emotional vulnerability. That contradiction is something that really draws me to her because it’s so challenging as an actor to be able to embody someone who can be, in one area, so fierce and, in another area, so fragile.”
Rhimes loosely based the Olivia Pope character on Judy A. Smith, founder and president of Smith & Company, who bills herself as “America’s number-one crisis management expert.”
With offices in Washington and L.A. she has spent the past 25 years dealing with everything from the 1991 Gulf War to the congressional inquiry of Enron, and she has been a consultant to Monica Lewinsky, NFL quarterback Michael Vick and the family of slain congressional intern Chandra Levy.
Washington points out, however, that unlike Pope, Smith — who is a co-executive producer of the show — has a “profoundly normal personal life.”
It was Rhimes’s producing partner, Betsy Beers — also an executive producer of Scandal — who introduced her to Smith several years ago. “we sat down to talk for 15 minutes and it became a 3-and-a-half hour meeting,” Rhimes recalls. “Somewhere in there, I got hooked. There was something appealing about creating a show that was a Shakespearean version of Washington, where everyone was acting operatic.”
The idea gestated for a year while Rhimes figured out how to tell the story. Then she wrote the script during a 4-day Mexican vacation in 2010. Typically, she had no idea whom she’d cast as Olivia. “I never have anyone in mind when I’m writing,” she says. “It doesn’t work that way for me.”
However, she admits she “felt a real responsibility, since this was going to be the first lead role for an African-American woman in years. I felt this was like a glass slipper and everyone who fit in the category could try it on.”
Rhimes estimates that they saw more than 100 actresses in New York, London and L.A. When Washington met with her, she says, “I remember thinking that a) Kerry only does movies so I’m not sure why she’s coming in, and b) she’s way too pretty for this, which is a terrible thing to say about another woman.
“But Kerry sat down and we talked for about 20 seconds before I thought: ‘She’s really interesting.’ She’s into politics, she’s really smart, she saw things in the script nobody else had really seen, we spoke about storytelling in a really similar way and both of our mothers have Ph.Ds in education. It felt like a very interesting connection.”
Then Washington tested for the role.
“She was spectacular,” Rhimes says. “She’s a really nuanced actress who brings a lot of layers to what she’s doing. she makes very small choices that play very big on screen.”
Best of all, she says, “Kerry’s not Olivia Pope in any way, shape or form. Every role I’ve ever seen her in, she’s been so completely different that sometimes I don’t recognize her.”
Goldwyn agrees: “When Shonda sent me the script, Kerry was already playing Olivia. I jumped on it because I had been a huge admirer of her work — I think she’s one of our greatest young actresses.
I had seen Kerry in movies and at the end I’d go: ‘who is that amazing actress playing that part?’ — and it was always Kerry. She’s transformational as an actress.” Working with her has more than lived up to his expectations.
“I literally can’t stop staring at her, because she’s so beautiful,” Goldwyn says, “and yet, she doesn’t lead with that. “
“One of the things I most admire about her as an actress and a person is that she has tremendous commitment to everything she does.”
He’s further impressed with the way she’s adapted to television and assumed the responsibility that goes with being number 1 on the call sheet.
“She has strong leadership qualities and has taken on the lead in our show with a kind of intensity and enthusiasm that is very inspiring to the whole cast and crew.”
Rhimes takes it further: “She is the person on set who remembers someone’s birthday and buys cupcakes for everybody. She’s the first to lead the cheer that starts the beginning of the filming of any new episode."
"I’ve never heard her complain and, because she was promoting a movie at the same time she was doing the show, she was working more hours than almost anybody I’ve ever encountered," Rhimes recalls.
“You say to her: ‘Are you tired?’ She goes, ‘A little bit, but I’m doing great.’"
"She has a real respect for the work and for acting," Rhimes continues, "I really don’t think I’ve ever seen that before — and it creates an atmosphere on set where everybody is having fun all day. It’s hard not to have a big smile on your face when you’re working with Kerry.”
Asked to name her role models besides her mother, Valerie, Washington singles out Diahann Carroll, who famously was the first black actress to star in her own series, the 1968 sitcom, Julia. But Kerry also names Rita Moreno, Julie Andrews and Barbra Streisand as examples of women who have spent decades working in different mediums, representing the kind of focus and enduring drive that she prizes.
“I have cousins who call me the ‘longshoreman of actors.’ I’m always working long hours and doing my actor homework. I’m not here to phone it in.”
Though Scandal doesn’t focus on race as an issue, Washington points to several scenes that acknowledge its presence, particularly a moment when she bluntly tells the president that their relationship is feeling “a little Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings.”
“Race is not the driving force of the show,” she says, “and I love that, because I don’t think our goal in life should be a ‘post-race world.’ I don’t understand what the point of that would be.
“Race is as important to my identity as gender is or the geography of where I was born. But the point is to have it be one of the factors of who we are. I like that race is not the most important thing about her.”
Given her history with the Obamas (she also spoke at the 2012 Democratic national convention), it’s tempting to ask Washington what the First Family thinks of her series.
“I’ve never asked either the President or the First Lady about it,” she says, “but there are lots of people who work in the White House and the Administration who are fans and enjoy the show.”
Weeks after her Emmy interview, the actress would head to the nation’s capital for the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
There, she’d join Katy Perry, Claire Danes, Sofia Vergara and other celebrities and take best-dressed kudos in a fetching black-and-white halter dress by young American designer Wes Gordon.
And a few weeks later, she’d return to the city of her name for the ultimate personal honor — to deliver the commencement address where it all began, at her alma mater, George Washington University (where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1998, having designed an interdisciplinary major in performance studies that included anthropology and sociology).
Does she ever think about going back to school and getting that psychology degree after all?
“I have that thought at least once a year,” she admits, laughing. “It comes up when I’m not working or being challenged and feel like being a more useful member of society.”
These days, that isn’t likely to be much of an issue for Kerry Washington. “The last few years have been pretty busy,” she says with a knowing smile. “But I like busy.”