Kerry Washington is one of those few actresses who reminds us that Hollywood can actually serve as a vehicle for progressive change. She openly identifies as feminist in interviews and backs up her words with political activism. She was a supporter of the Obama campaign back in 2008 and is an active member of the V-Counsel, a group of advisors to V-Day, the global movement to end violence against women and girls. She appeared in Howard Zinn’s documentary, The People Speak, and serves on the board of Voices of a People’s History, a non-profit arts and education group using education and performance to bring to life the material inspiring the book Voices of a People’s History of the United States.
Aside from being an incredibly smart and dedicated political activist, the other wonderful thing about Washington is that she’s an immensely talented actress. She’s starred in the films Ray, The Last King of Scotland, Lakeview Terrace, Fantastic Four and For Colored Girls. And how could we forget her role in the early millennium classic Save the Last Dance? My favorite role of hers, however, was in the recent Shonda Rhimes-produced ABC hit show Scandal, which just wrapped up its first season. Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, is based on Judy Smith, who worked as a crisis manager in George H. W. Bush’s White House. With this role, Washington is one of only a few African American women to star in a leading role on primetime television and the first to do so since 1974. (Not to mention, she plays a strong, complicated character who displays complexities and vulnerabilities not found in many female characters today.) Needless to say, Hollywood has a lot of catching up to do.
I had the pleasure of picking her brain on why we’re so backwards in terms of diversity in Hollywood, the recent Republican legislative attacks on women’s rights, her favorite thing about being feminist and more. Also, find out whether as an actress, Kerry thinks she has a certain role in the movement for social justice.
Now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Kerry Washington.
Anna Sterling: How accurate is the show’s representation of Judy Smith?
Kerry Washington: I would say that the show is inspired by Judy and her work, but it’s not based on Judy. As I’m on the phone with you I’m getting texts from all these real people, you know, like, my aunt or my cousin who are like, “Oh no, Olivia Pope!” because the episode just ended. [Laughs] I always say the character is inspired by her, not based on her. The world of crisis management is really accurate. I mean, none of the stories are ripped from the headlines and no character is based on any one client of Judy’s. But the world of crisis management is very much how it operates–although as the season goes on things get very heightened. But Judy’s personal life is not nearly as complicated and messy as Olivia Pope’s.
AS: So are you trying to say that she didn’t have a relationship with the President?
KW: That’s right. In fact, I know Judy had to tell the Bushes, you know, because she worked with George W. Bush and Barbara. She worked in that White House. She had to sort of warn them about the storyline because that was not at all her relationship with the White House.
AS: I’m sure that came as a surprise to them.
KW: Yeah, I would’ve loved to be a fly on the wall for that one.
AS: As I’m sure you know, you’re one of only a few African American actresses to star on primetime television. Why do you think in 2012 we still have such a dearth of roles for women of color in Hollywood?
KW: I think it’s really about being more inclusive about how we see our heroes. In order for our protagonists to represent a range of identities–be it gender, race, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation–we just have to be willing for our heroes to come in many forms. You know, I say hero in kind of a Joseph Campbell kind of hero’s journey way. And we have to be open to the idea of putting ourselves in somebody else’s shoes–and somebody else sometimes may or may not look like us. I think it’s happening more and more. I think part of it is that as there are more and more storytellers who bring a more diverse identity and world experience to the table–i.e. directors, producers, financiers, and studio executives–when more and more of those people originate from a range of backgrounds and experiences, then the stories themselves will reflect more backgrounds and experiences.
We don’t have a lot of women of color like this on television: smart, sophisticated, powerful, and vulnerable women. We don’t get to see that often. We’re seeing it more and more. There are actresses who are doing it. I think some great examples right now are Regina King, Tracee Ellis Ross in “Reed Between the Lines,” Gabrielle Union’s new show, Taraji [Henson], Vanessa Williams. There are people who are doing it.
I actually think the more important issue is to have a range of identities in our media. In order for us to honor each other’s humanity, it’s important to see the full range of who we are. I’ve never had a career where I’ve said I won’t play a prostitute or I won’t play a thief or I won’t play a slave or I won’t play a maid, because for me there’s nothing wrong with playing those people. People who have a history of being a slave, a prostitute, a maid, a drug addict–those people are human beings too. We all deserve to have our stories told. And we all have much to gain by walking in other people’s shoes. I don’t believe that there needs to be one story or one storyteller.
AS: In your show, your character works really closely with the Republican White House. What are some of your thoughts on, as you mentioned on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show, the recent legislative violence against women?
KW: Yeah, you know, the why is tricky to me. I don’t really understand the why. It doesn’t even seem like smart politics. [Laughs] I don’t understand the why. The thing that we pride ourselves most on in this country is our liberty and a woman’s right to be in control of her own body and her own choices regarding her own sexuality. It’s a fundamental part of who we are as a nation. I don’t know why it’s happening but it makes me deeply disappointed. It really does.
AS: Your activism is really inspiring. As a talented and hugely successful actress, do you feel that you have a certain role or responsibility in the movement for social justice?
KW: No. I always say to people I don’t participate in the political process as a “celebrity” or person in the public eye. I come from a political family. Talking politics and social issues, it was at the dinner table. It was a part of how I was raised. Giving back and participating in our democracy is part of how I was raised. When I became of the age to vote, it was like a big rite of passage party. My parents took me out to dinner, we talked about who I was going to vote for, and how I was going to decide. I participate in my democracy because I feel really lucky to live in a representational democracy where my leaders only know how to lead if I’m in communication with them. I know how many people have died for me to have this right. I know that the original Constitution of the United States, according to that document, I would be 3/5 of a person, as a person of African-American descent. I know that women went to prison in petticoats for me as a woman to have the right to vote. I don’t take my identity as an American, as a member of this democracy, lightly. I feel that we should all be participating. I don’t feel a responsibility as a celebrity, I feel a responsibility as an American, as a person of color, as a woman.
AS: What is your favorite thing about being feminist?
KW: The term feminist is so inclusive now. There isn’t one way to be a feminist or to practice feminism, to exercise feminism. You can be feminist in lots of different ways because the point is freedom of choice.
I also want to say that I very much identify with the term womanist, but I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. I also identify as a humanist. I don’t think that either of those terms are mutually exclusive.
AS: Who are your favorite fictional heroines, and who are your heroines in real life?
KW: Well my mom is one of my heroines in real life…Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Diahann Carroll. Oh god, there’s so many. You know, my grandmother. I think often about my grandmother being a young woman on a boat coming onto Ellis Island and just the courage that that must’ve taken. She’s definitely one.
Oh, you know what, I have to say that one of my real life heroines is Barbra Streisand. I just think she’s never accepted anybody else’s limitations or definitions. She is such a hero of mine. She worked on stage, on film. She’s been an actor, a singer, a director. She’s written books. She’s so politically active. She has a family. She was told she doesn’t fit within stereotypical ideas of beauty at the time and it didn’t matter. She didn’t change. I think she’s awesome.
AS: And for your favorite fictional heroine?
KW: Ooh, this is tricky to say to Feministing, but I think Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music. She comes into a difficult situation. She does all these traditional roles, but she also winds up being this political rebel who is a hero of her own family on so many levels. She winds up being a hero to this family emotionally, psychologically and also politically. And she lets herself define motherhood in nontraditional ways. She doesn’t have to birth these kids for them to be hers. It’s kind of amazing.
AS: That’s a good one.
KW: I would have to say if I had to pick a second it would be Olivia Pope. [Laughs] She’s amazing.
AS: Me too. I want to be Olivia Pope, just so you know.
KW: I want her closet. [Laughs]
AS: How does Olivia Pope wear white all the time and not get dirty?
KW: [Laughs] You know what’s funny? We do have back ups for a lot of the clothes, but we only had one of that beautiful white Tory Burch French coat and so we treated that thing like the friggin’ Hope Diamond. It went into a case every night. Even if I had a snack on set, I would take off the coat before I had the snack. It was actually the same thing also with that white Calvin Klein gown from the state dinner. I actually called in to Francisco Costa at Calvin Klein and they sent that dress to me right from the runway. It had just been in the show and they sent it so there was only one. Those two items were definitely treated like, you know, if they had lasers to surround them, they would’ve.
AS: Oh the perks of being an actress! How much fun are you having shooting this?
KW: It’s amazing. I mean, we’re actually done shooting the piece. I’m now working on the new Tarantino film in New Orleans, but shooting the show was…I’m not an inarticulate person, but, I just, I loved every second of it. I’m just praying we get a second season. People have always asked me, “Do you have a dream role?” And I’ve never really had an answer that’s felt truly authentic. There are lots of women I’d be interested in playing and stories to tell, but nothing that really felt like a dream role. And now I feel like having at least one other season to play Olivia Pope would be a dream role for me because I just love being her and I love discovering her. I love that I don’t even know what that means. We don’t get an outline for the season. I don’t know what could happen to her next season, but I don’t care! I want to do it, I’m in.
AS: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you pick?
KW: One drink would be water. Do you mean like an alcoholic drink?
AS: It’s whatever your heart’s desire. A lot of people do pick alcohol.
KW: Mine would be a juice from Pressed Juicery which is my favorite organic juice place. It would be a coconut shake from Pressed Juicery. Food would be pineapple. And the feminist would be Eve Ensler because she’s as fabulous as she is fierce as she is fun.
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