Kerry Washington: A black woman redefining the rules and changing the game in Hollywood

How would you describe Kerry Washington? In a word: Captivating.

The Kerry Washington we have all come to know and love over the past decade has played many different roles on the big and small screen. My personal favorite is her role as Della Bea Robinson, the wife of legendary singer Ray Charles, in the movie Ray. She brought the role of Bea to life with grace and passion as well as taking us into the hidden pain and triumph of being married to a gifted performer with a penchant for philandering.

From there she took on more layered and varied roles, such as playing the wife of dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. She played a fiery CIA operative along side Angelina Jolie in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and she starred as a young woman in a happy interracial marriage in Lakeview Terrace, stalked by a racist black cop played by Samuel L. Jackson. And who can forget her sexy home-wrecking vixen role in Chris Rock’s romantic comedy I Think I Love My Wife?

Yet, beyond her roles in Hollywood, Kerry is a force of nature — highly engaging when you speak with her, funny, charming, brilliant, and quick on her feet. She is a political activist, an advocate for women, and huge supporter of President Obama — who even spoke on his behalf during his 2008 campaign. Soft-spoken yet confident, she is fiercely private, but not guarded. If that isn’t enough, she is strikingly beautiful and accomplished, yet humble.

But best of all? She is down-to-earth, and a real, true blue New Yorker born and raised in the Bronx. On her website www.kerrywashington.com, her “Who Am I” page gives you a glimpse into her soul. She likes The Beatles, her favorite flower is the peony. Her favorite car classic is the silver VW Bug. Her favorite shoe? Neon pink stilettos.

This sister is clearly redefining the images, rules and roles for black women in Hollywood and beyond.

Kerry likes to joke that she is a “twin of hip-hop,” because they were both born in 1977 in the Bronx. “Part of hip-hop culture is who I am,” she says of this fact. Growing up in an urban environment as an only child, with two working, educated parents, her family got her involved early in the arts through after school programs that included local acting stints instead of leaving her to be a typical latchkey kid of Gen X. Unbeknownst to her, this was the beginning of her journey to becoming an award-winning actress.

Her latest role in the ABC hit series Scandal certainly has the public thirsting to know more about how Washington honed her craft.

How she became an actress

“I did not want to be an actor professionally,” Washington told theGrio. “I grew up doing local community art programs, ballet, and [performing in a] children’s theatre company. I was a very energetic and precocious child. Thank goodness my parents did not see my hyperactivity and my desire to talk as problematic,” she said with a laugh, “and instead encouraged me to channel it in positive ways.”

Kerry reflected fondly on a program she entered in the late 1980s when she was in junior high. It was a visual arts, interactive, and theater experience in which the students were able to go into character to tell stories about life. This era was the height of the AIDS epidemic, and they often told stories about the disease.

“The audience could interact and learn — so it was a really good training ground for me, because I could learn what being in character actually means,” Kerry remembered. “As an actor, you have to be clear about who your character is.”

She continued to reminisce. “At age13 or 14 I started to understand the power of being able to transform a person’s life by exposing them to art. By allowing someone to step into the shoes of another, we allow people to step into an alternate reality, and through that we are able to transform who we want to be, or sometimes who we don’t want to be. These moments can be of great value to us as human beings.”

We discussed how despite her early beginnings, Washington still did not see herself becoming an actor. “I thought I’d do something in art therapy, or maybe become a lawyer for artists, a psychiatrist for artists, something [else] — but I did not see myself being an actor, because I did not have a model for it.” She explained that she was raised to value hard work, intellect and being of service in the world. In her mind’s eye acting was associated with fame, and frivolity. “I did not have a desire to be famous; I simply had a love of the craft of acting. I did not know it was a real job. I was interested in being of service in the world as I was raised to be.”

It was not until halfway through college that she went to a summer conservatory in New York and learned that there were acting unions just like teacher’s unions. The light bulb went off for her that she could pursue acting in a serious way, be a self-supporting professional, have health insurance and make a life. So she gave herself a year and said that if it did not work out, she would take the LSAT or GMAT. Well it did work out; she landed her first feature film, Our Song, shortly thereafter.

“I fell in love with it, I was on cloud nine,” Washington mused. “I was happy every second of filming that movie.”Being a black woman in Hollywood and ABC’s hit show Scandal

As we closed our interview I asked Kerry what it is like being a black actress in Hollywood.

“I tell folks all the time, if there is anything else you can do, do that instead,” Washington joked. “If what you are looking for is consistency, stability, predictability, and security, this is NOT the business for that. Pursuing the path of an artist is a challenging one. It doesn’t matter who you are white, black, etc.”

But Kerry quickly noted that she and her black female peers in Hollywood — Taraji P. Henson, Kimberly Elise, Gabrielle Union and others — are all very fortunate right now because of the opportunities being presented to them, compared to what Diahann Carroll, Eartha Kitt, and Pam Grier faced a generation ago.

Here our discussion became the most interesting, because I saw a side of Kerry that displayed the empowerment-minded woman that she is. “What we need to do as a community when we enter positions, is to focus on not just doing the work, but being ‘creators’ of the work,” Washington told me. “I say that because working on Scandal, two of my bosses are amazing black women. Judy Smith and Shonda Rhimes are the executive producers of the show. People need to understand that when we are the writers, producers, and directors of movies or TV series, that the face and shape of the shows will become more inclusive, and the stories themselves will become more inclusive.”

Washington continued: “So at the end of the day, I encourage more and more women and people of color to think about writing, directing, producing and creating material as well. Not just acting. That is how the stories become more and more representative of the full spectrum of humanity.”

The redefinition of Kerry Washington and what’s next

My last question to Kerry was on how Olivia (her character on Scandal) is changing the image of how we see black women in powerful roles.

“It’s hard for me to put her in a box like that and see her from the perspective of a historian or sociologist, because I am in the life of Olivia as an actor,” Washington explained. “What drew me to the character was the ability to take what could be perceived as a stereotype and try to create a fully-actualized, multi-layered human being.”

I asked her to break that down further. “Well, one of the things that is great about Olivia is that she doesn’t fit into anybody’s box — she is not a cliché. That is a credit to the writing team, not me,” Washington elaborated. “Like many women, in her professional life she is smart, powerful, and totally together and in her personal life she is torn, struggling and not together. That complexity is what drew me to the character, because we rarely get to see nuanced women or women of color on TV.”

As we wrapped, she mentioned her upcoming Quentin Tarantino movie Django Unchained and a new romantic comedy, We the People, due out next spring. The spiritual side of Kerry emerged when I asked her how she has redefined her life up to this point at 35 years of age.

“You know I think it is an immense privilege to be alive. We are constantly refining and redefining ourselves,” Washington said. “The idea of reincarnation is that as we go through life, we learn the lessons that we carry into the next. Now I have no idea whether that is true or not — but each character I play allows me an opportunity to live out other people’s lives and see in those lives things I like and don’t like about myself. Characters usually come into my life when they have something to teach me. I learn who I want to be, or who I don’t want to be, or how to love someone in my life better. The lessons are different, but they come to teach me something, and I am so grateful — they allow me to refine and redefine who I am. They allow me to explore each character’s challenges and journey and in turn I can do the same with mine. It is a constant evolution. I plan to never stop evolving until the day I die.”

Sophia A. Nelson is a journalist, award winning author and entrepreneur. Her book, Black Woman Redefined, has been discussed in various media outlets. Follow Sophia A. Nelson on Twitter at @SophiaRedefined