Actress Kerry Washington covers the December/Janaury 2011 issue of Capital file Magazine. Read her interview below with Una Lamarche. Photography by Robert Ascroft and styling by David Wijaja.
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Kerry Washington is a New York City girl, born and bred in the Bronx. But drop the nation’s capital into conversation, and it’s clear her surname is more than just mere coincidence. “I definitely claim Washington as one of the towns that I call home,” says the actress from her New York apartment. Washington is based in New York, but divides her time these days between The Big Apple, Los Angeles and DC, where she serves on the board of trustees at her alma mater, George Washington University, and is a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. She’s been spending so much time here, in fact, that she’s thinking about getting an apartment. “I’ve had a very eclectic life journey up to this point,” she laughs. “So I’m this funny conglomerate of hip-hop culture, Upper East Side private-school girl and Washingtonian politico.”
Washington is also one of the hottest actresses in Hollywood, recently starring in two films: Tyler Perry’s adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s 1975 play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, and Night Catches Us, a drama set in the race-torn Philadelphia of the 1970s, which hit theaters December 3. She also finished her first Broadway performance, in David Mamet’sRace. It’s a full docket, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I don’t know that I’m very good at making time for mys, elf,” she confesses.
Now 33, Washington has become the thinking woman’s It Girl, thanks to roles like her captivating debut in the 2000 indie flick Our Song and her star-making turn as Della Robinson in 2004’s Ray, for which she won an Image Award. If forced to choose, one might label her a “Serious Actress,” possessed of the depth, grit, grace and gravitas needed to inhabit dark and dramatic roles (see her heart-wrenching performance as Idi Amin’s wife, Kay, in The Last King of Scotland), but she also has the crack timing and unselfconsciousness of a seasoned comic, on display in lighter fare such as Little Man and I Think I Love My Wife. Spike Lee, who directed Washington in She Hate Meand Miracle at St. Anna, said “she stacks up against anybody.” Genetic advantage? It’s a possibility.
Washington’s Washington, DC
The daughter of a professor mother and a real estate broker father, Washington was raised first and foremost to be an educated and engaged member of society. “My parents always had PBS on,” she remembers. “From a very young age, the subjects at the dining room table were affirmative action, sexuality education, low-income housing, education reform—the pros and the cons, the ideological histories, the sociopolitical contexts.” Unsurprisingly, she grew into an intelligent and articulate young woman intent on majoring in something other than drama: While she attended GWU on a theater scholarship and performed in many productions, Washington was adamant about receiving a well-rounded liberal arts education. “What has always fascinated me is the relationship between arts and culture, arts and history, arts and psychology, arts and sociology,” she explains. “And so I wanted to study as many aspects of the human experience as I could.”
Washington fell in love immediately—not only with GWU, but also with the city as a whole. She fondly recalls walking along the Mall twice a week with a girlfriend and feeling awestruck. “The beauty of that part of the capital really allows the history of who we are as a nation to resonate in a different way,” she says. “You literally feel as though you’re walking through history.”
The same could be said of her role in For Colored Girls, which is practically a trademarked piece of our country’s literary biography. “That play is such an important part of the American canon, but also of the canon for women of color,” Washington says reverently. “A lot of us have a For Colored Girls poem in our back pocket, the way you’d have a Shakespeare monologue in your back pocket.” It is so well loved, in fact—it has been called one of the most important works about black female identity ever written—that it presented what Washington calls “a terrifying responsibility” for an actress.
Then there’s Night Catches Us, in which she stars as Patty, a widow and former Black Panther navigating life in 1970s Philadelphia. Washington spent weeks watching documentaries about the Panthers and poring over photojournalism from the period. She says she was drawn to the script, written by director Tanya Hamilton, in part because it avoided the caricatures that often accompany depictions of the Black Power movement. “It’s very easy to go along with the stereotypes we have in our minds of various political groups or people who identify with various groups,” she says. “I think we tend to forget people’s humanity and make assumptions about who they are based on a political belief that they ascribe to.”
Making a Difference
Despite the degree of preparation and the heavy subject matter—and although she does have lighter fare slated for release next year—Washington is quick to add that she loves what she does. “I don’t think of it in terms of being difficult,” she says. “There are much more difficult jobs than mine, like running the State Department! My job does not compare to Hillary Clinton’s.”
She would know: As part of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, Washington works with First Lady Michelle Obama and other powerhouse politicians (Clinton is an ex officio member). The actress has been involved in arts advocacy since college, when she petitioned to save the National Endowment for the Arts, which she likes to joke has been “like a third parent.” Since gaining fame, she has been active in organizations like the Creative Coalition and Americans for the Arts, and has gone to the Hill to talk about arts appropriations. “I really believe that the arts and humanities are vital to our understanding of who we are as a nation, and who we are as human beings within a larger global context,” she says.
Pursuing an unrelated political dream, she worked with the Obama campaign in 2008 as an official surrogate. And she was thrilled to have the opportunity earlier this year to introduce her parents to the Obamas while at the White House for an event. “They’re the real deal,” she says of the first family. For our money, so is Kerry Washington.
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