Kerry Washington: Black Girl Magic

Kerry Washington has gone from nameless character actress to one of the most prolific stars of the last decade – all while trying to change the world. But what else would you expect from The Fixer?

Did you realise that your favourite take-no-nonsense TV star was also in your favourite movie as a teenager, Save the Last Dance? How about as Angelina’s best friend in Mr & Mrs Smith? Or in anything from NYPD Blue and Boston Legal to Ray (opposite Jamie Foxx) and The Last King of Scotland (with Forest Whitaker)?

Kerry Washington’s flawless face has been popping up on our screens since the early noughties, mainly in supporting roles and bit parts – but her leading-star potential remained largely untapped. ‘I was, for most of my career, able to be invisible,’ she told Elle US in 2016. ‘For some reason, people never connected that the girl from Ray was the same girl from The Last King of Scotland.’

That is until creator of Grey’s Anatomy and How to Get Away With Murder (and arguably the person who’s created the most complex and diverse female TV characters in recent years) Shonda Rhimes put her front and centre in our living rooms every week. ‘Television changed the game for me,’ she admits. ‘Coming into people’s houses on a weekly basis is just a different kind of relationship to the public.’

It’s been handled

Bronx-born Kerry became a part of our lives in 2012 as top Washington DC crisis manager Olivia Pope (whose personal life may have needed a little fixing of its own) in The Fixer (or Scandal as it’s known outside South Africa. The name was changed so local audiences wouldn’t confuse it with the e.tv daytime drama of the same name).

The show, which came to an end after seven seasons earlier this year, was a critical and commercial hit, and broke ground as one of the first primetime shows to have a woman of colour as the lead character. It’s a legacy that Kerry is extremely proud of: ‘I think the fact that, in my lifetime, there had not been a black woman at the lead of a television show and now everywhere you look, every single network has women of colour helming shows. I think that will be part of the legacy of the show,’ she told the Los Angeles Times. Kerry was also the first black woman to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy award for a lead role in nearly 20 years.

Going from playing the best friend or wife of ‘bigger’ stars, to redefining women’s roles in film and TV is a huge responsibility to carry for any actress. But apart from her big deer-like eyes, envy-inducing lips and movie-star smile, a lot of what makes the 41-year-old actress so appealing to viewers is her graceful and quiet confidence – a trait she credits heavily to her kick-ass on-screen persona:

‘There are things that Olivia Pope has given me that will always stay with me,’ she said ahead of the airing of the last episode of The Fixer in April. ‘She has changed me. I don’t know if I would have had kids at this point in my life if she didn’t make me feel like anything is possible. I feel like she’s given me a lot of courage. So, I’ll keep that courage. I’m going to have to say bye to the Prada purses, but not goodbye to the courage – and the courage is more important.’

Finding her power

Another characteristic she proudly shares with Olivia is that she doesn’t play by the rules. Keeping her private life private, for example, is an act of rebellion in Hollywood these days, but it’s a vow she made with her husband, former football player Nnamdi Asomugha, to never speak publicly about their relationship or two children, daughter Isabelle, four, and son Caleb, two.

‘I have girlfriends in this business who talk about their personal lives, and it works for them, and I love it. But not for me,’ she says. ‘I learnt through experience that it doesn’t work for me.’ And it’s a trait that has allowed her to instead use her fame to highlight far more pressing issues than the usual celebrity-tabloid fodder.

Known for being an advocate for inclusivity, better representation and for people who may not have the power to advocate for themselves, Kerry prefers to use her public profile as an activist to bring attention to some worthy – and in the current US political climate, timely – causes, such as domestic violence and the #TimesUp movement.

‘Having your story told as a woman, as a person of colour, as a lesbian or as any member of any disenfranchised community is sadly often still a radical idea,’ she said in her acceptance speech for the GLAAD Vanguard Award in 2015. ‘There is so much power in storytelling, and there is enormous power in inclusive storytelling, in inclusive representations… We must see each other, all of us, and we must see ourselves, all of us. We have to continue to be bold and break new ground until that is just how it is, until we are no longer “firsts” and “exceptions” and “rare”.’

Confirming her place

Spending most of her career taking on roles, whether conscious or not, that tell the stories of thosee under-represented in society, such as slave Broomhilda von Shaft in 2012’s Django Unchained, the actress has now added executive producer to her CV to seek to bring even more of these stories to light.

‘At this point in my career, it felt important for me to be creating work for myself, and not, like, sitting at home waiting to be invited to a party,’ she says. ‘The charge of my production company Simpson Street is to tell stories that are about people, places and situations that may not always be considered by the mainstream. Inclusivity is not about creating a world where straight white men have no voice; it’s about creating a world where we all have a voice.’

One such story was that of Anita Hill in Confirmation, a lawyer and academic who testified against then US Supreme Court judge nominee Clarence Thomas for sexual harassment. It’s the classic he-said, she-said situation in which the victim’s character is brought into question rather than the accused’s, and she has to fight twice as hard to get people to believe her story against a powerful man. Kerry executive-produced and starred in the made-for-TV movie, which earned her Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for best actress.

Everyone matters

The theme of giving a voice to those who have none is one that she carries through from her work to her day-to-day life. As a mother, Kerry wants her children to feel represented and that they matter in the world – and one of the ways she’s doing that is by embracing her natural hair, as she did at this year’s Met Gala:

‘Wearing my natural hair on the red carpet has a lot to do with me being a mom now and wanting to reflect that [for my kids],’ she told Glamour US. ‘Again, it’s that idea that there’s not just one way to be beautiful and that there are lots of ways to bring out your best self.’

It’s easy to be taken in by her incredible beauty and charm on screen, but what should keep you paying attention to Kerry Washington is, whatever she does next and in the future, it will be for the greater good – and that includes you and me.

‘My deepest desire is to create a world where there’s room for all of us, where no matter who you are, you get to wake up in the morning and know that you are worthwhile and deserving. If that’s the world I want to live in, I have to do the work to make that true. I have to do the work of self-love and affirmation, and say: “I am a woman, I am a person of colour, I am the granddaughter of immigrants, I am the descendant of slaves, I am a mother, I am an entrepreneur, I am an artist, and I’m joyful”.’

Kerry on…

Being over 40

‘Life is just getting better. For me, 40 feels like a beginning. I’m excited to be at this stage in life.’

Self-love

‘For me, self-love is like: “Am I sleeping enough? Eating well?” Not: “Am I eating well to be able to fit into my skinny jeans?” But: “Am I eating well to be healthy and strong?” And to acknowledge the good, because there is always a lot of good.’

Getting a seat at the table with the ‘big boys’

‘Sometimes the people who are in charge, they want us to feel lucky to be in the room … but that doesn’t mean that I don’t get to bring other people with me. We need to have the courage to say: “Great, I’m so happy you’ve given me this deal. I’m also going to hire another woman to help me run this company, and I’m also going to do a movie about a woman, and, you know what, I’m going to hire an Academy Award-winning woman to write it.” Never accept that [one woman] being alone in the room is enough.’

Fast facts

• Favourite beauty item

Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Gel, and because I use a lot of product in my hair, I use a clarifying shampoo once a month.’

• Favourite workout

‘I do a lot of different things such as hiking and SoulCycle, but I’m most obsessed with water aerobics.’

• Favourite fashion item

‘Sneakers. They’ve been in my blood longer [than heels]. They keep me connected to my hip-hop upbringing.’

• Top beauty tip

‘Hydration. Hydration. Hydration. Drink lots of water. And never go to sleep with your make-up on!’

• Favourite holiday destination

‘Tanzania’

Originally published in Balanced Life October 2018 issue.

You may also like