Kerry Washington Defends HBO's 'Confirmation': "It's Not a Propaganda Movie"

The 'Scandal' star talks with THR about the behind-the-scenes drama of HBO's political telefilm, her talks with Anita Hill and what she hopes viewers will take away from the project.
Courtesy of HBO
Kerry Washington as Anita Hill in HBO's 'Confirmation.'

Kerry Washington has high hopes for HBO's Confirmation.

Premiering Saturday, Confirmation stars Washington as Anita Hill opposite Wendell Pierce as Clarence Thomas and details the explosive 1991 Supreme Court nomination hearings (at which Anita Hill testified) that brought the country to a standstill and forever changed the way people think about sexual harassment, victims' rights and modern-day race relations.

Academy Award-nominated writer Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) penned the script and executive produced the movie alongside Washington. The movie features an all-star cast that also includes Greg Kinnear as Joe Biden, Eric Stonestreet as lobbyist Ken Duberstein and Jeffrey Wright as Hill's legal counsel.

Airing weeks after FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story captivated viewers with its exploration of race relations amid the trial, Confirmation has faced early drama from some of the players depicted in the movie who claim that it's anti-Republican. The Hollywood Reporter talks with Washington about those criticisms, her meetings with Hill and more.

Let's go back to the beginning of Confirmation. What drew you to Anita Hill's story?

I was 14 at the time [of the hearings], so a lot of my memories are through my parents' eyes. I remember being really struck by it because generally we were all on the same page when it came to issues that we talked about. My parents would always talk about political and social issues, and everybody was usually on the same page — whether it was about affirmative action or the right to choose, and this was one of the first moments where I could really see my parents struggling with each other because they were not on the same page. My dad felt one way about watching this African-American man have his career and reputation stripped and maligned publicly by this panel of older white men. And my mother felt equally pulled in the direction of Anita Hill and listening to this professional African-American woman talk about the challenges she faced. I was really struck by my own sense of intersectionality and the awareness of belonging to more than one community and those instances where they may at times be at odds with each other.

As an exec producer on Confirmation, what kind of involvement did Anita Hill have? How much did you talk with her? Did she read the scripts?

In the beginning, we talked to her when we were talking with a lot of people because we talked to people on both sides of the aisle. We talked to people from all different kinds of experiences: journalists, other lawyers, senators, to her. We really tried to do our due diligence and research. [Screenwriter] Susannah Grant did most of the heavy lifting in that area. But as producers, we were all involved in a lot of the interviews. At that point, I was trying to soak up as much information as I could, but I was also holding that information at arm's length. I was reading her memoirs, but I was also reading Clarence Thomas' memoir and a lot of books about the period. Part of why we were approaching it in that way was because one of our goals — and our intentions in the very beginning — was to tell as balanced a story as we could. We wanted to take these people who had become ideological, iconic symbols — like Joe Biden, Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill — and uncover the humanity for people so that they weren't just symbols. But they were complicated, three-dimensional human beings. That had to happen in the writing, in the casting and in the execution of the film. At some point in that process, I turned to my fellow producers and director and said, "Now I have to step away from this, and I have to devote myself to her 150 percent and trust you guys to hold the rest of it." At that point, I started to engage with her in a more one-on-one way in terms of helping me to develop the character.

How much did you discuss the events that weren't televised with her — how she felt in certain circumstances, whom she trusted and so on?

All of that was part of our conversation — particularly when I was working on portraying her later in the process. We talked a lot about her feelings as it was all unfolding.

Was there something from those discussions that really surprised you that helped inform your performance in Confirmation?

It's hard to say. I'm always reluctant to talk about this conversation too much because she's so guarded and with good reason. But spending time with her helps me to access her and understand her rhythm. But so did studying the hearings themselves. We were so lucky that the story unfolded in a time when people were — almost for the first time — engaged in a 24-hour news cycle. There's so much footage from the hearings and the press conferences, and I studied and was really inspired by [playwright-actress and Stanford University professor] Anna Deavere Smith [who contributed an essay to Hill and Emma Coleman Jordan's Race, Gender, and Power in America collection of essays], whom I admire a great deal, and the way that she worked from real video. I used a little of her approach in terms of studying Anita from the footage that we had, again and again.

Looking back on the whole process, is there one scene that really stands out that was challenging for you?

To play somebody at the absolute most stressful, life-changing moment in their life? All of it was. It was funny, when we were talking about it, Anita Hill said, for her, it was a really intense period of days and weeks. I had to live in that space for such an extended period of time. It was really intense.

How did you approach playing her — as someone who had been wronged or as someone who was standing up for what she believed in?

After I read both [Thomas' and Hill's] memoirs and a lot of the books about the process and the culture at the time, I went back and read hers again when I started preparing the character. I really admire and respect Anna Deavere Smith, and she has a very specific way of working from raw material. She works almost like an anthropologist or sociologist in terms of interviewing people and recording them and embodying the rhythm of how people speak — so paying attention not only to what people say but how they say it. I tried to use a lot of the video that we had from the hearings and from press conferences and work from Smith's approach to get inside the rhythm of Anita.

In a larger sense, were you able to tap into anything from Scandal for Confirmation?

One of the reasons why I was really drawn to the character is because she's so different from Olivia Pope. After five seasons of playing somebody who has so much access and power — who for the most part is always the most powerful person in the room aside from Papa Pope [Joe Morton] — I was drawn to the idea of playing somebody who was in that same environment but at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of access and power.

A few of the politicians depicted in the film have claimed that it's anti-Republican. What do you say to them?

A lot of that feedback is coming from people who haven't seen the film, so it's a typical conversation to have. When you see the film, it's very clear how much we were respecting and prioritizing the humanity of so many of the players involved and knowing that my own complicated understanding of intersectionality, in terms of gender and race, is part of why I wanted to make the movie. It's not a propaganda movie. It's a movie about complicated people in a really complex situation doing the best they could with the tools they had at the time.

We did our due diligence. Susannah was waist-deep in the research and double-checked [it]. It's one of the reasons I was happy that HBO wanted to make the film, because not only are they invested in protecting it, but they're invested in protecting the truth and making sure that people aren't having their lives inappropriately dealt with. I feel confident about the film and about our intentions in making it, but quite honestly, I understand it. When the hearings were going on, people were unhappy and frustrated, and that was then. The reasons why it hasn't become a public part of our canon of historical national conversation in the way it maybe should be is because it was a difficult thing for people to deal with, and Americans wanted to sweep it under the rug when it was over. The fact that we're going back and telling this story reignites and honors the importance of these conversations. Of course it's going to be upsetting to some people — that makes sense. It was upsetting at the time, so it would be upsetting again now.

There have been reports that Joe Biden reached out to HBO, and some adjustments were made — not based directly on his calls but as a whole. What were some of those changes?

I would feel more comfortable having that conversation with Susannah, because she would be able to have that conversation more accurately.

What do you hope viewers walk away with after watching Confirmation?

One of the most important things that comes forward in the film is the importance of our voices in this country. Anita Hill was a very reluctant hero, based on these things that I wasn't so clear about before doing research on her and how much she did not want to come forward and was put in that position because the information was leaked. But when I think about how it inspired other people to have their voices — that's moving. I love those moments in the film where Joe Biden, Clarence Thomas or Anita Hill are talking, and all of a sudden you hear the phone start to ring in the congressional offices because that is the moment of the unscripted character. That's the American people calling in for congressmen to say, "I'm not happy" or "I have an opinion about this, and I need to be heard." We're lucky to live in a representational democracy where our government's job is to represent us. We put them in office, and they're supposed to represent us. And that's one of the important reminders in the film: that they can't do their jobs unless we are showing up with our voices. Unless we are voting, making phone calls and participating in the process, our representational bodies won't know how to represent us and won't do their jobs well. We have to be part of the process.

Considering what you now know, do you think Clarence Thomas should have been confirmed to the Supreme Court?

I'm reluctant to answer those questions. There is this idea that I'm making the film for a political agenda. When I saw the Anita documentary a few years ago, I wanted to pull back the onion and know more. I wanted to know about what was happening in those rooms where the cameras weren't rolling and what was going on for Anita Hill, Joe Biden and Clarence Thomas. My passion was about uncovering the process because that's where the story was. I'm reluctant to answer those questions because this film is not about my personal politics. It's about a vital moment in our shared history as a country.

Switching gears to Scandal for a moment — Olivia has killed Andrew Nichols. Does this make her a monster? How much do you know about how this season ends? Will there be a new president? 

I know nothing about where the season ends. … I don't want to say if Olivia is a monster or not because I think that word has a particular context in the Scandal world that is still being revealed to us. I always feel like my job with Olivia is to hold the face of nonjudgment, because I have to be her. I try not to judge her and have ethical judgment calls on what she does. My job is to get inside it and justify it wholeheartedly. So I'm probably the wrong person to ask.

Confirmation airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO. Scandal airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.

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