Kerry Washington Reveals Why She Was "Terrified" to Play Anita Hill in HBO's 'Confirmation'

"Portraying somebody who's real is a different kind of responsibility, especially when they're alive," the 'Scandal' star told reporters Thursday.
Courtesy of HBO

Kerry Washington will hang up her white hat temporarily when she stars as Anita Hill in HBO's upcoming film Confirmation.

The film centers on the explosive 1991 Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings, at which Anita Hill, his former assistant, testified about his repeated sexual harassment. The hearings brought the country to a standstill and forever changed the way people think about sexual harassment, victims' rights and modern-day race relations.

Although Washington has amassed two Emmy nominations and worldwide fame playing one of Washington D.C.'s biggest and toughest (fictional) power players, she admits she was intimidated to play the real-life figure who had a national and global impact.

"I was terrified. Portraying somebody who's real is a different kind of responsibility, especially when they're alive," she told reporters Thursday at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. "That significance was not lost on me both as an actor and as a producer, wanting all of these characters to feel real and to matter as much as these people do."

Washington also exec produces the film, which was written by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) and directed by Dope's Rick Famuyiwa.

Washington revealed she met with Hill as part of her research. "She is very private," Washington said. "I felt like that was also something that she and I really shared. The idea of the circumstances of your life thrusting you on the public eye when it's not necessary shared. That was something we were really able to bond on."

Another part of preparation for the film was – yes – sitting through a sexual harassment orientation before filming began. It "was a little bit surreal because we knew why we were having that orientation," Washington said with a laugh.

Although she was scared to step into Hill's shoes, Washington ultimately felt it was an important case to revisit because of the current national conversations taking place about race, with #BlackLivesMatter, and gender, with the transgender movement making major strides in the past few years.

"It changed the global conversation and that is an outcome that we all felt was really important and we wanted to make sure that that conversation continues because some of those issues have evolved enormously," Washington said. "Yet some of the issues are still rearing their head, in terms of gender in terms of race and how we understand those things. So I think really the outcome of what happened is that the conversation began and we want to make sure that that conversation continues."

Although the real-life outcome and impact of the case is already well-documented, Grant "worked hard to make sure these were complicated, three-dimensional characters," according to Washington, and "not to fulfill the idea of who somebody is, but to give us material to work with based on humanity."

That was no more true than for Wendell Pierce, who plays Thomas. "As an actor, you're always searching for the humanity of the character and that was something that I hope people don’t prejudge the film because of his reputation," The Wire alum said. "I had to check my own prejudice about who I thought he was."

Washington also emphasized the movie's portrayal of both sides of the story. She said, "What's going on in the story is so much more complicated than he-said, she-said and yet it is still that."

Confirmation debuts this April on HBO.

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