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“Before Scandal, I had a pretty normal life,” the actress/producer Kerry Washington says as we record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s Awards Chatter podcast and talk about the ABC drama series on which she played the iconic part of Olivia Pope, a ‘fixer’ modeled after real-life crisis manager Judy Smith. “I think because I am, at heart, a character actor, people didn’t connect that the girl from The Last King of Scotland was the same girl from Save the Last Dance was the same girl from Ray. I enjoyed disappearing and transforming into these characters. I had the benefit of starting to have things like cosmetics and jewelry campaigns, because my career was going well, but I could still go to the grocery store and not have it really be a big deal. And Scandal changed that.”
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.
Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett and Norman Lear.
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Washington, 43, is not complaining, just stating facts. Shonda Rhimes‘ soapy drama series opened up a whole new world for her when it debuted in 2012, making her the first black female lead of a primetime network series in 37 years, since Get Christie Love, which starred Teresa Graves. “There was a pressure,” she says now, two years since it went off the air. “I knew that if Scandal didn’t work, there was the potential that it would be another 30 to 40 years before somebody took a ‘chance’ on giving a woman of color the opportunity to be the lead of her own show.”
As it turned out, Scandal quickly proved a hit, landing Washington 2013 and 2014 Emmy nominations and a 2014 Golden Globe nomination for best actress in a drama series; spots on People‘s 2013 list of the 100 Most Beautiful People in the World and Time‘s 2014 list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World; and the ability to launch, in 2016, her own production company.
Simpson Street, named after the block in the Bronx where her mother grew up, has provided Washington with her best showcases ever since: the part of Anita Hill in the 2016 HBO TV movie Confirmation, for which she received acting and producing Emmy noms; the 2018 one-act Broadway play American Son, which explored tensions between white cops and the black community; and, over the past year, two projects for which she is now in serious Emmy contention: the Netflix TV movie adaptation of American Son; and Little Fires Everywhere, the Hulu limited series adaptation of Celeste Ng‘s 2017 novel, which was co-produced by and co-stars Reese Witherspoon.
Over the course of our conversation, Washington discusses the strange dichotomy of her upbringing — she was born and raised in the Bronx, but was educated from age 12 at Spence, a prestigious all-girls private school on the Upper East Side — after which she headed to George Washington University on a theater scholarship, having discovered a love for acting in children’s theater and landed an agent by middle school. Washington also reflects on early films like 2004’s Ray and 2006’s The Last King of Scotland — she played characters played by Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker, who both won best actor Oscars — and why she “wanted to quit acting” (and actually put down a deposit for yoga teacher training) even after they received widespread acclaim.
And Washington talks about her 2020 projects — how American Son was performed 130 times on Broadway before being turned into a film in just 4.5 days, and discovering, with Witherspoon during the making of Little Fires Everywhere, an unexpected key to their characters in that limited series: “We were like, ‘Oh, yeah, we were the teenagers [in the 1990s, the decade in which the limited series is set], which means that we are playing our moms.’ And that awareness unlocked the character for me.” She adds, “In many, many ways, the show allowed me to honor my parents and step into their shoes, walk as them, with love and gratitde and deeper understanding.”
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