I don't need to tell you I was thrilled to sit down -- for a full half-hour -- with one of my favorite movie-improvers, the gorgeous and gifted Kerry Washington. She really was a joy to talk to, playing by her own breezy rules and not the rules of an agent or studio. The full feature is below.
Kerry Washington means business
The traffic-stopping star of Night Catches Us and For Colored Girls has used her formidable skills as a serious actress to build an enviable career. But off camera, she balances her heavy work load by keeping her mood light.
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Kerry Washington is busy. As I enter her hotel suite on a late afternoon in mid-October, the 33-year-old actress is seated at the far end of the room, huddled over a long wooden desk topped with notes, folders and a datebook. With pencil in hand, she's on the phone, fielding questions from another journalist about her role in Night Catches Us, a Philly-made indie she's in town to promote during its run in the 19th Philadelphia Film Festival.
“The rewards are different when doing a smaller film,” I hear her say as I make my way past. She's wearing a stylish, knee-length dress with a painterly print; a black blazer tailored to her lean physique; and cream-colored platform pumps that must make a mean clack when she moves through a hallway. With everything but the stare-sharpening glasses, she looks like a hotshot editrix, or maybe a no-joke CEO, more than ready to snap her fingers and bark orders.
But that's not at all who I meet when Washington slips in to greet me in a small room next to her all-business headquarters. Flashing a smile too perfect for real life, the star of such films as Ray, Lakeview Terrace and The Last King of Scotland suddenly seems quite incapable of barking. She's cordial, unfussy and refreshingly off-script. She's the sort of person you almost instantly wish were part of your social circle.
“You've got some great hair going on here,” she says to me, motioning toward my head. I smile, mainly at the irony that this gorgeous woman, with her pristinely-in-place black curls resting softly on her shoulders, is giving me hairstyle compliments. Washington is smaller than she looks on screen, which is of course partly due to the fact she's no longer stretched to a size of 70 by 30 feet.
“No one should see themselves that big,” she says with a laugh, acknowledging that she has yet to master the skill of “gracefully” watching her own work. She admits to being the only actress from Tyler Perry's ensemble drama For Colored Girls who hasn't seen the finished cut. Winding back the clock, she recalls the time she first saw herself in action. While watching TV with a boyfriend, she flipped to a channel that was playing Save the Last Dance, the 2001 urban romance she refers to as her “first big movie.”
“It was very surreal,” she says, “like, 'who is that person?'”
Washington with Julia Stiles in Save the Last Dance.
The person in Save the Last Dance was an unknown just starting to show her knack for stealing scenes. The person sitting across from me is someone who's grown into one of the more intriguing actresses of her generation – someone whose association with a film can affect whether or not you're going to see it. She can ably raise the tough-girl factor while playing sidekick to Angelina Jolie's assassin in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, or, as a fiery potential mistress, bring a sassy allure to an otherwise forgettable film like I Think I Love My Wife. In the role of a blind love interest, she can add grace to ungraceful fare like Fantastic Four, or brighten up the casts of Spike Lee films like She Hate Me or Miracle at St. Anna. Quite simply, she makes movies better.
This year, Washington has eschewed big Hollywood films and stuck strictly to more personal, art house titles. In May, she appeared opposite Annette Bening and Naomi Watts in Mother and Child, a maternal drama from female-centric filmmaker Rodrigo García. She played Lucy, a woman looking to adopt but encountering problems with the birth mother. In For Colored Girls, the powerhouse adaptation of the landmark play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Washington is Kelly, another character searching for alternative paths to motherhood. And in Night Catches Us, a unique tale of former Black Panthers living in Philadelphia in 1976, Washington finally plays a mother, whose devotion to her daughter impacts a key portion of the plot.
“It's so much fun,” she says of working on independent projects, speaking again of the “rewards” she was discussing when I entered. “I love what I do, really love it, so I enjoy working on any film, but smaller films can be more creatively fulfilling. You get to see more of the process. That's what I'm drawn to right now.”
Washington with Anthony Mackie in Night Catches Us.
Regarding the motherly themes she's been exploring, Washington says she found a lot of inspiration from her own mother, specifically for her latest film. In Night Catches Us, Washington stars as Patricia, an ex-Panther who's invented a new life for herself in an attempt to leave her activism, and the strife that surrounded it, behind her. Washington's mother, Valerie, informed the actress' approach to her character's desire to make things perfect, the way she tolerated the polyester costumes on hot production days (“How'd you wear that stuff, Mom?!”), and her understanding of her character's politics.
“My parents weren't involved with the Panther party, but they had friends who were,” Washington says. “It's definitely something that was talked about in our home. What I like about this film is it breaks down the stereotypical images people see when they think about Black Panthers – the fist in the air, the machine guns – and gets to the humanity of real people on an intimate scale. In my experience, any political group, be it Panthers, Tea Partiers, Democrats, Republicans, whatever, is essentially based around people doing what they believe to be the best things for themselves. It may not be the same as what you or I believe, but I think it basically comes from a good place.”
Written and directed by local filmmaker Tanya Hamilton, Night Catches Us (now playing in limited release) was shot in Philadelphia. Washington's never lived in the city, but she's familiarized herself with a lot of its hotspots, thanks to her father's longtime involvement with the Penn Relays.
“When I was a child, we'd come every year as a family,” she says. “We'd stay in hotels and visit the Art Museum, the Franklin Institute, the Liberty Bell.”
Washington says a lot of what drew her to her role in Night Catches Us – which also features her friend and She Hate Me costar Anthony Mackie – was the film's honest depiction of an under-examined aspect of black culture in America. It's the same thing she and so many other people appreciate about For Colored Girls, which plumbs the experience of the black American female like few texts ever have. Washington lights up when talking about For Colored Girls, and for good reason. Apart from its cultural significance, the superbly acted movie (now playing everywhere) places her in a super-stellar cast that includes Loretta Devine, Whoopi Goldberg, Thandie Newton, Phylicia Rashad, Kimberly Elise, Anika Noni Rose and Janet Jackson.
Washington with Phylicia Rashad and Anika Noni-Rose in For Colored Girls.
“My favorite memory from the shoot was when we finished the last scene,” Washington says. “We were all on a rooftop, and when we finished and went back downstairs, we just saw this line of chairs with the names of all these incredible women on them: Whoopi Goldberg, Loretta Devine, Phylicia Rashad... To be able to see the names of all these accomplished and talented women of color in one place was amazing.”
One of the names, of course, was Washington's, and it's hard to think of a better way to illustrate the heights to which this Bronx-born star has risen. She deserves to be included in a lineup of great talents. She can command your attention on the big screen, starring in one of the movies she's improving, or face-to-face, in three dimensions. She's looking ahead, saying among other things that she dreams to work with Clint Eastwood, and even as we speak, she needs to wrap up and get to an interview with ABC. But it's not all work and no play for Washington. Before we part ways, and she exits the elevator we're now sharing, her heels indeed clacking, she offers a final confession.
“I have this image of being this serious actor person,” she says, “and that's definitely a big part of who I am. But my family would tell you different. They'd tell you I'm really just goofy and silly.”
*This article was previously published in the December 2010 issue of ICON Magazine. It has been reprinted with permission.