'Don’t worry so much about being perfect': life according to Kerry Washington

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Stylist Team
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She’s the star of one of the most tweeted about TV shows in the US and Oprah and Lena are huge fans. Stylist discovers why Scandal’s Kerry Washington is shaking up America.

Words: Colin Crummy

There are certain indicators in life that suggest you have made it. Being asked back to your alma mater as a keynote speaker is one. Oprah Winfrey emailing you personally to tell you what a fan she is; that’s a really good one. Then there’s being nominated for your second Emmy or being on Time magazine’s Most Influential List. You get the idea.

Yet for all Kerry Washington’s celebrity in the States, there’s a good chance you don’t know much about her. But that’s all about to change. After a low-key launch on More4 two years ago, Washington’s show Scandal, now in its third series, has moved to Sky Living HD and is about to take UK audiences by storm.

The 37-year-old plays Olivia Pope – a crisis manager inspired by Judy Smith (former deputy press secretary to George W Bush and real-life Washington fixer whose clients included Monica Lewinsky) – who also happens to be sleeping with her former boss, the President of the United States, making the title of the show very multilayered. The salacious subject matter of the show could not be more different to Washington in real life.

A true philanthropist, she uses her celebrity to promote causes close to her heart, sitting on the board of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls, as an active member of the President’s Committee On The Arts And Humanities, and as a vocal campaigner on Obama’s 2008 re-election campaign.

Washington refuses to play the games so common in today’s tabloid press. Last year, several US gossip magazines started speculating about her close relationships with other females – colleagues or friends she would greet on the red carpet with a hug. Articles suggested these relationships were more than platonic. Washington never responded publicly, choosing not to honour the salacious rumours with a response, until November, when she told The Advocate magazine, “It’s interesting how much people long to fill in the gaps when someone in the public eye doesn’t share their personal life.”

In reality, Kerry Washington discreetly married retired NFL player Nnamdi Asomugha in June 2013 and gave birth to their daughter, Isabelle, in April. She is warm and gracious when we meet, even when she’s expertly avoiding questions that might reveal too much, deftly bringing the subject back to her character, Olivia, every time.

The real Kerry Washington was born in the Bronx, the only child to middle-class parents (her dad a real estate agent, her mum a professor and education consultant). She grew up wanting to be a psychotherapist and her parents hoped the acting bug she caught at school would fade. Needless to say, it didn’t. Her 2013 Emmy nomination was proof she made the right decision.

She is the first African American woman in a leading role to get the nod in 18 years. If she wins her second nomination, she will be the first African American woman to do so. This is all the more amazing when you consider Washington was reluctant to even audition for Scandal, having started her career with small television appearances in NYPD Blue and Law & Order but then establishing herself as an acclaimed film actress with roles in Ray (2004) and Django Unchained (2012).

Luckily she did. The 200,000 plus tweets Scandal generates per episode – much more than its nearest social media competitor Game Of Thrones – arguably makes the show and its star, Washington, the most talked about on American television. And it’s about to go the same way on these shores.

Congratulations on your second Emmy nomination. How do you feel about potentially being the first African American lead female to win?

I do my best to not get caught up in this kind of stuff. I love what I do and being able to do it is the most important thing to me. There was a lot of talk about how the show is ground-breaking. It’s about a person who is a lot of things: a woman, a crisis management expert, an African American… We don’t ignore any part of her identity.

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in Scandal

In the US, the show’s success has been partly down to the cast live tweeting. Was this instigated by you?

I wouldn’t say the live tweets were my idea but I thought it would be really fun if all the cast were on Twitter. I didn’t want to be the bossy one so I may have emailed Shonda [Rhimes, the show’s creator] and said, “You should ask everyone to be on Twitter.” So she did. We all tweet about the show not because someone pays us to but because we’re passionate about it.

Would you have previously been reluctant about Twitter?

[Laughs] Oh yeah.

Has your mind been changed? You’ve currently got 1.68 million followers.

Yes. There is real power in social media. The world has become a global community and that’s exciting. [But] I’m a very, very private person so I was nervous about it. I didn’t know how to interact in this way without feeling like I was violating a sense of having a personal life outside and separate from work. But I work with a social media manager and I’m always working on that balance of being in conversation with the community and digital landscape but also having a private life.

You were asked to give a TED talk but declined, and since then have admitted you regret that. What have you learnt from that experience?

Taking risks is important. Sometimes as women we don’t do that out of fear of failure or fear of how it will be perceived. We are representing all women when we make a choice and I think risktaking – calculated, intelligent risk-taking – is really important.

Can you pinpoint a moment when you took that risk?

I feel like I take that risk on the show all the time. Olivia is such a revered character – we want to see her as all-powerful and all-knowing and yet she’s enormously flawed. Taking a hero and revealing her dark side – her flaws and humanity – is an exciting creative risk for me.

It’s interesting to hear that, given that TV has been dominated recently by flawed but celebrated male leads, like True Detective for example.

Yeah, I think because we feel underrepresented in different forms of media as women, or as people of colour, there’s a longing for those characters to be perfect [when they are the centre of the story]. To say, “No, I’m not supposed to be an upstanding citizen for all women or a role model for all people of colour. I’m going to be a human being; three-dimensional, messy and alive – both powerful and a little bit of a mess.” Now that’s exciting.

You’re involved in several organisations for change and were active in the Democratic National Convention to re-elect Barack Obama in 2012. How do you choose which causes to highlight?

I’ve gravitated a lot towards women’s issues because I’m a woman [laughs]. Also, I believe in equality for all members of our community and that lends itself to being very active around voting, voters’ rights and participating in a democracy. Our voices are heard in the US by showing up and voting. It’s important that people know they own that privilege. That’s how we keep our country ours.

How do you feel about Hillary Clinton potentially running for the presidency?

I’m excited; very excited. I want her to do whatever’s best for her, but she’d be a fantastic president. We’d be very blessed to have her as our commander-in-chief.

Oprah loves you, Lena Dunham twitter-stalks you, Claire Danes is a huge fan – do you sense a growing sisterliness in Hollywood right now?

[Laughs] It’s fun to hear that. There is a real circle of mutual respect. There are more opportunities for women and part of that is people like Lena and Oprah creating those opportunities and having a community that believes our successes can help rather than take away from each other. That’s the truth; the more successful you are, the more you’re able to inspire and create work for others. It’s great when we live in that belief system. It works.

You were asked to give a speech at your alma mater, George Washington University, this year. Were you as moved as you looked?

I was. Being the daughter of a professor, I have great respect for academic institutions and know how important education is.

You’re an only child; how did your parents influence you?

They influenced me immensely. I’ve learned very different things from each of them. My mother is more of a quiet soul but she walks in the world with a great deal of grace, intelligence, refinement and dignity. I’ve tried to embody those things in the best way I can. My dad is much more gregarious. He is one of the most generous spirits I’ve ever met and he truly is interested in the people and the world around him. I really get that kind of curiosity from him.

Is it true your parents were fearful about you going into acting?

Terrified! My mother tried to talk me into doing a million other things. She used to say, “Don’t be an actor. Be a lawyer for actors.” I think every parent fears their child will be a starving artist – and with good reason because so many people wind up on that path. I’m very grateful they allowed me to pursue my dreams.

Were you always confident you’d ‘make it’?

No! I had a really specific plan. I gave myself a year after undergraduate school to see what would happen with it and to see if I could make some money. If it didn’t work out, I told myself I would go back to graduate or law school.

Is it true you were also teaching yoga at that time?

I was, yes. I lived in India right after college and got certified to teach. I was also a supply teacher for New York City public schools. I loved it. I had to limit myself to teaching no more than three days in a row at the same school so I wouldn’t be seduced. Oh, and I was working in a restaurant. I had serious hustle going on.

What kept you motivated? Was it that you’d given yourself just one year?

Yes. It gave it a finite ending. If it didn’t work out, I was willing to do other things for work. I wanted to at least give myself a shot, to invest in my own heart and passions. And I’m very lucky I was able to do a movie in that first year [Our Song, 2000] because I’m not sure I would’ve stuck with it otherwise. I’m very grateful that happened.

What life lessons would you give your younger self?

I guess, it’s to trust the journey. Don’t worry so much about being perfect. Trust that you’re on a journey of becoming who you’re supposed to be. Everything that’s happened, every negative thing or bad moment has helped me to come closer to who I want to be. Not that I’m there yet but I’m really grateful for the challenges. I truly am.

Scandal Season 3 starts 31 July at 9pm on Sky Living HD. Seasons 1 and 2 are available On Demand now