ILLUSTRATION BY HANOCH PIVEN
It’s fitting that it was Kerry Washington who cemented the phrase “it’s handled” in the pop culture lexicon. In 2012, the actress, previously known for films like Save the Last Dance and Ray, ascended to superstardom with Scandal, Shonda Rhimes’s soapy political drama about the professional and personal entanglements of D.C.’s preeminent crisis fixer, Olivia Pope. Washington earned two Emmy nominations and legions of Gladiators (Scandal-speak for fans) as a woman who, on more than one occasion, literally saved the world with her signature cool, calm collectedness.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that offscreen Washington herself spins plates with Herculean—actually, make that Pope-ian—dexterity. The multitasking star’s workload is jaw-dropping. She’s the founder of Simpson Street, a production company with several series in development; a budding director; a Neutrogena spokesmodel; a political advocate who campaigned for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and who continues to speak up for LGBT rights as well as the Time’s Up movement; and a mom to a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son with her husband, former NFL star Nnamdi Asomugha.
There’s also the matter of her day job and its critical current moment. Scandal’s series finale aired in April, and Washington now faces the challenge of transitioning away from a beloved character she played for six years. To do so, she’s taking to the stage. In the new Broadway play American Son, written by Christopher Demos-Brown and directed by Kenny Leon, Washington plays Kendra, a woman who’s trapped in a police station with her estranged husband, seeking answers about the whereabouts of their missing biracial son. The decision to star in (and produce) the show was a no-brainer, Washington says: “It felt truly unique and bold in its willingness to go into places that we’re struggling to unpack as a society.” Anywhere Washington’s going, we’re following.
You’ve said that once you started reading American Son you couldn’t put it down. What went through your mind when you finished it?
That it was unlike anything I’d ever read or seen, and that I should do it! I’d never seen this character on stage before, and the conversations that these characters are having, I’d never seen explored in this way, in this time.
What do you want the audience to take away from it?
I hope people will feel more willing and able to communicate honestly with each other—and to do so with some increased empathy and understanding.
This is your first Broadway show since your debut, in Race, almost a decade ago. What does being on stage give you that TV and film don’t?
There’s something for me that’s very sacred about the theater, because there’s no device to mitigate the experience. There’s no television screen, movie screen, iPad, or iPhone delivering the content. You’re in the room as human beings sharing that space in real time. I think it’s one of the reasons we gravitated toward live-tweeting on Scandal. So many of the actors on the show had their starts in theater. Live-tweeting and being able to read and feel the audience reactions in real time—it was as close to theater as you can get. There’s a moment on stage when you hear the audience gasp or a woman in the third row say, “Don’t do it!” or “You better kiss him!” or there’s a standing ovation for the dance number at the end of the second act—whatever it is that happens in that room. You don’t get that in film and television. You’re so disconnected from your audience. Social media allowed for a communal experience on Scandal. That communal experience really lives—and was born—in the tradition of theater.
That instant-feedback effect.
Well, for me, it’s more than just feedback. Feedback is a one-way communication. We’re all saying, “For the next hour or two or three, we’re committing to each other to share space and time and a story.” That’s really sacred. It’s what parents do with kids before bedtime every night, right? You sit and share a story together. It’s very, very intimate.
Do you remember the first Broadway show that had an impact on you?
I grew up in New York City, so theater is in my veins. In my brain, there’s this mashup play that’s, like, half Annie and half The Tap Dance Kid, because I think I saw them in the same year, so they exist as one magical musical theater performance where I saw kids on stage. There’s something funny about the intersectionality of that. In Annie, I saw girls up on stage doing this magical thing, and then in The Tap Dance Kid, I saw black kids up on stage doing this magical thing. There wasn’t a black girl show—I wasn’t lucky enough to be around for The Wiz—so I think those two shows really resonated for me as not just magical theatrical experiences but ones where I saw a version of myself being the center of a story. I’ve never, ever thought about that before. It’s so rare in an interview that you’re asked a question that reveals something new to you.
As that kid, did you ever imagine yourself in the position you’re in now, starring on Broadway?
I don’t know that I saw myself on Broadway. I started doing theater when I was a kid, but mostly because I was a super-overactive kid in the Bronx. To keep me out of trouble, my mother had me massively overscheduled—although in today’s estimation, she had me perfectly scheduled! My friends were hanging out in the park, and I was in gymnastics on Monday and ballet on Tuesday and Children’s Theatre Company on Wednesday. It did keep me out of trouble, and it did put me on a stage. I loved it. I didn’t gravitate toward acting with a mindset toward milestone achievements or results. I just wanted to be able to do what I loved to do.
It seems as if most of your projects—American Son included—are politically or socially provocative. Do you feel a responsibility to pursue projects that might change the way people think?
I think whenever we engage with a work of art, be it visual or musical or narrative, we’re actually coming to that work in order for it to have an impact on us. That impact might be to make us laugh or to make us cry, to make us angry or to make us think. At Simpson Street, we’re drawn to work that makes you more alive and connected to your own humanity. Sometimes that can be through laughter, and sometimes it can be through increased awareness. Those stories aren’t always supposed to impact people in the same ways, because everybody’s journey is so unique. I have a film set up at Universal [24-7], a workplace comedy about women. It’s something that Simpson Street is working very hard on, and there are themes around what it means to be a woman in the workplace. But that’s just because we’re trying to tell a story that’s full of truth about what it’s like to be a woman in the workplace, not necessarily because we’re projecting a particular political ideology.
We’re having a pivotal year—and era, really—in terms of game-changing projects for actors and creators of color. How does it feel knowing that Scandal was an early part of that wave?
I’m really proud of the role that Scandal played in normalizing the images we see in our media. I just hope that continues. I think about my most recent date night to go see Crazy Rich Asians, and how moved and emotional I was watching the extraordinary Constance Wu. And just knowing what that movie means to so many people in terms of being able to see themselves. But also what that movie means to me in terms of allowing me to participate in narratives that might otherwise be invisible to me. I think that’s such an exciting path that we need to continue to tread.
So what’s life like post–Olivia Pope? I’m sure it’s a relief to have a reprieve from the grueling schedule of an hourlong network drama.
I was just laughing with some friends about the fact that I used to blame being as busy as I was on the show. And now I’m like, Oh, I think I’m the common denominator. The show is over and I’m still crazy overscheduled, and obviously that’s something that’s been happening since I was 5. But I think the thing I miss is our community. I really miss my friends, my Scandal fans, the other actors, and our crew.
Is working with Shonda Rhimes again a possibility?
Yes! I love her. We remain close and supportive of each other and in each other’s corner.
You’re also producing and starring in the adaptation of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, with Reese Witherspoon. That’s quite the powerhouse partnership. Are your styles of working different from each other’s?
They’re actually remarkably similar! We both care a lot about what we do and about great storytelling—and great storytelling about women. We’re both doing a beautiful dance of balancing all of the verticals of entertainment and activism and marriage and motherhood and fashion. It’s really fun to work together when we share so many rhythms.
You grew up in the Bronx, but you’ve been in LA for two decades. How does it feel to be back in New York while you’re doing American Son?
It’s really exciting for me to be back in my hometown with my family. We spend a lot of time in the city anyway, but to have the experience of living there is going to be so fun.
What aspects of your home borough rubbed off on you?
Everything! I’m really proud to be from the Bronx. I’m just Kerry from the block.