ProfileThe Weight Those Heels Carry
By Felicia R. Lee, The New York Times
LOS ANGELES — Kerry Washington
starts with the shoes. To portray Olivia Pope, the tough crisis manager at the center of the hit ABC series “Scandal” (10 p.m. Thursdays)
, Ms. Washington is always in gravity-defying heels. How else to make that sexed-up power stalk down the White House corridors?
“I never completely understand a character until I know what kind of shoes they wear,” Ms. Washington said. For an interview at Milk Studios here, she was in a pair of intimidating white high heels. But Ms. Washington is often in sneakers or flip-flops, a clue for anyone trying to understand her. “It says I’m not really attracted to walking in the world in any one way,” she explained. “I like to walk in the world a lot of different ways.”
Those ways have ranged from the role of the slave Broomhilda in Quentin Tarantino’s recent “Django Unchained” to the pampered Grace Peeples in the modern romantic comedy “Peeples,” out on May 10. But it has been through the intimacy and reach of television that Ms. Washington, 36, has arrived in the center of a major cultural discussion. Thanks to “Scandal,” she is only the second black woman in almost 40 years to lead a network television drama, and the first one to make it a bona fide hit. Ratings for the political thriller, which began last April, have been building all season; it now beats its rival at 10 p.m. on Thursday — “Elementary” on CBS — many weeks among viewers 18 to 49, the demographic advertisers covet most.
Critics hail its often outrageous, fast-paced plot twists. The designer-dressed Pope, who has her own crisis-management firm, and her team of young “gladiators in suits” repair reputations and fix scandals, from kidnappings to murder. Pope is also the former mistress of President Fitzgerald Grant, or Fitz, a white married Republican played by Tony Goldwyn; their sex scenes sizzled.
“ ‘Scandal’ has flair and even sophistication,” the critic Alessandra Stanley wrote in The Times. In no small part that is because of Ms. Washington’s ability to convey class and sensuality at the same time, in the words of Reginald Hudlin, a producer of “Django Unchained.”
For many devotees, the show’s depiction of a complex black woman at the top of her game — her racial identity never a big deal — is the cherry on top. Paradoxically, attention to the breakout role has meant Ms. Washington must carry the racial aspirations and fantasies of more than a few fans as well as the expectation that her success could open doors in the notoriously race-averse world of network television.
It’s clear that “Scandal” has touched a nerve: Twitter regularly blows up with “Scandal”-related tweets when the show is on, and the flood of cyberspace chatter has included debates about the interracial sex, the politics and the clothes. Ms. Washington’s remark this year that she would have turned down the role had the president been black (out of concern that such a character might reflect an insider’s view of Mr. Obama, whose administration she volunteers for) drew attention, too.
“We’re putting a lot of our hopes on Kerry’s shoulders,” said Yaba Blay, an assistant professor of Africana Studies at Drexel University, who live-tweets about the show with a group of female academics. “The conversations about her go beyond the role, to the idea of representing us well as middle-class and upper middle-class, educated women,” mostly because of the scarcity of such images of black women.
“We are the same women the media has said are not attractive, are not marriageable,” she added.
If that sounds like pressure, Ms. Washington, who comes across as thoughtful, brainy and down to earth in an interview, said she had never felt undue responsibility for presenting a certain brand of black womanhood. In her view, she said, it’s more a matter of Hollywood executives catching up with a changing world.
A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of George Washington University, where she designed an interdisciplinary major that covered theater, anthropology and sociology, Ms. Washington clearly knows the stakes: “I wanted ‘Scandal’ to be a success because I wanted networks and studios to believe that people of color and that women can be the driving force — both separately and when you happen to have both. I feel proud that we live in a world where ‘Scandal’ can succeed. It wasn’t up to me. The variable was the audience: Was the audience going to be ready?”
With Ms. Washington in “Scandal” and a black man in the real Oval Office, it seems a long time ago that Teresa Graves was the first black woman to star in a network drama. She played an undercover cop in “Get Christie Love!” on ABC in 1974-75, which was canceled after one season. It drew attention as a barrier-breaker but never achieved high ratings. Ms. Graves eventually abandoned acting and died in 2002.
Diahann Carroll, who worked with Ms. Washington in “Peeples,” appearing briefly as Grace’s grandmother, recalled the pains and joys of being a pathbreaker: she played the title role in the 1968-71 comedy series “Julia,” about a widowed nurse raising her son. But she suggested that Ms. Washington had no real burden to bear. “This is work,” Ms. Carroll said. “It’s not fair to ask us to do anything else.”
When “Julia” was broadcast, there were far fewer black actresses, she continued, adding, “Kerry is the chance we’ve had to put the two things together: the talent and the understanding that this is a business.”
At the time, “Julia” was criticized in some quarters for lacking black cultural markers; with few overt references to race, “Scandal” has drawn similar complaints. But references do exist. In one scene, Pope’s white associate is assumed to be the boss. And in an exchange about their affair that exploded on the blogosphere, Pope tells President Grant, “I’m feeling a little, I don’t know, Sally Hemings-Thomas Jefferson about all this.”
Ms. Washington credited Shonda Rhimes, the creator of “Scandal,” for having the vision and — thanks to her previous hits “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice” — the standing to break actors of color out of stereotype.
For her part, Ms. Rhimes, who is African-American, noted an evolution in popular culture. “We’ve been trained on television to watch characters of color discuss their race incessantly,” she said. “We’ve hit a moment on TV in which she doesn’t have to be perfect, soulful or sassy. Those are the boxes that usually get checked.”
But Warrington Hudlin, the co-founder and president of the Black Filmmaker Foundation, considers unrealistic the suggestion that black actors can evade the burden of representation.
“I don’t think anybody can ever escape that,” he said. “We come to cinema and TV to play out our anxieties, to play out our demons. When you become an actor you sign up for that, you’re in the debate about what it all means. That’s the opportunity and the obstacle of being an artist in this racially antagonistic world.”
Ms. Washington, he added, “represents the intersection of talent and opportunity.”
She does not read reviews but does go to church, and declares “I don’t talk about my personal life” in a no-nonsense tone. Her closest friends are from her years growing up an only child in the Castle Hill and Soundview neighborhoods of the Bronx. (She attended the same Boys and Girls Club of America as Jennifer Lopez.) Ms. Washington said that her father, a real estate agent, and her mother, an educator, gave her the values to stay grounded, and enrolled her in all kinds of enrichment activities. Acting stuck, she said, because it offered such variety. (Her parents initially tried to talk her out of acting as a career.)
In her neighborhood, “We were wealthy because we had two cars and we had a dishwasher and a microwave,” she said. “When I went to Spence, I was suddenly aware of a different kind of wealth.”
Arriving at that elite, predominantly white, all-girls school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in seventh grade, Ms. Washington said, she developed an actor’s keen awareness of how choices in clothes, music and even how one walks contribute to identity. “It really opened up my world, intellectually, culturally,” she said of Spence.
Her first big break came in the urban drama “Save the Last Dance,” in 2001. There were other important movies: She played the wife of Ray Charles in “Ray” and of Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland,” and had roles in “I Think I Love My Wife” and “Lakeview Terrace.” In 2009 she made her Broadway debut in David Mamet’s “Race,” as part of a legal team defending a white man against charges of raping a young black woman.
The role of Olivia Pope went to Ms. Washington because at her audition she “just felt natural and clear,” Ms. Rhimes said. “She’s really smart and really playful. She can get everyone’s energy revved up.”
Ms. Washington points with pride to her choices. “I see how all this is important and yet I have never shied away from taking on controversial issues or controversial roles.”
“Django Unchained,” featuring a hero who kills scores of white people, was certainly not a safe choice, she said. Neither was her Democratic National Convention speech last year, which touched on a laundry list of rights, among them voting, abortion, equal pay. (“I have always stepped up politically,” she said.)
Ms. Washington is part of a smooth publicity machine for “Scandal,” but she showed glimmers of intensity when she spoke of going deep into her roles. She was devastated, she said, after learning that her character was involved in rigging her lover’s presidential election, she said. “I cried the whole way to work when I read that script,” she said.
For “Django,” she insisted on being whipped instead of using a stunt-double. “If I want you to go in, I have to go in,” she said of her approach to acting. “I don’t like to fake my way through stuff.”
Playing Broomhilda, and imagining a world without rights for African-Americans, was “emotionally, psychologically, the hardest thing I have ever done,” she said, tearing up and pausing to compose herself. She met with a therapist twice a week to cope; on sleepless nights, she exchanged supportive text messages with Jamie Foxx, who played Django.
She needed a comedy like “Peeples” afterward, saying she jumped at the opportunity in part because, having inherited her father’s sense of humor, she wanted to show off her goofy side.
Ms. Washington insisted, laughing, that she has not plotted out her career. She seems happy just to be an actor, fulfilling an old dream. At Spence, she recalled, after finishing Ophelia’s mad scene during a student production of “Hamlet,” catching a glimpse of her no-nonsense mother weeping in the audience.
“I thought ‘Wow,’ ” Ms. Washington said. “This woman who held me in her womb for nine months — and knows exactly who I am — for a moment something about this world allowed her to suspend her disbelief and believe I was some other person in some other time.
“I thought, ‘this is powerful.’ ”http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/movies/the-weight-those-heels-carry.html?ref=television