From acting to producing and activism, Kerry Washington is firing on all cylinders
Kerry Washington already has the perfect plan for 2021: "I'm really excited about taking a nap." Reflecting on her incredibly busy year — both in front of and behind the camera — one thing her 2020 résumé makes clear is that she hasn't had time for some good shut-eye in a while.
In November, after finishing up her kids' schooling for the day, Washington hops on yet another Zoom chat to talk about being an Entertainer of the Year. She's still wrapping her head around the title. "I thought it was a mistake," says the 43-year-old New York native. "If you told me I was Homeschool Mom of the Spring, I'd be like, 'Yes! I worked hard on that curriculum!'" But despite the pandemic, Washington had one of the biggest years of her career. Call her Homeschool Mom of the Spring, Entertainer of the Year, or, as she jokes, "Entertainer of the Apocalypse," but there's no denying all that she accomplished, even if some of it was from behind a computer. (What isn't nowadays?)
Washington started the year playing Mia, the outsider to the insular Shaker Heights world in Hulu's captivating adaptation of the Celeste Ng novel Little Fires Everywhere. (Her work earned her an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series.) And she'll finish out 2020 as Mrs. Greene, the woman foisting outsider status on someone else, attempting to prevent a gay student from attending the school dance in Ryan Murphy's Netflix musical The Prom. "I would come to work [on Little Fires] and glue on my nose ring and I'd watch Reese [Witherspoon] in her fancy Brooks Brothers. I was like, 'Reese, I'm going to get to play you in the next project,'" Washington says with a laugh. "I had to figure out, what's the Kerry Washington spin on that approach? And then layer it with some singing." (Yes, you read correctly. She sings!)
"I did so much singing in high school and college and it just hasn't been a part of my professional life so it was really fun to do," says Washington "It's not what I'm best at in life, there are a lot of things on the list that I'm better at than singing, but it brings me so much joy."
Through her company, Simpson Street, Washington produced Little Fires and the ACLU documentary The Fight, and won her first Emmy for producing the star-studded variety special Live in Front of a Studio Audience: All in the Family and Good Times. "I was in the first one as an actor, and I just was really hands-on," Washington says of her involvement with the Norman Lear projects. "I really wanted it to be a huge success and I think because there weren't other women or people of color on the producing team, I was able to offer additional support and insight in the process of getting that first one made. When the second one came around, I was very honored and appreciative that they offered me that role in an official capacity."
Additionally, Washington directed her third episode of television, this one for HBO's Insecure, which just so happens to be the set where Washington shadowed before helming her first hour of Scandal years ago. "I emailed [creator] Issa [Rae] and asked her if I could shadow at Insecure and I got to shadow Melina [Matsoukas]. which was so fantastic," says Washington. "I fell in love not just with the show but with the behind-the-scenes world of the show."
A couple of years and one more email later, Washington herself was behind the camera.
Just saying the word democracy makes Washington sit up a little straighter. Her passion is obvious, so infectious you can feel it through the computer screen. This year alone, she moderated a night of the Democratic National Convention, cohosted the CBS special Every Vote Counts, and hit the campaign trail for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. "I understand that because of what I do for a living, my voice may resonate louder than some others, but my commitment to go out there in the field or to do a special like Every Vote Counts or to host the DNC is to remind people that my voice shouldn't matter more than anybody else's. Because we live in a democracy, every vote matters, every voice matters. I get barraged on social media when people are like, 'Olivia Pope, you have to fix COVID!' In 2016, it was like, 'Olivia Pope, you have to fix this election!' I always want to say to people, Olivia Pope is a pretend character on a TV show, you have so much more power than Olivia Pope. You can have so much more impact than Olivia Pope ever could because you live in this world and we need your voice."
The connective tissue for Washington's endeavors is story. It's hearing about people's lives on the campaign trail; it's stepping into the shoes of someone else as an actor; it's bringing narratives to life as a producer or director. "I really believe that we are each the hero of our own story," says Washington. "Part of what drives me as a producer or director or actor is this idea that just the mere act of centering myself is a political act in this world because women are marginalized and Black folks are marginalized. All of our stories deserve to be at the center. And wanting people to feel that when they engage with the stuff that Simpson Street makes, they are either, as a marginalized person, they see themselves or their experience in some way, or as a privileged person, they are more aware of the other side. For people to be able to have that experience of seeing themselves and also witnessing others, that's what we're always looking for at Simpson Street. Each person deserves to understand their power to influence the narrative of their life." Each person also deserves a nap every now and then.