Kerry Washington likes to say careers aren’t made overnight in Hollywood; “they’re built over long periods of time, and there are waves of progress.” Well, she’s certainly riding atop a mammoth one right now, playing not one but two roles of a lifetime that bookend the African-American experience.
On ABC’s Scandal, Washington is a BlackBerry-wielding, Armani-draped crisis expert who leads a team of dedicated associates that save clients from public embarrassment or possible jail time. At the other end of the spectrum is Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained, for which Washington’s brave performance as a slave trapped in an antebellum South hellhole awaiting rescue by Jamie Foxx’s title character is already getting Oscar buzz. The two projects, emblematic of Washington’s elevated status in Hollywood, will overlap this month. (Scandal will be in midseason when Django opens on Christmas Day.)
It’s hard offhand to think of another actress who’s been in this position, and even harder to think of one in a pair of roles that are such whiplash extremes of one another. Washington, who is talented, beautiful, and smart, is still contemplating what it all means for her. “I know a moment like this doesn’t last forever,” she says during a recent interview in New York. Asked if she’s at least enjoying it, there is a long pause. “I think I am,” she says, finally.
It’s certainly not easy finding time in her packed schedule. These days, Washington needs to be three people: filming 17-hour days, doing press, popping up on talk shows, accepting awards, etc., etc. Earlier this year, the actress had just two days between scenes for Scandal and Django. “I went from shooting in a slave shack with my character curled up in bed, terrified about the state of her future,” she says, “to walking in heels outside of the White House on my way to meet the president’s chief of staff.”
All her life, Washington, 35, has had to straddle two worlds that seem poles apart. Growing up in the Bronx, a few blocks from Jennifer Lopez, she was bused to a school in a predominantly Italian-American neighborhood where she was enrolled in a gifted and talented program. Washington still managed to take home the sixth grade language prize… in Italian. That adaptability has helped her become one of the most versatile and consistently interesting actresses around. Washington has lit up movies from The Last King of Scotland to I Think I Love My Wife; originated a role on Broadway in the David Mamet play Race; and spent one of her few off days of 2012 in Charlotte, N.C., addressing the Democratic National Convention.
Foxx, her two-time costar, says she’s the real deal. “I can’t say enough about the brilliance and toughness of her, especially in Django, where she’s amazingly vulnerable playing this damsel in distress throwback character. And then you look at the strength of what she’s doing on Scandal, where she’s in control and doing her thing.” He adds: “A lot of actresses only get to play one note. Kerry’s able to play a symphony.”
Accolades tend to fly when people talk about Washington. Scandal producer Betsy Beers calls her a dream collaborator. “She’s kind, forthright, supersupportive of the crew and cast,” says Beers. “She has the ability to make you feel special, like you’re the only one in the room.”
By Craigh Barboza | Photography by Nino Muñoz | Styling by Erin Walsh