'She Wrote Her Own Rules': Kerry Washington's 'Little Fires' Role Reminds Her Of Mom
Growing up in the Bronx as the only child of an academic and a real estate broker, actor Kerry Washington remembers her family had two cars and a dishwasher in their apartment — which meant, "in my neighborhood, in my context, we were rich."
And then Washington went to middle school — specifically Spence, an elite private school on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "Suddenly," she says, "I was in math class with girls who had helipads on their Hamptons estates, or where elevator doors open into their apartments, or where they were flying first class to go on family vacations or flying private."
Washington says the culture at Spence gave her an early exposure to code switching — and ignited her interest in acting. "Not that I was acting my way through junior high school and high school," she says, "but I did start to realize that you could shift perception of who you are by taking on different characteristics in the world."
The experience of being an outsider — and challenging people's notions about her race, class and gender — is something that Washington draws on in the Hulu series Little Fires Everywhere. Her character, Mia Warren is a bohemian single mother who is adjusting to life in suburban Ohio. Washington co-produced the series with co-star Reese Witherspoon.
On how author Celeste Ng left Mia Warren's race ambiguous in her novel
I think the novel is so much about identity and how the roles and the context of our identity contributes to how we live and relate to others in the world. So we knew that adding this layer of race would add to that complexity in an exciting way. And then when I met Celeste Ng, the writer, for the first time, she actually admitted to me that she had always thought of Mia as a woman of color, and that she had been drawn to the idea of writing Mia as a black woman. But she didn't feel like she had the authoritative voice to do that in the right way. And so she was kind of vague about her race in the novel. So it was exciting that we were in step with Celeste in diving into the places where she wanted to to grow out the book in ways that already lived in her.
On drawing inspiration from her own mother to play the role of Mia
I think there's so much of my mom in Mia. ... One of the things I witnessed growing up was that my mom was very aware — as a black woman, as an academic, as the daughter of immigrants — she was aware of the assumptions that people would make about her, and she would play with those assumptions. Not in an aggressive way, but she liked to watch people try to figure her out and she liked to not fit into a box.
My mom didn't always feel the need to always make a situation comfortable for somebody else.
My mom is not somebody who has ever really fit into anybody else's box, even in terms of the performance of racial identity, or her hobbies, or interests, or how she parented me. A lot like Mia, she wrote her own rules when she was raising me. I remember a lot of her peers were shocked that she never hit me. I was never spanked. I think I was grounded once. There were different approaches to life. My mom didn't always feel the need to always make a situation comfortable for somebody else. ...
She was from the South Bronx, and [if] that made the other moms, who were living on Park Avenue ... uncomfortable, she let it make them uncomfortable. ... As a teacher, she also knew that that was a learning opportunity for them. If she walked into the school in a fur coat and spoke the Queen's English and came across as the academic that she was ... that other mother was going to learn something about her own assumptions and prejudices and biases. And my mom let her have that learning opportunity.
On why she named her production company Simpson Street, after the street where her mother grew up
Simpson Street is, as much as it's a street, it's also, like, a land in my imagination, because as kids we would hear stories about Simpson Street, about what things were like on Simpson Street, or what they did on Simpson Street. And so I think it's also about the story of my family, which is very much also the story of an American dream.
My mom's parents were immigrants who came to this country from Jamaica, and they were supers in their building in order to not pay rent. My mom was one of seven kids. They worked really hard in the building and also held other jobs. My grandmother cleaned homes on Park Avenue and my grandfather worked out at the piers as a watchman. I guess it was in some ways a nod to both my mom and dad having these legacies of sort of hard-working American dreams and wanting to make room for all of our stories in this country, in this global society.
On being cast as the Washington, D.C., crisis manager Olivia Pope on the ABC series Scandal
I was around 34, 35 at the time ... [and] in my lifetime, I had never seen a network drama with a black woman as the lead. So this was a highly coveted role. And [showrunner] Shonda [Rhimes], really, she says she saw almost every black actress in Hollywood between the ages of 19 and 60. She really wanted to give everybody a shot. ... So when I read the script, I thought, this is mine. It felt like it was written for me. It brought together so many of my worlds and so much of my life experience working in Washington, working on the campaigns. I really felt like I was born to play her. But there were, like, 20 other actresses who felt the same way. So there were a series of auditions, several auditions, and first I had a meeting with Shonda, and then several auditions, and eventually I really had the privilege of being able to take this on.
On being a founding member of Time's Up, an initiative aimed at combating sexual harassment inside and outside of the entertainment industry
When there were a lot of women coming forward in the entertainment industry, there was this incredible act of grace where the women of the Farmworkers Alliance wrote an open letter in Time magazine thanking women and entertainment for coming forward. When a lot of the world was saying, like, who cares about these actresses? Who cares about these privileged people? The women and the Farmworkers Alliance came forward and said: You are our storytellers, and you have a pedestal and a voice that people listen to and you are calling out injustices that happen to us and happened to women in all industries.
And that letter was really an invitation for us to step up and try to create a movement that embraced all women in all industries. That act of gratitude toward us was really an invitation for us to create a movement that could embrace all women in all industries.
I was invited into the movement by other women who are friends of mine who were doing the work, who were at these meetings. ... We were still filming Scandal at the time and I was working 16 hour days. But I started getting text messages from Rashida Jones, and Eva Longoria, and Reese Witherspoon saying: There are these meetings happening and you need to be there. We need your voice and we want your input. And we know you would want to be there. And so I went, and they were right.
On her memory of Anita Hill's testimony about sexual harassment at Clarence Thomas' 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and how that memory informed her approach to playing Hill in the HBO movie Confirmation
I remember really distinctly when the hearings happened, because it was one of the first times that I really saw my parents disagree on a social political issue. Usually my parents were really in agreement around issues having to do with money or politics or black identity. But because of intersectionality, this was a moment where I watched my mom and dad process this experience very differently as a black woman and a black man. And it was disturbing to me. I'll never forget it, because it really made me question who was in the right. ...
I think Anita Hill is such a hero, and I wanted to be able to explore — for both characters, for both Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill — what was at stake for them and what it cost them. And in particular, because Clarence Thomas, I think, is often perceived as the winner in that situation, because he got to have his seat on the Supreme Court, but Anita Hill transformed society. She changed the shape of Congress and gave us language for sexual harassment — really transformed our cultural practices in this country. So I wanted to be able to shine a light on that as well.
On how she's coping in this time of COVID-19
I'm keeping my spirits up with a lot of prayer, and I'm doing some meditation, which is something I always want to be doing. (And by some meditation, I mean three minutes a day.) ... When I hear about loss — people, friends and loved ones of friends that are sick and dying — to try to just continue to express love and support and stay connected to each other.
It's a really scary time, so I've been trying to figure out how to not ignore my fear, but also practice acts of faith, in order to engender more faith and just kind of hold onto that space for myself and my family and my loved ones and people I get to share my day with, like you.
Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
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