“Doing that show scares me more than anything else I do,” says Kerry Washington. She’s not talking about Scandal, the hit ABC series that has catapulted her from respected film actress to household name. She’s referring to Real Time With Bill Maher, HBO’s political talk show, where she has made several appearances over the years looking, in fact, quite poised while holding forth on topics such as the AIG bailout and the relative merits of affirmative action. Washington assures me that despite appearances, when she does Maher’s show, she’s freaking out on the inside. “I am cramming in the green room like it’s a presidential debate,” she says. “It drives me crazy when artists go on shows like that and don’t sound informed. It gives us a bad name.”
As an artist—and also a woman, an African-American and a political activist Washington devotes considerable energy to never letting her people down. Before Scandal, she was best known for her work in film, breaking out as an unwed mother in the 2001 teen drama Save the Last Dance and later playing the wives in Ray, The Last King of Scotland and Django Unchained—movies that won her male co-stars Academy Awards. But with Olivia Pope, the ferocious D.C. fixer, she takes on a new kind of character: like Washington herself, a powerful working woman who derives her sense of worth not from motherhood or her man but her professional abilities. The job also came with a major historical asterisk, since, in accepting the part, Washington, 36, became the first woman of colour to lead a network show in her lifetime. Now she’s getting nominated for the big awards, including the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. The recognition is a doubly big deal, since she’s the first black woman to be nominated in the category since 1995 and, if victorious, will be the first ever to win it.
Scandal’s creator, Shonda Rhimes, calls the Emmy nod a huge step in the right direction. “I said to someone the night before [the nominations were announced], I really feel like if Kerry gets this nomination I will have done my job in this town,” Rhimes says. “To me, it means a lot that she’s being recognized for her outstanding performance, for being a woman of colour playing this role, and for playing a modern woman of colour.” The honour, coupled with the series-high ratings Scandal drew for its season two finale, means anticipation is high for the show’s third season, which premieres Oct. 3 on City.Today Washington sits at the café at Milk Studios in Hollywood nursing a hot tea, her Shih Tzu–Yorkie lapdog, Josie—short for Josephine Baker—peering out of the oversized Chloé bag on the floor beside her. Petite and tough-girl chic in a Grai leather jacket, red and black Nike Dunk wedges, jeans and a diaphanous black T-shirt, hair scraped into a bun off her radiant, unadorned face, she more closely resembles a bright-eyed college sophomore than the all-business 30-something Olivia Pope in her wardrobe of luxurious pastel knits. Washington gushes about her character as if talking about a close friend. “When people come up to me and express their love for [Olivia], I understand it, because I read the scripts and I feel the same way: Wow, what a complicated, three-dimensional, interesting, flawed, inspirational human being,” she says.
With a thriving film career—in addition to the Oscar bait, she’s appeared in megaplex-friendly films like the Fantastic Four series and gritty indies such as Life Is Hot in Cracktown, in which she played a male-to-female transsexual, and supported her fellow African-American artists in Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls, Chris Rock’s I Think I Love My Wife and this past summer’s family comedy, Peeples—Washington wasn’t looking for jobs in television, and she certainly wasn’t interested in network TV, famous for its long-slog seasons and 17-hour days. But when she read the script for Scandal’s pilot, she knew instantly she had never seen a black woman like this—powerful, ambitious, successful, conflicted— depicted on television, and that the opportunity to work with Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, could be transformational
“She’s got a lot of focus and a lot of drive,” Rhimes says of her star. “She knows what she wants out of life and she’s very dedicated about getting it. God help us if Kerry Washington decides she wants to be president, because it’s going to happen.” Tony Goldwyn, the actor and director who plays Washington’s on-screen POTUS paramour, President Fitzgerald Grant, agrees, recalling a particularly rough period last year when she was flying back and forth from the Scandal set in L.A. to shoot Django Unchained in New Orleans. “She admitted she was exhausted—I mean, we were worried about her!—but she’s a force of nature, Kerry.”
Washington approaches her work with the discipline of an athlete. “You have to think about eating right and sleeping right and taking care of your physical machine because the demands are so intense,” she says. Downtime is scarce during Scandal’s nine-month shooting season, so she multitasks by recording her lines and listening to them on the treadmill. After college, the actress almost completely stopped drinking—“It was getting in the way of my perfectionism,” she says, only half-joking—and when working she abstains even from reading fiction for fear of losing focus. “I don’t know that she has more energy than everybody else; I think it’s that she’s more aware of the fact that people are depending on her to set a tone,” says Rhimes. “She feels that responsibility, which a lot of people don’t even know that they should be feeling.”
Washington’s discipline extends to her private life, which she guards vigilantly. Apart from the gold-and-diamond band glinting on her ring finger, you’d never know she’d gotten married this past June to pro football player Nnamdi Asomugha in a small ceremony in Idaho. Asomugha, who plays for the San Francisco 49ers and attended UC Berkeley, is the son of Nigerian immigrants who emphasized principles of education and community service; with his family, he established a foundation that provides college tours for underprivileged youth in the U.S. and assists African orphans and widows in education and vocational training.
Grateful is the adjective Washington deploys most frequently in our conversation, yet her colleagues insist this isn’t your typical actorly false modesty. Reports of Washington’s graciousness quickly pile up: She handwrites notes of appreciation to her co-stars at the beginning of each season and sends expensive bottles of wine when they say kind things about her in the press. After being nominated for the Emmy, she gathered Scandal’s cast and crew and thanked them for their work, declaring that the honour belonged to everyone, something she reiterates to me when I compliment her on the nod. On her days off, she’ll sometimes turn up on set just to support her co-workers. This is not customary behaviour in Hollywood. “Who does that?” asks Goldwyn, incredulous.
All the talk of Washington’s work ethic and selflessness can seem overwhelming, even suspect—Is she too good to be true?—but Goldwyn is quick to point out that there’s levity there, too: “There seems to be this contradiction in the depth and attack she has as an actress and the ease and lightness she has as a person.” On set, he says, “She always makes fun of me, which I love. Last year we had these pretty intense love scenes, particularly for network television. I was trying to be super-sensitive to her, but as I’m doing that, she’s teasing me about what kind of underwear Fitz would be wearing.”
Inspired by real-life crisis management expert Judy Smith, Olivia Pope has two basic modes of operation: Either she’s on the attack, charging down the Capitol’s power corridors in clacking heels and a cream-coloured trench, all urgency and agency and rapid-fire enunciation, or she’s behind closed doors, engaged in an emotionally self-destructive pas de deux with the world’s most powerful man, eyes moist and uncertain, lower lip tremulous, brows knit in concern. Whether the love between Fitz and Olivia is based on a genuine emotional connection or just a shared kink for the illicit is hard to say, and to a viewer, Olivia’s two faces can be baffling: How can our heroine, near-omniscient in her professional life, be so hapless in her private one? Washington knows her character’s paradox better than anyone. As she puts it, “There are some ways you want to be Olivia Pope and some ways you want to do a major intervention for her.”
Occasionally there have been moments when the actress herself has objected to Olivia’s more dubious life decisions, specifically (spoiler alert!) a bozo season two plot line that revealed she had rigged the election that won her boyfriend the presidency. Pulling off a sympathetic hero with that kind of ethical grey area isn’t an easy task, and when Washington read that script she burst into tears. “I was like, [wailing] ‘I just don’t know how we’re gonna do this!’ ” she says. “I had just gotten back from the Democratic National Convention, where I’d done this speech about the importance of voter inclusivity and democracy and ‘We the People,’ and I come back and my character is spitting in the face of all of that.” For an actress renowned for her toughness, inhabiting Olivia’s weakness must be agonizing, but Rhimes saw the reaction as an advantage: “What allows [Olivia] to remain so sympathetic is that Kerry loves that character, and she worries about [Olivia’s] integrity and her soul.”
In New York, she attended Spence, the elite girls’ grade school populated with names like Madeleine Astor, Jade Jagger and Gwyneth Paltrow: “It changed the landscape of possibility for me, and not just socioeconomically, but in all kinds of ways.” The Washingtons were cultured and travelled and had two cars and a lake house upstate, but even so, Spence felt like a foreign country, and she took an anthropological interest in its codes. “The people spoke differently and dressed differently and ate differently and walked differently and smelled different; everything was different,” she says. “It really started in me this curiosity [about] how people express identity through culture.” Based partly on this fascination, Washington crafted her own major in identity and performance at the George Washington University. She graduated with top marks, of course.
Before she’s whisked off for her FLARE cover shoot, there’s time for a final question, so I ask what she loves most about her job. Instantly, the filter comes off and she goes from on-message to moony. “I love those moments that are few and far between, where you’re so deeply, deeply invested in an imaginary world that you truly forget yourself for a little while, and the only reality that exists is the reality of that scene. That’s like drugs to me,” she says. “And it is hard to find that high, but that’s what you work for.”
Hair: Marcus Francis, Oribe, StarworksArtists.com. Makeup: Carola Gonzalez, Lancôme, The Magnet Agency. Nails: Lisa Wong. Props: Ron Zakhar. Editor: Briony Smith.