Keith Lutz, Staff Writer
Ranked as Hollywood’s eighth-highest paid actress of 2018, Kerry Washington may be known most popularly for her role as Olivia Pope, a crisis management expert, in the ABC drama series Scandal (2012–2018). For her role, she received nominations for two Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress and a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress. Her portrayal of Anita Hill in the HBO television film Confirmation (2016), earned her another Primetime Emmy Award nomination.
In film, Washington is known for her roles as Della Bea Robinson in Ray (2004), as Kay in The Last King of Scotland (2006), as Alicia Masters in the live-action Fantastic Four films of 2005 and 2007, and as Broomhilda von Shaft in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012). She has also starred in the independent films Our Song (2000), The Dead Girl (2006), Mother and Child (2009) and Night Catches s (2010). Time magazine included Washington in its Time 100 list of 2014.
However, she is also renowned for her activism, fashion sense, and varied artistic talents. Hailing from the Bronx in New York City, this Aquarius was born in 1977 and attended the Spence School as well as George Washington University. Married to footballer Nnamdi Asomugha, Washington not only maintains a full career but raises her two children along with her husband.
Perhaps it’s this local girl vibe allure mixed with her urban sophistication is what has catapulted Kerry Washington into so many iconic roles. One theme runs through them all and that is female empowerment.
Positions of strength must come naturally to Kerry, too, as she is a distant relative of former US Secretary of State Colin Powell. That’s not the only political influence she credit for her interest in politics, in several of her interviews, she recounts that she was inspired by Nelson Mandela after his release from prison in South Africa for fighting that country’s apartheid system of racial discrimination.
Coming from a mixed-race heritage herself, this particularly spoke to Kerry and deeply influenced her direction on a personal and professional level.
She said in an interview, “We must see each other, all of us and we must see ourselves, all of us and we have to continue to be bold and break new ground until this is how it is, until we are no longer ‘firsts’ and ‘exceptions’ and ‘rare’ and ‘unique.’ In the real world, being an ‘other’ is the norm. In the real world, the only norm is uniqueness and our media must reflect that.”
In fact, this has some impact on her choice of roles in Hollywood. Kerry told Marie Claire about her choice of roles to portray:
“I don’t decide to play the characters I play as a political choice. Yet the characters I play often do become political statements. Because having your story told as a woman, as a person of color, as a lesbian, or as a trans person or as any member of any disenfranchised community is sadly often still a radical idea. There is so much power in storytelling and there is enormous power in inclusive storytelling and inclusive representations.”
She continues, “Today there are people trying to take away rights that our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers fought for: our right to vote, our right to choose, affordable quality education, equal pay, access to health care. We the people can’t let that happen.”
To sum up her political sentiments, she concludes, “Look, I get it. Whether it’s school, work, family, we’ve all got a lot on our minds. People say to me, ‘I’m just too busy to think about politics.’ But here’s the thing: You may not be thinking about politics, but politics is thinking about you.”
Graduating Phi Beta Kappa at GWU in 1998, Kerry Washington also attended the Michael Howard Studios in New York City. A career in either power politics, business, or Hollywood always seemed to be in the stars – but it is the latter that drew Washington first.
Of her choice to go to Hollywood and become a star, Washington recounts, pithily, “You can be the lead in your own life.”
This maxim would soon be put to the test when one of Washington’s first jobs involved a public education outreach effort to teach people about safe sex in the 1990s. She called it one of her most valuable lessons in acting, telling Vanity Fair, “It was some of the best actor training I’ve ever had…We would stay in character after the show, and the audience would interact with us. It taught me the importance of really understanding everything about who you’re playing because you never knew what question was going to come.”
One fun fact that many of her fans may not be aware of is that Kerry Washington actually learned how to dance from none other than fellow Bronx native and Hollywood legend, Jennifer Lopez. During a scheduled appearance with Jimmy Fallon of The Tonight Show, Kerry revealed that “I’ve been taking dance for a long time since I was a little girl. I had this very inspiring teacher named Larry Maldonado, for anybody from my neighborhood in The Bronx, he was our role model. And he had an awesome substitute teacher named Jennifer, who would sometimes step in and teach. But, then she left to move to Los Angeles and be on the TV show In Living Color. So, yes, I learned to dance from JLo!”
And it all began with a Screen Actors Guild commercial audition which was then followed by a special on ABC in 1994 called Magical Make-Over and a turn in the 1996 PBS show The Standard Deviants. One of her big breaks came as Chris Rock’s love interest in the movie Bad Company. This catapulted her into the spot of the female lead actress in Spike Lee’s She Hate Me. A succession of jobs followed after that including Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), Little Man (2006), I Think I Love My Wife (2007) and a role as African dictator Idi Amin’s wife in The Last King of Scotland. But it was her debut in 2012’s Scandal on ABC that firmly lodged Kerry Washington in the minds of most Americans.
Former Mayor of Washington, DC, summed up the feelings of many Americans when he tweeted that Olivia Pope (Kerry’s character on scandal), “…is the ultimate fixer…I can recall watching an episode of Scandal, and Olivia was running down her strategy to a client. I actually played her idea out in my head and thought to myself, ‘That actually could work.’”
”The key to Scandal’s success…is the casting of Washington, of whom he’s been a fan since her performance in Ray. “Kerry Washington is a magnificent actress,” he wrote. “I can’t imagine anyone else playing Olivia Pope. She IS Olivia Pope.”
Needless to say, Kerry says that she disagrees and that she had to learn the skills that are Olivia Pope’s trade – or at least how to mimic that approach.
She told Vanity Fair in an interview that the iconic role speaks to women – of all backgrounds – and this is both her goal and something that continues to shock her to this day.
“One of the most profound things for me about the show is the number of white women of all ages who come up to me and say, ‘I want to be Olivia Pope,’…It’s especially profound in a place like South Africa. It’s called The Fixer over there, and it just started its second season. The fact that white women can see this woman of color as an aspirational character is revolutionary, I think, in the medium of television. I don’t think white women would feel that way about Olivia if her identity as a woman, period, wasn’t first in their mind.”
This is such a cultural shift that the magazine notes Oprah Winfrey sees Olivia Pope as a true watershed moment for representation in film and on television – particularly for African American women. That Kerry Washington can inspire women across racial and economic backgrounds both speaks to the strength of the actress and the material.
She said of this phenomenon in particular, “Twitter went nuts when that happened…Both women and men of color: ‘Oh my gosh, people do that to me all the time!’ Being underestimated in the workplace, being assumed not to be.”
Even though Olivia Pope plays across backgrounds and other boundaries, Kerry Washington is clear in her assessment of Olivia Pope’s place as a female icon in a traditionally male-dominated world.
“What I think is cool about Olivia is that she fully owns being a woman. There’s a very nurturing sense of ‘I’m going to take care of you—don’t worry about it. I’m gonna be your mom in this situation. You come stay in my office, have a cup of tea, and let my gladiators take care of you.’ There’s something very maternal about it. But there’s also something very executive about her, and I mean ‘executive’ in a presidential way.”
She continues, “I felt that the way Olivia is written, so much of what comes out of my mouth is stuff that people don’t want to hear…People come to Pope and Associates on the worst day of their lives. I’m giving them the hard truth. Olivia is a person who is really smart about the performance of identity—she tells people how to dress for court, or for a press conference. So she, herself, would make a similar decision about her aesthetic. And if I were somebody who spent the majority of my time saying things that were harsh and difficult to hear, I would want my visual aesthetic to be something soft and feminine, warm and easy to be around. So that’s where that comes from.”
Washington along with 300 female Hollywood actors, agents, writers, directors, producers and entertainment executives – including Natalie Portman, Emma Stone and Reese Witherspoon– kicked off 2018 with a coordinated effort to counter systemic sexual harassment in the entertainment business and US workplaces.
The initiative included:
— A legal defense fund, backed by $13 million in donations, to help less privileged women — like janitors, nurses and workers at farms, factories, restaurants, and hotels — protect themselves from sexual misconduct and the fallout from reporting it.
— Legislation to penalize companies that tolerate persistent harassment, and to discourage the use of nondisclosure agreements to silence victims.
— A drive to reach gender parity at studios and talent agencies that has already begun making headway.
Kerry Washington rarely disappoints us on the red carpet. In fact, she frequently surprises and delights us, thanks to her refusal to limit her personal style boundaries. She’s starred in Oscar-nominated films. She embodies one of our favorite television characters, “Scandal” lead Olivia Pope. And she regularly serves up some of our favorite fashion moments. So in honor of the Magic of Kerry Washington — we’re flashing back to her best red carpet looks, starting with the Atelier Versace creation she wore to the 2016 Academy Award. From the unexpected touch of leather on the bodice to the thigh-high slit on the white flowing skirt, the edgy gown polarized fashion lovers and made her one of the most buzzed-about stars on the red carpet. Below are our picks for Kerry’s most memorable looks.
On October 4, 2019, the world lost Diahann Carroll, a star of stage and screen that paved the way for many Black actresses by becoming the first to “portray an African American woman in a professional role and not the stereotypical servile character,” according to the Washington Post. Celebrity tributes for Carroll began filling up Twitter and Instagram feeds, but the most powerful may just be from Scandal star Kerry Washington.
Scandal superfans may also remember that Olivia Pope’s codename was Julia Baker, the character that Carroll plated in her sitcom, Julia. Washington would later present Carroll with the Hollywood Legacy Award at the American Black Film Festival award in 2016.
In August 2019, in an article for InStyle titled Kerry Washington Is Harnessing Her Power, Washington wrote:
I’ve learned to not apologize for things that don’t require an apology, like being a woman or a person of color. I’m unapologetic for who I am, where I’m from, and what I believe. Now I just stand in the truth of me and live. I’ve started to realize that truth is one of the most important frameworks in my life. It’s something I’m ambitious for — in my work as an actor, in my home, in our larger systems of power. I’m also ambitious for equity, humanity, and love.Kerry Washington