After years of being talked about, Kerry Washington is ready to steer the conversation herself. The 43-year-old actor and producer spent the better part of last decade playing the brilliant Olivia Pope on “Scandal,” Shonda Rhimes’ buzzy political drama that brought Washington into millions of homes. But as the series wound down, she kept a canny eye trained on her future, and how she could make a difference in her industry and the world beyond it.
“I had such a beautiful, collaborative relationship on ‘Scandal’ with Shonda, and I think that made me feel like, going forward in my career, I only wanted to work on projects where I felt I could be heard,” says Washington. Perched on a chair in the San Vicente Bungalows, a sleek new Los Angeles clubhouse that places palm tree stickers over visitors’ phone cameras lest they try to document anything within, Washington is keenly conscious of the notice and capital she’s gained. Now, she’s making moves to cash in by carving out space in Hollywood for work that, she hopes, can challenge audiences beyond merely entertaining them.
“Kerry always makes sure that if she’s lending her name to something, it’s very thoughtful,” says Rhimes. “She’s very, very aware of her place in this industry, and that she’s got a voice.”
Washington’s upcoming slate is full of examples of her exercising that voice, such as the ACLU documentary “The Fight”; more live reenactments of classic Norman Lear shows like “All in the Family” and “Good Times” for ABC; and Hulu’s limited series “Little Fires Everywhere,” which she executive produces and stars in alongside Reese Witherspoon. All her projects operate on the belief that, as Washington puts it, “everyone is, and deserves to be, the center of their own story — and that there aren’t certain kinds of people who get to be the leaders or protagonists, or others who must be supporting characters.”
This ethos is one Washington considers truly personal, as evidenced by the name she gave her fledgling production company, Simpson Street. That road in the Bronx, the New York City borough where she grew up, was home to her grandmother Isabelle, who raised Washington’s mother and six other children there after emigrating to the U.S. from the Caribbean. Sometimes Washington imagines what Isabelle would think of her, two generations later, owning a company and calling the shots. “I think she’d be blown away — and also probably be like, ‘Work harder — you’re just at the beginning,’” she says with a laugh, real and self-effacing, that anyone with exacting immigrant relatives will recognize.
Washington draws motivation from her family history as she seeks to control hers. “My family came here to try and achieve some sort of American dream, and I think to try and be the heroes of their own story,” she says. “There’s a lot of that inspiration in there. What does it mean to venture outside your own comfort zone and world and try to reach for the heroic meaning of your own journey?”
This question drove her desire to work more behind the camera outside of “Scandal” (for which she became an official producer in its final season), and drives her still. It’s why she lobbied not just to star as Anita Hill in the HBO film “Confirmation” but to contribute as a producer who could also provide necessary perspective as a black woman. It’s why, after landing an overall deal with ABC Studios in 2016, she called Witherspoon to ask for advice on founding a production company. She reached out to Pilar Savone, the Oscar-nominated producer of “Django Unchained” with whom she bonded on an otherwise dude-heavy set, to be a partner on the venture. It’s why she starred in Broadway’s “American Son” and pushed for a Netflix adaptation that millions more could see. And it’s why she signed on to “Little Fires Everywhere,” an ambitious and complex examination of American values that pushed her as an actor and a producer like none of her other projects quite could.
“Little Fires,” which marks Washington’s first serialized television role since “Scandal,” follows Mia (Washington) and Elena (Witherspoon), two mothers whose contrasting lives and views clash to catastrophic effect in Shaker Heights, a pristine and seemingly progressive Ohio suburb. Set in the ’90s, the show grapples with issues of class, race, immigration and sexuality in a way that resonates with piercing and downright alarming clarity today.
Photos by Andrew Eccles for Variety
The eight-episode limited series is based on Celeste Ng’s best-selling novel, which came to Washington’s attention when Witherspoon, who had promoted it in 2017 as part of her book club, brought it to her as a potential project for them to collaborate on. The two actor-producers got closer as founding members of Time’s Up, when the ballooning crisis of sexual harassment within Hollywood became a catalyst for catharsis and connection. Per Washington, those early days of organizing sparked frustrating realizations that so many women had been siloed throughout their careers, told sexist rumors about other female actors in order to keep them competitive with each other and stuck on sets with few other women. But they came together to fight for equality in the entertainment industry and beyond. “We all started to want to partner professionally as we were partnering in this activist, humanitarian space,” Washington says. “A lot of us started building opportunities for us to work together, because we felt like we could control, or impact, the culture in our environments.”
The production of “Little Fires Everywhere,” which Washington and Witherspoon developed in equal partnership, reflects the hard-won lesson that female actors with sway in Hollywood are stronger together than apart. It also gave them a unique opportunity to put their skills to work behind the camera as well as in front of it. They shopped the project around town with showrunner Liz Tigelaar, and it landed at Hulu, which leaped at the chance to adapt the book alongside Washington’s Simpson Street and Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine. Washington recalls being impressed that Hulu brought “a lot of diversity into the meeting,” while Beatrice Springborn, Hulu’s vice president of content development — who coincidentally grew up in Shaker Heights — was immediately impressed by the care and expertise Washington and Witherspoon brought to the table.
“This might sound so basic, but they’re both readers,” says Springborn. “To be able to talk about character and theme and text in a sophisticated, sharp, heightened way is rare. And in the case of this book, when you’re dealing with so many different layers of thematic and generational stories, it’s really important to have people who know the material — which doesn’t always happen.”
“Everyone is, and deserves to be, the center of their own story.There aren’t certain kinds of people who get to be the leaders or protagonists, or others who must be supporting characters.”
In the show, Witherspoon plays a spikier version of a character she’s long made a signature of her career (i.e., a tightly wound woman running on a steady diet of seething resentment). Washington tackles an entirely new challenge in Mia, a fiercely talented and guarded artist who has no problem letting people tie themselves in knots as she stares coolly through them. It’s a startling, stunning performance, one in which an arch of her eyebrow can speak louder than an avalanche of words. “I really liked the idea of Kerry playing Mia after Olivia Pope,” says Witherspoon. “Knowing Kerry and her range, I was excited to see her play someone 180 degrees different.”
Washington calls portraying Mia a “coming of age” for her as an actor, particularly in the way it required her to project emotion through weighty silences rather than the dense monologues that solidified her stature as a TV star. “My lived experience has allowed me to, in this role, feel like I could fill space without a whole song and dance,” she says. “I spent seven years on a show filling space by doing, all the time — and to allow for more economy and nuance and trust, it felt exciting [here].”
Part of the “lived experience” Washington can now use to play Mia, and indeed to understand “Little Fires Everywhere” as a whole, is that of being a mother. (She has two children with athlete-turned-actor Nnamdi Asomugha and a teenage stepdaughter.) But in “Little Fires,” she says she relates most closely to the character of Pearl — Mia’s daughter, who finds herself overwhelmed and spellbound by Shaker Heights’ glistening exterior — due to her own time as a Bronx teen navigating Spence School, an elite private girls’ academy on the Upper East Side. “People walked differently, talked differently, ate differently,” Washington says. “It was a totally different universe that I had to learn to traverse.”
Early in the process, Washington realized that playing Mia meant playing a version of her own mother. Even the character’s tendency to size up people before revealing any more information than she feels they deserve is intimately familiar to her. When Washington was a kid, she used to watch her mother navigate potentially fraught social situations by calibrating conversations to fit her needs. “When people asked her where she was from, her answer could be ‘New York City,’ ‘the Bronx,’ or ‘the South Bronx,’” recalls Washington with a knowing smile. “She could control your perception of her, and her comfort level with these Upper East Side mothers, by how she answered that question.”
Photos by Andrew Eccles for Variety
While Ng’s book marks Mia as “other,” due to her relatively lower socioeconomic standing, it does not specify her race. Shifting Mia’s backstory and worldview to fit that of a black woman, Washington says, adds a level of complexity to an already intricate character. It also ties her story more to the history of Shaker Heights, one of the first suburbs in the country to racially integrate. In book and show alike, the city’s loudly liberal white inhabitants love to tout this fact in the hopes of scoring woke brownie points with people of color who, they assume, should be wildly grateful to live alongside them. Washington’s Mia, in several deeply satisfying scenes opposite Witherspoon and Joshua Jackson as Elena’s oblivious husband, refuses to grant them that satisfaction.
“There was a lot of focus in the ’90s on being ‘color-blind,’ on making color unimportant, in some ways to make people feel more comfortable being around people of a different race,” says Washington. “We’re at a point now when we know it does matter who we are with regard to race and gender, and it doesn’t serve us to run away from that.”
To tackle “Little Fires Everywhere,” Washington and the team dove deep into their own experiences to find the kernels of hard truth that might lie within. “It’s very vulnerable material and work,” says Washington. “We all took a lot of risks in revealing our inner lives to each other, our perspectives and our thoughts throughout the process. Not only did that vulnerability require opening up; it demanded a certain level of willingness from everyone involved to admit what they didn’t know.”
“Kerry always makes sure that if she’s lending her name to something that it’s very thoughtful. She’s very, very aware of her place in this industry, and that she’s got a voice.”
Tigelaar gave her writers’ room a reading assignment: sociologist Robin DiAngelo’s book “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.” When they first discussed how to bring “Little Fires Everywhere” to the screen, Washington and Witherspoon talked in-depth about their vastly different upbringings and their levels of awareness about the inextricable intersections of race and privilege in America. (Witherspoon freely admits that as a white person raised in Nashville, such history “wasn’t explained very well” to her, if at all.)
Many people in Hollywood would shy away from these kinds of conversations, but Washington relishes the chance to have them. “In the real world, Reese and I are not supposed to be friends,” she says. “I grew up in the Bronx a block away from the projects, and she grew up in Nashville, Tennessee.” And yet, the two managed to bridge the gap through their shared passion for important work, and the ways in which they could bring their specific expertise to the project.
Better still, as an increasingly business-minded Washington is quick to point out, they each now come with baked-in audiences willing to follow them from project to project. While Washington knows that combining those demographics is smart in the most basic terms of getting more eyeballs on their work, she also wants their fans to come together and learn from each other. “It was important for both of us to not alienate our audiences from Episode 1,” she says. “You want to feel like, whoever you are, you understand one of [our characters] — and then your scope of understanding expands as the show goes on.”
Washington is acutely aware of the audience she amassed by anchoring and promoting “Scandal,” an early hit on social media when most companies were still struggling to understand what a hashtag was. Just as her character would refer to her team on the show as “Gladiators,” so Washington used the term to refer to fans, and honed a media savvy that Rhimes credits with helping her get through press obligations without having panic attacks.
Photos by Andrew Eccles for Variety
All the while, Washington was quite cognizant of the significance her casting had when she became the first black woman to anchor a network drama in 40 years — mostly because it’s a stat she had heard, she says with an almost imperceptible sigh, “a gajillion times.”
“I didn’t feel the pressure from my ego, like ‘I have to make the show work,’” Washington clarifies. “It was more ‘If we fuck this up, it’s going to be another 40 years before they let a black woman be the lead of a network drama. We have to get this right.’”
That’s why, with the benefit of greater visibility and a far larger platform than she had before “Scandal,” Washington wants Simpson Street to focus on making sure no one else feels that same kind of pressure by, in her words, “placing the perceived outsider on the inside, whether that’s on the inside of the story or the inside of your heart.”
The actor-producer believes in the transformative power of storytelling with a downright contagious conviction. No matter the subject of conversation, she can find a way to talk about how a story has “the power to collapse the space between us and to link us to our shared humanity” in a simultaneously measured and passionate tone that makes it easy to see why Rhimes was inspired to cast her after the two had a completely unrelated conversation about politics.
Above all, Washington insists, her goal in life and with Simpson Street is to forge the kind of “common connection” that opens minds. That kind of mutual understanding is sometimes harder to achieve in practice than theory, but when she thinks on the progress the industry has made since that disappointing employment stat that dogged her during her “Scandal” years — or even further back to what her grandmother could have hoped when she built a life on Simpson Street — Washington remains optimistic about what she and her collaborators can do to effect change.
“Look what we’ve achieved in just a couple generations. How do we make that ability to achieve standard for every American, not designated to certain people who grew up in certain zip codes? How do we collapse the acceptance of inequality in this country?” Washington asks — and for her, these are not rhetorical questions. “I feel like, to a certain extent, storytelling has the ability to do that, to make us more aware of each other, and care for each other more.”
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