Scandal‘s Kerry Washington is featured in the November 2017 issue of Allure Magazine.
With Olivia Pope, the Washington fixer in a political thriller that seemed over-the-top until real life became even stranger, Kerry Washington and Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes have changed the cultural landscape. It’s more than just the rabid fan base (“Gladiators”) and the memes. (Admit it: On at least one occasion, you’ve barked, “It’s handled.”) While there are now several black women playing the central characters of network dramas, in 2012, when the first season of Scandal premiered, there were virtually none. Even now, notes Washington, for a lot of people in this country, their relationship with Olivia Pope may be the most intimate one they have with a black woman. “For her to be three-dimensional and complex and fully human and not anybody’s stereotype or caricature is a big deal,” she says.
Obviously, for Washington, having kids has added to the importance of putting societal beauty standards into perspective. Take hair — a subject of importance to many of us, but particularly to African-American women who have, historically, been judged by how they choose to wear it. “I like to wear my natural texture, especially now because I have children and I want them to know that their hair is perfect as it is. They don’t have to change it or straighten it. They can, but they don’t have to.”
Washington had success several years after she graduated from college; powerful turns as Ray Charles’s wife in Ray and the wife of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland established her as a star. But for the Bronx-raised actress who attended Spence and graduated from George Washington University Phi Beta Kappa, acting was not plan A. She wanted to be a psychologist and educator.
“I’m working now on 24/7, this comedy about three women in the workplace, and Eva Longoria and I are two out of the three,” she says. “We basically walked into Universal and acted it out for them, and they were like, ‘OK.’ ” And since she executive-produced the Anita Hill story Confirmation for HBO, she wants more of that. “It’s kind of like being the Olivia Pope of television. You get to change people’s lives and fix problems and be grounded and assertive and of service. So it really is a lot of things that I felt Olivia has taught me to do in pretend and then to apply those skills when I produce.”
Pope as a character is a little hard to shake; even now, during her summer off, Washington still feels her in her bones. I had to know: Just how much carryover is there not among fans but among friends? Do people who know her actually expect her to be all “I’ll handle it” in real life? Washington’s eyes light up. “It happens All. The. Time. I mean, part of it is because they know I can connect them to Judy Smith, [the crisis manager] who the role is based on. But people call me to say, ‘I have this problem. Can I talk to you about it?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t even want to know! Just skip over me!’ ”
Scandal airs Thursdays at 9/8c on ABC.
Photography: Sharif Hamza