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With the same last name as the first president and the nation’s capital, perhaps it is inevitable that Kerry Washington has an ineluctable draw to politics. Whether it’s starring in TV’s hottest Beltway drama or creating a nail polish collection that references the area, Washington, a staunch Democrat, is passionate about using her voice for good.
“For me, what is political is very personal,” Washington told WWD. “Politics are not this abstract idea. Laws are the rules that dictate how we live our lives. What we eat is political. How we dress is political. Where we live is political. All of these things are influenced by political decision-making, and it’s important to be part of the process.”
This story first appeared in the January 27, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Although she’s a New York native and a Spence graduate, Washington, D.C., is definitely in the actress’ blood. In addition to her role as Olivia Pope on ABC’s inside-Capitol Hill hit “Scandal,” Washington attended George Washington University, from which she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1998 with a double major in anthropology and sociology; she also has an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the school, presented in 2013 — and has worked on President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. “I started working for the real White House right before I started working for the pretend White House,” she likes to point out.
Washington addressed the Democratic National Convention in September 2012 in support of Obama and is fervent in her desire to see a female president — specifically, Hillary Clinton — in the White House. “Why is the ability of a woman to be president even a question?” she said. “Of course we’re ready for a female president. Absolutely! There were lots of people, both black and white, who wondered the same thing about having an African-American president. We have the awesome opportunity, because of the way our country is structured, to keep striving toward the first three words of our Constitution: We the people. We keep having opportunities to make that statement more and more of what it says — for ‘we the people’ to include all people. Even though our founding fathers weren’t ready for that to include African-Americans and women, we are.
“For me, [election season] is an exciting time,” Washington continued. “I love that we live in a participatory government, where our government reflects who we are. I also think we’re at a time of really needing to pay attention to protecting voting rights.”
So, which political candidate could her character, D.C. spin-doctor Olivia Pope, help the most? Washington laughs. “Everyone could benefit from a little help from Olivia Pope. If you’re running, it’s better to have her on your side. If I were running, I would hire her.”
She may be well-versed on the ins and outs of politics, but playing Olivia Pope has presented challenges of a new nature for Washington. Used to mapping out the emotional journey of a character from start to finish before embarking on a project, Washington has had to adapt to television’s different pace. “Being a person who likes being part of the process, it was a really big learning curve for me, to let go,” she said. “In television, you can do it per episode, but not for the life of the show, so I’ve been able to experience what it’s like to be on an unexpected journey with my character in a way you are with life. I go to the table reads wondering what’s going to happen next.”
There’s certainly been no shortage of ups and downs in Pope’s character arc. “She’s evolved way more than I have, and especially now, coming back after the winter finale,” said Washington, whose character had an abortion in that episode, which aired in November. Washington said she experienced some backlash on social media but credits Shonda Rhimes, the creator of “Scandal,” of not being afraid to tackle tough topics. “[Abortion is] a reality, and more often than not, it’s a really difficult choice to make. The same was true for Olivia,” Washington said. “But by not having those moments represented in media, we add to the idea that there’s something shameful to be talked about. It’s always important that our storytelling reflects the real experiences of human beings, because it allows us to not feel as alone.”
She’s also looking forward to sinking her teeth into another controversial role — that of Hill in “Confirmation,” an HBO movie due out later this year that she is executive producing and starring in. She remembered that her mother, an educator, and her father, a real estate agent, were quite passionate about Hill’s 1991 testimony in Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings.
“It was a huge topic of conversation at home, a very complicated issue,” she said. “I saw the documentary ‘Anita’ about two years ago, and it made me think ‘What else is there? What else is in that story?’”
Her role as the ultimate political fixer has also contributed to her ongoing fascination with the case. “Playing Olivia Pope made me know that there’s more going on behind the scenes than we’re privy to, and I wanted to peel through the layers of what was going on in the lives of all of these people, particularly Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas and Joe Biden.
“The question we often ask ourselves with the whole he said/she said — who was telling the truth? I had the feeling that more was going on, and the more research we did, the more complicated it got,” Washington continued. “We all need to remember this story. The hearings put sexual harassment on the table and changed our cultural conversation around gender and sexuality at work and around victims’ rights — and about racism — on a national stage. We deal with a lot of these issues in a much more evolved way as a society.”
Washington has an affinity for fashion — and an equally fearless approach in what she wears on the red carpet. “You can’t please everybody,” she said, noting a recent favorite of hers is the silver Marc Jacobs gown she wore to the 2015 Emmys in September, right off of Jacobs’ spring runway.
In fact, her love for fashion was what hooked her on the nail category and led to the creation of her collection with OPI. Consisting of 15 shades, $10 each, it hits counters on Aug. 4. “Nails are at that interesting point where fashion and beauty meet,” said Washington, who collaborated on a “Scandal”-based clothing collection for The Limited with the show’s costume designer, Lyn Paolo, and doesn’t rule out future projects. “If I enter that space, it’s important for me to know the landscape and do it in a way that’s authentic and right and true to who I am.”
The same holds true for Washington’s OPI collaboration, which she emphasized is a personal collection, not a “Scandal” collection. And what’s the fun in having a nail polish line if you can’t name a few shades after yourself? Washington did just that with Kerry Blossom, a rich plum, and “Liv” in the Gray, an edgy dark gray. Other standouts include We the Female, a garnet shade and one of Washington’s favorites in the collection, the bright red Madam President.
The actress, who is famously private, admits that she couldn’t resist the temptation to name one of the polish shades after her nearly two-year-old daughter, Isabelle. It’s a caramel crème shade called Inside the IsabelletWay. “I thought long and hard about having my daughter involved, but once I came up with the name, I couldn’t get it out of my head,” Washington said.
Also important was making sure she included nude shades for every skin tone. “For me, growing up, when people were saying ‘nude,’ they weren’t talking about my naked skin tone,” she said. “I made sure that in my collection, we had nudes that also represent me.” To that end, shades like the light nude Pale to the Chief, chocolate brown Speaker of the House and tawny copper Yank My Doodle address a wide range of skin colors.
Also, she serves as creative consultant with Neutrogena, a position she’s held since 2013. During her tenure, the brand has expanded its foundation ranges to better address the multicultural market. “Part of my collaboration with both Neutrogena and OPI has been to keep inclusivity front of mind,” she said.
That level of involvement is typical of Washington, who relishes having an active voice in the sociocultural conversations of the day. “I’ve never been comfortable being a pawn,” she said. “I work with brands where I feel like I can have my say, and companies that I’m proud to be in a relationship with. Partnerships take a lot of time. If I am going to put my name and my face and my energy behind something, I want it to be authentic.”
Additionally, she’s moving further into the producing space. She just sold a show about nannies to ABC, and is working on the pilot. A second project, a digital series, is in its early stages. “Neither of them are for me to act in — they’re both producing [projects],” she said. “I don’t think of it in terms of ‘I want that power,’ but I want to be able to contribute to how a story is told. Content is going through such an exciting shift. Content is taking on such a different structure, as is how we engage with it, and it’s fun to be in that adventure.”
Speaking of content, she acknowledges social media’s power, and notes that she’s especially partial to Twitter. “In a lot of ways, if it hadn’t been for Twitter, we wouldn’t be in our fifth season [of ‘Scandal’],” Washington said. “There was a grassroots movement on Twitter to support and protect the show.”
Washington loves to see fan reaction. “It’s exciting because the [plot] turns we take can be so unexpected,” she said. “Then, when it airs, we get to watch our audience have pretty much the same reactions that we had, in live time. We feel really connected to that, because we know what it feels like to be surprised by the material — so it’s fun to watch the reactions ripple out to audiences.”