A Look Back at Birthday Girl Kerry Washington's Most Iconic Roles
Washington had just graduated from George Washington University, majoring in anthropology and sociology, when she landed her first big studio film, Save the Last Dance, which came out in 2001.
She played Chenille, a single mom living in Chicago, sister to Derek Reynolds (played by Sean Patrick Thomas) and friend to Derek’s love interest Sara (played by Julia Stiles).
“It was really exciting for me. It was the first time I had a trailer and a per diem and hair and makeup people,” Washington told Parade of her role, which she took at 22 years old.
“I don’t think any of us really knew what a huge hit it was going to be, but we were all really driven to tell an important story regardless of how well it did commercially.”
At the time, the actress wanted “to make sure the character wasn’t a stereotype, but that she felt like a real person,” according to Allure (via Glamour).
“Especially for me, as a woman and as a person of colour, I play these roles where many people in society may never think about that person. I knew that there were going to be special challenges to being a woman of colour as an actor,” she continued before adding that although times may feel different now, “It’s not as though we all live in a wonderland of inclusivity.”
Washington went from one big film to the next three years later in Ray, playing Ray Charles’ wife, Della Bea Robinson, opposite Jamie Foxx.
“It was very special because her whole life she refused to do interviews with the press,” the star told Tribute.ca of her experience with the real Mrs. Robinson. “She felt like she had to separate Ray Charles from Ray Charles Robinson, the man that she loved and was married to and [was] the father of her children.”
“To sit down and talk with me as much as she did was very special,” she added.
Foxx and Washington had another opportunity to play husband and wife again in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. The star played Broomhilda, the wife of Django (Foxx), who was being held captive by cold-blooded plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the 2012 film.
Washington told Indiewire that Tarantino had met with her first for the role of Broomhilda, then spent “a lot of months meeting with a lot of other people” before coming “back to me.”
“I loved the script and I thought it was intense, original and important,” she said of the film. “I thought I had never seen anything like this before and that it had to get made.”
She admitted to IndieWire, “I didn’t know if I was the right person to do it because it scared the crap out of me. I was scared about the places I had to go emotionally and psychologically as an artist.”
But, through the support of her castmates and director, she was able to push through.
“We all just walked this line of protecting each other and pushing each other,” she said. “Our coach in all of that is Quentin.”
Prior to her role as Kay Amin in The Last King of Scotland, Washington had never been to the continent of Africa, but called it “a gift to be able to go,” according to Parade. The fictional story — which follows Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) as he tries to escape the terrifying reigns of the real-life former president of Uganda, Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) — allowed the actress to transform into an African woman to play the role of Amin’s fourth wife.
“It was really fun to be there and have the responsibility of absorbing the culture and embodying the country,” she said.
Her time shooting the film in Uganda allowed her to understand more about “how people could be in love with [Amin] and yet feel so betrayed by him,” according to IndieLondon.
During his eight-year rule, Amin was deemed the “Butcher of Uganda” and killed close to 300,000 out of a total population of 12 million, according to the New York Times.
“When you look at the Pan-African movement at the time, the whole world was moving into a period of just beginning to understand Black and African empowerment, and Black pride,” Washington told IndieLondon. “There are changes that Amin made to the constitution that still exist because they were for the betterment of society.”
“So, you can see why it’s a really complicated issue and it’s not black and white. That’s why I think Forest’s portrayal of him is touching on genius,” she continued. “We, as human beings, want to make somebody bad or good — evil or wonderful. But the reality is that he’s a person and that makes it much more complicated.”
By 2007, Washington completely switched gears and was asked by Chris Rock to play Nikki Tru in the rom-com I Think I Love My Wife.
The film was a remake of Chloe in the Afternoon, a French film about a man who finds himself attracted to a younger woman — insert Washington’s character Tru.
Although the role didn’t make as much of a splash as her former ones in dramatic films, the movie showed Washington could be just as funny as serious.
In 2008’s Lakeview Terrace, Lisa Mattson (played by Washington) and her husband (Patrick Wilson) find themselves unable to escape the eyes of Abel Turner, a troubled LAPD officer who is determined to kick the interracial couple out of the neighborhood.
“One thing was that I have never really seen this kind of African-American woman onscreen before,” she told the Inquirer of her role. “She’s a very modern character in that she’s a crunchy-granola Berkeley graduate, progressive, environmentalist, open-minded, lives a really inclusive, multicultural lifestyle.”
She continued, saying: “I have so many girlfriends like that, and my life is like that, and I thought, How great to have that woman onscreen.”
Fast-forward to 2012, when the star took on a role of a lifetime as the best fixer Washington, D.C., has ever seen: Scandal‘s Olivia Pope. But in 2017, it was revealed that ABC network executives originally envisioned Pope as a white woman.
“The network was reading us their top choices, and it was Connie [Britton] and all white women,” casting director Linda Lowy told The Hollywood Reporter. “I panicked. Somebody finally piped up, ‘We’re going to have to redo this list.’ “
Ultimately, Washington was cast, which made her the first Black woman to topline a drama in 37 years.
Although Washington agreed that Britton would’ve been great for the role, Lowy insisted, “It was Kerry from the moment I took her to meet Shonda,” referring to the show’s creator Shonda Rhimes.
“She could talk Washington more than I could talk Washington. She was different than what I originally envisioned,” said Rhimes. “We were all like, ‘Oh my God,’ because she’s tiny, cute, pretty and younger — and because she was all those things, she was aware that people would underestimate her.”
The beloved series went on from April 2012 to April 2018 with a total of seven seasons.
“Tomorrow morning I will wake up and begin to try to process the magical dream of the past seven seasons,” Washington wrote on Instagram in her farewell note to the show and her fans. “I imagine it will take some time to really understand what just transpired in my life. But, this much, I know… I am filled with endless gratitude for our #Scandal Family. Our glorious cast & crew and our community of #Gladiators. TOGETHER, we have changed history. Transformed television. And illuminated each other’s lives.”
“Thank you for watching. And tweeting. And being with us!!!!” Washington continued.
She signed the post, “With love & gratitude, My very best, Kerry.”
Throughout those seven thrilling and often jaw-dropping seasons, Washington racked up a ton of nominations, including a Golden Globe nom in 2014 for best performance by an actress in a television series and several Emmy nominations for outstanding lead actress in a drama series.
For her latest work, the limited Hulu series Little Fires Everywhere, costarring Reese Witherspoon, Washington drew inspiration from her own mother.
“I think there’s so much of my mom in [my character] Mia,” she told NPR. “One of the things I witnessed growing up was that my mom was very aware — as a Black woman, as an academic, as the daughter of immigrants — she was aware of the assumptions that people would make about her, and she would play with those assumptions. Not in an aggressive way, but she liked to watch people try to figure her out and she liked to not fit into a box.”
She continued, “My mom is not somebody who has ever really fit into anybody else’s box, even in terms of the performance of racial identity, or her hobbies, or interests, or how she parented me. A lot like Mia, she wrote her own rules when she was raising me.”
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