In Chris Rock's I Think I Love My Wife, Gina Torres and Kerry Washington seem as different as night and day. Torres is Brenda, a loving wife and mother who covets nice drapes and a beige minivan. Washington, meanwhile, portrays Nikki, a wild, party-loving free spirit who tempts Brenda's husband (Rock). Though the two women share the screen for only a brief moment, they have an obvious chemistry in real life, conversing easily as friends and as fans of each other's work.
Since carving out a memorable onscreen presence in the teen drama Save the Last Dance, Washington has been featured in such diverse fare as Ray, Spike Lee's She Hate Me, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and The Last King of Scotland. Later this year she will reprise the role of Alicia Masters in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.
Torres has a fiercely loyal following — thanks to the charismatic characters she played on the TV series Firefly, Angel, and Alias, her featured appearances on 24 and The Shield, and her roles in the last two Matrix movies. Currently she's stealing scenes on Fox's Standoff and is expecting her first child with husband Laurence Fishburne.
Back Stage: What attracted you to your characters in I Think I Love My Wife?
Gina Torres: What attracted me to Brenda is that she is, in a lot of ways, just polar opposite to a lot of the roles that I've already played, which is great. Not to say that she's not a strong woman, but you know, she doesn't have a shotgun attached to her hip. [Laughs.] And she's not wanted by any particular government agency, as far as I know. Maybe in the sequel, we'll find out that she is. But it was refreshing to play a wife and a mother and to see a softer side.
Kerry Washington: It was the same [for me]. It was the opportunity to do something totally different from what I had done before: to play somebody who's not dealing with somebody else's issues but actually with [her] own. It was a new challenge and a delight as an actor.
Back Stage: You have only one scene together in the movie. Did you talk about your characters beforehand?
Washington: Not really. We did a little bit of talking about hair, makeup, wardrobe, because we wanted to make sure we were on opposite ends of a spectrum, just from a visual standpoint. We talked about life, we talked about ourselves.
Torres: Exactly. And actually, I like to work that way, because then you have more of a surprise when you see what the other [person] is bringing to the table and which way you can zig and zag. It's a better tennis game, I think.
Back Stage: You both have managed to move between independent projects and more mainstream fare. How do you choose your roles?
Washington: [affects an overly dramatic voice] Because we both lie at home with tons of scripts to choose from, and we think, "That one! I'll do that one!"
Torres: Can you imagine? "Choose."
Washington: Usually the ones that choose you are the ones you don't want. The ones that you want, they're like, "I don't know," and you have to go and do battle.
Torres: Absolutely you've got to fight for it. Just to get in the room sometimes is really difficult. You feel like there are three actresses that are doing everything. And then I pray for tall leading actors to grow in pods somewhere. There's gotta be a pod, a place where they're growing 6-foot actors. The things I choose to fight for are the things I respond to. And I don't know what that's going to be. I'll respond to an action film if it makes sense, if it's not gratuitous in its violence or nudity or whatever. I respond to well-written, well-crafted, brave projects. And I respond to brave directors who are willing to go balls to the wall and do something new and exciting.
Washington: I think, also, a pianist has a piano and a violinist has a violin, and we are our instruments. So as I change, my choices change. When I finished doing Last King of Scotland, I remember calling my parents and saying, "I'm doing the new Wayans brothers movie [Little Man]," and they were like, "You're kidding. Why are you doing that?" I was like, "'Cause I just spent two months crying in Uganda, and I'd like to have fun."
Back Stage: What's an example of a role you had to fight for?
Washington: This one. Ray. Save the Last Dance. She Hate Me. Dead Girl. [It's always] the ones you want the most.
Torres: All of those, but she got those parts.
Washington: [Laughing.] Liar!
Torres: Actually it's funny, because I don't know if we've really ever been up for the same part. I usually have to fight for the more vulnerable roles. People have a hard time — men have a hard time seeing me as anything other than capable.
Washington: Oh my God, I literally just got that feedback from a casting director. Like it's a negative thing: "She's just so capable."
Torres: Yeah. Sometimes it's nice, and sometimes you're like, "I'm not capable every day."
Torres: It's fascinating to me. So those are the things that I tend to fight for, just 'cause. Just to prove a point. I can defy my size; I can defy this inherent authority that people keep telling me that I have. I want to be small and a hot mess — just a small, hot mess.
Back Stage: What was the audition process like for this film?
Torres: I read once, and then studio politics [happened]. There was a name that was being pursued —
Washington: [sarcastically] Because Gina's not a name.
Torres: Apparently not a big enough name for the studio at the time. So it went away, or I thought it went away. And then my husband and I were having lunch, and Chris was on a location scout, and he ran into us. Chris says he just felt like it was kismet, like it made sense. There he was, seeing me actually being a wife.
Washington: And a wife enjoying her husband's company, which he thought, "Wow, that's unique!" [Laughs.] So he was inspired. I had a four- or five-year audition process for this film. I did a table read of the [script] about four years ago with a bunch of friends, sitting around a table at the Four Seasons in New York. I read the script out loud, but I read the Brenda role, because that's how people usually see me: as the supportive, nurturing good girl. I just remember sitting at the table, being obsessed with the Nikki character. Every word this actress said, I was like, "I want to play that part. I've never done anything like that before, and I really, really want to do that." I went up to Chris after the reading and said, "When you get this movie made, I would really like a shot at the Nikki character." And he laughed in my face.
Washington: So that became my mission, because I often have had the same issue that Gina was talking about in terms of how people see me. People have not seen me as sexy up until very recently. Probably it has something to do with my ass being all over the posters [for I Think I Love My Wife].
Torres: I don't know. I think there was a little Spike Lee moment when the tables started to turn.
Washington: Yeah. So it took a long time for [Chris] to be open to that idea, and seeing the Spike Lee film She Hate Me definitely was part of that. And when I saw him at the premiere in New York for She Hate Me, I was like, "Oh, I'm glad he's here," because I knew that would help shift [his perceptions]. And I have loved this script for four or five years.
Back Stage: You both had the opportunity to play opposite Forest Whitaker recently —
Washington: And work with [producer-director] Tim Story —
Torres: And work with Michael Chiklis. I'm just following her around.
Back Stage: So how did Forest and Chris compare and contrast as leading men?
Torres: Well, they're both special in their own way. Forest is a journeyman actor. He's everything that you would want and hope for in a partner onscreen. Like, we talked about the tennis match: He steps up your game. And he's right there with you. It's not like he's challenging you purposefully or consciously, it's just —
Washington: He's in it.
Torres: Yeah. And he just brings you in, and that's incredibly exciting. And Chris is exciting because he's bringing a kind of no-holds-barred — it's odd to put Chris Rock and this word together — whimsy.
Washington: It's true, actually.
Torres: Which challenges you in a whole other way, to leave behind what is familiar as an actor and jump off the cliff with a comedian and a guy that really doesn't want to hold to structure so much.
Washington: That was brilliant. I really like the [term] "journeyman." Forest is your quintessential actor. He takes what he does so seriously, and you can tell that he is in love with the fine art of acting. It's interesting, 'cause Chris was definitely trying to step up his game with this film. He hired one of the best acting coaches in the world to be with him. And before he got financing for this film, he was working with her on this character. He is almost in a new place: He's a comedian who is becoming an actor. Chris brings almost a youthful energy, because he's discovering his actor within.
Back Stage: We hear so much about the lack of good roles for women of color, yet you both have played such an array of characters. How have you managed that?
Torres: I don't play a woman of color; I play a woman. I craft a character. I'm interested in a human story and one that is universal and one that people can, hopefully, plug into and understand. I am who I am; I am informed by who I am and where I've come from. But there's so much more to it than that, and I think the quicker we realize that, the better off we all are.
Washington: Yeah. I think, also, just being willing to say no a lot [is important], 'cause people come at you with stuff that may not necessarily be the image of humanity that you want to portray. I've said no to a lot of things.
Back Stage: How do you know when it's right to turn something down?
Washington: Whenever you want to. You don't need permission to say no. It's your craft; it's your baby. You have to protect it.
Back Stage: What's next for you?
Torres: [gestures to stomach] Well, I'm making a person, right now, as we speak. And my series, Standoff, gets back on the air in April.
Back Stage: No Serenity 2?
Torres: No Serenity 2. Not enough people showed up for the first one.
Back Stage: I went twice!
Washington: Oh my God. I did, too. And I own it — not the bootleg, the real copy.
Torres: Thank you!
Washington: I should bring it for you to autograph.
Torres: But there should be stuff [that's been] on the shelves coming out soon. I've done a couple of really lovely independent films that are looking for distribution, and hopefully, they'll find their way into the sunlight. Actually, if this movie's a big hit, they probably will.
Washington: That's what you hope for. I have the sequel to Fantastic Four this summer. Then I'm doing two films this year. One is a really dark independent film, and the other is more of an action thriller. [I'm] trying to move into Gina's territory a little bit. I don't really get to kick ass, but I'm trying.