Kerry Washington Has Always Been a Pragmatic Dreamer

From “Scandal” to “Little Fires Everywhere,” she acts with purpose

It turns out that Kerry Washington is a good deal less capricious than any of the women she’s become famous for playing. But that’s exactly how she ended up playing them. “I put a lot of thought into figuring out how to do this in a way that was sane,” Washington says of a life spent performing. “It was that combination of dreaming that anything is possible and then creating these structures wherein I could pursue those dreams with some sanity.”

Though it hardly makes for the sensational first scene of a pilot or play, Washington has maneuvered the business reason-first, both feet tethered firmly to reality, since Day 1. She has always, however, allowed herself to dream. The dichotomy explains why an acting career occurred to her at all, and why she was nearing adulthood when it did. Call it pragmatic dreaming, which, in practice, is exactly how Washington describes it herself.   

“You have to pray to catch the bus—but then run as fast as you can [when it arrives],” she says. “If you don’t run, that could have been your bus. But you can’t just sit around and daydream and expect things to unfold. You have to also have the pedal meet the metal. You have to take action. For me, there was always this idea of ‘Stay in faith, dream big, take action.’ Then, if I don’t get the bus, it wasn’t meant to be my bus.”

Washington always loved to tell stories, but growing up, the idea of acting professionally only existed on a far-off plane. “To me, actors were famous people, people on the covers of magazines,” she explains. “I didn’t see myself as that kind of person, ironically.” Ironically because, well, Washington is now quite famous and she is also, presently, speaking (via Zoom) for the purpose of being on this very magazine cover.

“You can’t just sit around and daydream and expect things to unfold. You have to also have the pedal meet the metal. You have to take action.”

But even now, with four Emmy nominations to her name, her own production company, and, yes, having graced more than a few glossy magazine covers, Washington is clear that this type of exposure and adulation was never the pursuit. Actually, the big “aha moment” that made her say yes to a career in the arts—which many actors cite as a dazzling film performance seen as a child or an Oscars acceptance speech watched in the family living room—was a bit more functional.

“I was taking a class called Acting as a Business,” she recalls. “It was part of a conservatory program that I did at Michael Howard Studios [in New York]. In that course, our teacher started talking about unions. I hadn’t really conceptualized the idea that there were unions for actors. That, to me, meant there were lots of working actors who were making a living. I realized, ‘Oh, I could aim to do that.’ ”

And there’s the rub: While so many aspirants are focused on the gleaming car, Washington has always been as concerned with the machinery beneath the hood. It explains why, even at George Washington University, where she matriculated, she didn’t major in acting, opting instead for anthropology and sociology. Her decision-making process, naturally, was multitiered and multipurpose.

“I didn’t study acting in college for two reasons,” she says. The first reason was for the realist in her: “I knew there were things like substitute teaching for New York City public schools that are harder to do with an arts degree. I didn’t know when I went into college that I wanted to be an actor, so I thought I might go to graduate school for anthropology, or that I might go to law school, or that I might get a master’s in education. I wanted to have options with my degree.”

The second reason, though, was for the dreamer who held out hope that the acting thing might pan out, even when the more rational parts of her id thought otherwise. “I also had a feeling that studying liberal arts, in particular social science, could maybe make me a better artist, right?” she says. “If my job as an actor is to embody human reality and human beings in their journey through time, maybe knowing more about history and psychology and sociology could actually help me understand my role as an artist in embodying people.”

Though she didn’t intend to be an actor while there, she performed in many plays at college, and when it came time to graduate, Washington’s conflicting natures struck a deal: She’d give it a year, and if in that time she could land some work and make some inroads, she’d keep at it. But if the year yielded little sign she was on the right path, she’d circle back to law school or something similar. As always, there was a plan beneath the plan (and, likely, another plan beneath that one, too). 

“Saying, ‘I’m going to give myself a year to see if anything happens and if it doesn’t, I’ll go in a different direction,’ that was also part of how I motivated myself,” she says. “I knew a lot of people who were dreaming big but weren’t taking action. I think giving myself a year made me feel like I’d better be taking action in that year, because if this is all the time I have, I don’t want to waste it being in fear.”

Consciously choosing not to succumb to fear is another way in which Washington subverted the common pitfalls of early-career actors. While she admits to not having done so perfectly, she tried from the start to abide by the expression “Wearing life like a loose T-shirt,” which means exactly what it evokes: relaxing, not taking oneself too seriously. It mostly stuck, and was especially seminal in how she learned to audition. 

“Walk in the room to be of service, walk in the room to have fun, walk in the room to participate in a joyful, artful act, opposed to walk in the room to try to get people to like [you]. ”

“It meant that I could show up for auditions [thinking] it was just an opportunity to get to do what I love to do, which is act, for 15 minutes. Maybe you wanted me in your play or maybe you didn’t,” she says. “I could walk into a room without this feeling that I could do something to control whether I was going to get the role. It allowed me more healthy detachment and flexibility around auditioning, in a way. I’ve definitely had moments where I’ve had to work hard to cultivate that level of: walk in the room to be of service, walk in the room to have fun, walk in the room to participate in a joyful, artful act, as opposed to walk in the room to try to get people to like me.”

That thinking also helped Washington approach her work without a “please pick me” desperation, which can lead actors at any stage of their career to take on projects they don’t believe in or, worse, actively resent. After all, fear does not dissipate when success has been attained, it just mutates.

Washington planned for that, too. After graduating but before pounding the pavement, she spent several months in India. “Part of why I did that was because I really wanted to go somewhere and study where theater and movement arts were grounded in a rich spiritual tradition, because I knew I would get back to the States and would be desperate to book a fast-food commercial to pay my rent,” she says. “I knew that was going to be the dynamic. I wanted to give myself some time really discovering and allowing myself to experience the sacred nature of theater in ancient traditions so that I could hold a little bit of that with me as I was in these huge cattle calls for some insurance company commercial.

“As a woman, and particularly as a woman of color, there would come along roles that I felt were demeaning or culturally insensitive or perpetuating a stereotype,” she continues. “It was important to me to say, ‘No, I’ll teach more yoga, I’ll do more shifts at the restaurant,’ whatever the hustle was, because I don’t want to be part of telling stories that I don’t think are good for people.”

She acknowledges, of course, that when it comes to selecting projects, “Sometimes you make the choice, sometimes the choice gets made for you.” But Washington has always tried to apply that thinking—having a net positive outcome from her work—when weighing a role. It was true for early standout parts like those in “Save the Last Dance” and then “Ray,” true for the seven seasons she spent as a crisis manager on Shonda Rhimes’ genre-defining “Scandal,” and true for the 2016 HBO feature “Confirmation” and the 2019 Broadway-turned-Netflix production “American Son,” both of which, through their exploration of sexual harassment and police brutality, have unfortunately become even more prescient today.

And it’s certainly true of her latest project, “Little Fires Everywhere.” The Hulu miniseries, adapted from the novel by Celeste Ng, stars Washington as a single mother in the 1990s who moves to an Ohio suburb with her daughter and becomes enmeshed with an affluent family. As on “Confirmation,” Washington is a producer of the eight-episode series, on which she was equipped to act now and not a minute sooner. “I think characters come into my life when they have something to teach me,” she says. “Each character is a gift in that way, because they allow me to explore my own belief systems or values or mood or ideas. They meet me where I need to grow.”

Though she has more growing yet to do herself, part of the joy of doing “Little Fires” was the many scenes she shared with its young stars, particularly her onscreen daughter, played by Lexi Underwood. That, in itself, has been the lesson that keeps on teaching the actor.

“I learned really early on in my career that having this other human being to focus on wholeheartedly in the scene makes me better, because acting is doing,” she says. “If you’re just in a whirlwind of self-consciousness, that rarely lends itself to solid craft. I’ve found that if I come to the scene with the goal of making sure that the actor across from me is in truth, then I’ll also be reaching for truth, because I’ll want to do whatever it takes to get them to have the most organic, authentic reactions. [It’s] that willingness to be more focused on your scene partner.”

That very same thinking—giving to receive—has been the driver of her work as a producer, which she has plans to do more of. “I love providing opportunities for artists and artisans to do what we love to do. I guess in some ways, it’s the importance of believing that there’s enough for everybody and not buying into this idea of one small pie,” she says. “I think producing is my way of helping to make the pie bigger, for myself and for other people, by not just focusing on where can I get a piece, but instead focusing on how do I make more for all of us to enjoy?”

This story originally appeared in the June 25 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Photographed by Liz Collins/Trunk Archive