From co-starring opposite Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx to ruling the tube in “Scandal,” Kerry Washington is acting up all over the place
Author DAN SOLOMON
IT’S SHAPING UP TO BE an epic year for Kerry Washington. Having already established her dramatic bona fides in films like Night Catches Us, Ray and The Last King of Scotland, she opened 2012 by showing off her comedic chops in A Thousand Words. It was a challenge for the 35-year-old Bronx, N.Y., native—she played the wife of a fast-talking literary agent (Eddie Murphy) who ends up not speaking for much of the film—yet one she navigated with aplomb.
In addition, this spring saw Washington stepping into her first starring TV role with the debut of ABC’s “Scandal,” the latest dramatic series from “Grey’s Anatomy” creator Shonda Rhimes. Playing a veteran political fixer, Washington anchors a high-profile ensemble that includes Tony Goldwyn and “Lost” alum Henry Ian Cusick. But even with her successful television foray—”Scandal” was picked up in May for a second season—Washington is keeping a hand in film with the upcoming Django Unchained, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino and featuring her Ray co-star Jamie Foxx.
Play caught up with Washington recently to chat about juggling genres, why acting with children is more fun than you’d think, and how she plans to win Foxx another Oscar.
In your scenes with the famously motor-mouthed Eddie Murphy in A Thousand Words, you actually do most of the talking. That’s quite a twist. One of the things that’s so fun about the movie is that it quickly turns into a silent film for Eddie’s character. And lucky for us, he’s such a great physical comedian. Working with him was a delight because he’s so knowledgeable about comedy and understands how to use his body as a physical actor. I just tried to fill in the spaces!
The film gives your character, Caroline, a pretty outrageous scene of her own, as well as a number of small, fun moments that seem like they might have come from you. How did you approach this role? When I was developing Caroline, [Murphy's] character was this fast-talking, big-living, success-driven guy, and I thought, “Wow, it would take a really energetic, committed, fierce and fun woman to partner with a man like that.” I knew she couldn’t be a wallflower, because he’s such a dynamo before he goes silent that she’d have to be her own little powerhouse to be able to spar with him.
What was it like to work with someone as iconic as Eddie Murphy? It’s so funny. I remember when the Wayans brothers became famous, I remember when Chris Rock became famous, but I don’t remember living in a world where Eddie Murphy was not famous! Working with him was fascinating, and an experience that I will forever be grateful for.
Were there any surprises on the set? It’s so much fun to work with children—particularly infants and toddlers, because you can’t control their choices—and it really keeps you on your toes as an actor, because you never know what’s going to be thrown your way. It makes every moment an improv moment. You have to let go of your plan of how a scene is supposed to play out, because one of the lead actors in the scene actually can’t communicate and isn’t going to follow direction no matter what you do. Eddie and I had a blast with all of that. Sometimes actors can get really frustrated, but we both got a kick out of it.
Even though your background isn’t in comedy, you’ve now worked with some of the funniest people alive. How did that happen? I like to be challenged, to try new things. Because of films like Ray and The Last King of Scotland, people don’t generally think of me as being at the top of their comedy list, maybe, but it’s one of things I love to do most. So I jumped at the opportunity to work with Eddie, especially because I’d worked with so many of the people who’ve kind of walked in his footsteps, like Jamie Foxx and the Wayans brothers and Chris Rock. When I got the script for A Thousand Words, it was like having the chance to go to the original source. I just thought, “What a great opportunity!”
Are there any other comedians you’d like to work with? I wouldn’t call him a comedian, but I do love Woody Allen’s sense of humor and sense of irony. I’d love to do a Woody Allen film. And it’d be really fun to work with Kristen Wiig. That would be a blast, to be part of one of those badass female comedies.
Caroline in A Thousand Words is obviously a million miles away from your character on “Scandal.” Is there a secret to going from comedy to drama and back again? I think the goal is primarily the same—to tell the story in an honest way. Hopefully the material itself guides you, and the story that you’re telling is one that evokes a sense of comedy as opposed to evoking a sense of drama. There are also stylistic differences: There’s a unique dance to comedy that’s about rhythm and timing, and being able to dance with your partner. You can get that in drama, too, but in different ways.
Roles like Olivia Pope don’t come around that often. What was your reaction when you got the script for “Scandal”? I hadn’t been looking to do a television show, really. I have a thriving film career and I wasn’t particularly ready to give that up. I’d thought about doing television, but maybe a cable show with a shorter season. I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with it. But when I read the script, I was like, “What do I have to do to be part of this?” I feel like the luckiest broad in show business when I go to work now. Women are so often the accessory to the story as opposed to the driving force, and so the role challenges me in ways that I appreciate and love.
The cast you have around you is pretty incredible, too. It’s what I imagine being on a championship basketball team feels like. There are no weak links. I use that metaphor because we’re out there to help each other play our roles with as much strength as possible. You trust that you can make the assist. You trust your teammate to go up for the layup. You know someone’s going to get the rebound and everybody know where to be and how to do it.
Speaking of championship teams, what’s it like to be on the set of a Quentin Tarantino movie? It’s unbelievable! [Tarantino] is one of the true auteurs of our time, and it’s a profound experience to work with somebody like that. And I’m blown away by the chance to be among this caliber of actors. Samuel L. Jackson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx—that’s who I was working with, doing a scene last night! And we’re all excited and inspired to be working with each other.
Plus, you get to play Jamie Foxx’s wife again—that must be fun. It’s great! Jamie called me when I got the role, and I said, “I think we should make a habit of this. Every decade we should get together and make some epic, important piece of cinematic history. And hopefully win you an Oscar.”