Actress Kerry Washington has become a global name since stepping into the lead role in Shonda Rhimes’ hugely successful political drama series, Scandal. Her career began in 1994, but her rise to fame really began with 2001’s Save The Last Dance, since which time she has starred in highly acclaimed films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and The Last King of Scotland.
Now, aged 39 and married, with a two-year-old daughter, the actress who was born in the Bronx, has spoken about her own journey as a mother and the importance of relying on intelligence and wit, rather than looks – something that was impressed on her by her professor mother. She is also, as mirrored in her character in Scandal, a hugely political person who has been known to inspire fans by speaking out on what she believes in.
Here, we find out just how outspoken she is about motherhood, her beliefs, career aspirations and why her private life will remain private.
‘What is political is very personal’
We know Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, a Washington DC crisis manager in Scandal. And while her character might be used to fixing fictional political complications in the shadows, off-screen she uses her public platform to make sure her voice is heard, and points out that almost everything is political.
“You may not be thinking about politics, but politics is thinking about you,” the actress, who is a committed Democrat and who campaigned for the re-election of Barack Obama in 2012, maintains.
“For me, what is political is very personal,” the mother-of-one reflected in a magazine interview “Politics is 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.”
In line with this view, she is vocal about women’s rights and racial equality. “Today there are people trying to take away rights that our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers fought for: our right to vote, our right to choose, affordable quality education, equal pay, access to health care. We the people can’t let that happen,” Kerry said in a powerful Democratic National Convention speech on Threats to Women’s Rights in 2012.
She told the Hollywood Reporter, however, that her speech wasn’t received entirely enthusiastically, and she had felt the backlash via her show’s social media pages.
“I come from a family where people really participate in the democratic process. I don’t think that being an actor should prevent me from continuing to do the things I do. A lot of people fought for me to have the right as a woman to be able to participate, and as a person of colour, and so I don’t want my acting to get in the way of that.
“I do it as an American [but] after I spoke at the Democratic National Convention – our show has a very active life on Twitter and Facebook – I couldn’t go near any of it because there were threats to my life, sexism and racism. It was shocking that me speaking at a convention incited all this anger. Thank goodness for ‘block’ on Twitter!”
And her political beliefs even manage to cross over into her professional life, albeit unintentionally even if it is not completely deliberate.
“I don’t decide to play the characters I play as a political choice. Yet the characters I play often do become political statements. Because having your story told as a woman, as a person of colour… or as any member of any disenfranchised community is sadly often still a radical idea,” the Bronx-born actress said when accepting a Vanguard Award at a media awards event last year.
“There is so much power in storytelling and there is enormous power in inclusive storytelling and inclusive representations,” she concluded.
‘I will direct… eventually’
There is no doubt that the 39-year-old is her own biggest critic when it comes to her work and her potential. “I don’t think I’m even close to fulfilling my potential. And I think also that, unlike a pianist or a flutist, an actor has an instrument that is constantly changing,” Kerry has said.
Despite having a healthy, constant and varied career, on both the big and small screen, she doesn’t see her career ending with acting. Earlier in her career she alluded to her ambitions to write a screenplay. “My mum’s a retired professor, so I come from a very academic background. I love writing, you know – I got really exhausted from reading bad scripts and I know that I am a writer and that I have stories to tell, so I thought, ‘Let’s do this!’ So I’m co-writing a screenplay now with another screenwriter and loving it. Absolutely loving it,” she told a reporter.
This year, the George Washington University graduate proved she is not just a talented actress when she donned another hat in HBO Film’s Confirmation. Alongside the screenwriter, Susannah Grant, Kerry executive-produced the controversial film. Based on a true story, the film deals with the nomination hearings of Supreme Court Justice nominee Judge Clarence Thomas, whose suitability for the office was called into question by former colleague Anita Hill (played by Kerry) when she testified that he had sexually harassed her.
When asked about criticism that the film was anti-Republican, Kerry said, “It‘s not a propaganda movie. It’s a movie about complicated people in a really complex situation doing the best they could with the tools they had at the time.”
Kerry also had a hand in direction for rapper Common’s video for I Want You from his 2007 album Finding Forever, but it will be a few years before she does this again. “I don’t see [myself] directing for another 15 to 20 years,” she said later. “There’s so much that I want to do as an actor and as a producer in so many different mediums. You know, theatre, film, television, and my singing is really important to me, too. There’s so much that I want to do and directing is really about being able to organise a community of artists and I think I have a lot to learn and a lot of ways to grow in my own work before I start rallying the troops. But, yeah, definitely, eventually.”
Life away from the camera
Kerry is one of a growing group of actors who fiercely fight to keep their private life private.
What do we, the public, know about her personal life? The 39-year-old was engaged to actor David Moscow (best known for playing the young Josh Baskin in Big) from 2004 until 2007. In 2013 she married NFL player Nnamdi Asomugha, and together they have one daughter, Isabelle Amarachi, who turned two in April this year. But don’t expect to see photos of baby Isabelle all over gossip sites or social media.
“You know, I’m a really private person,” Kerry told celebrity news website Page Six when her little one was first born. “I feel like at some point you will [see her], but for now it is what it is.”
“I have these itchy fingers where I want to just show my daughter because she’s so cute and instead I send it to my shrink or send it to my mother,” Kerry said in a separate interview about showing off her daughter on social media.
“I’m like, ‘Look at this picture! Look how cute, look at this picture!’ Get it out of my phone, into the world, but not on social. So I get the desire to do that, but I want her to make her own decisions in her time and I feel like she already has a lot to navigate in life, being the daughter of an actor and a former football player, that she has a lot going on, so she should be able to enter this world when it feels right for her and not make that decision for her. Who knows what the next generation of Snapchat will be when she’s allowed to have a phone, you know? Who knows?”
The actress has also opened up about her hopes for her daughter saying, “I just want [Isabelle] to know that she’s heard… I feel like that is what we all really want.”
“I didn’t grow up thinking I was pretty; there was always a prettier girl than me… So I learned to be smart and tried to be funny and develop the inside of me, because I felt like that’s what I had,” she added.
“When I think about any of the missteps in my life that I’ve made, all of which I’m grateful for, it’s because I just so wanted to be truly seen and heard for who I am and was afraid I wasn’t or wouldn’t be. I see you, I hear you, I’m with you as you are.”
In the past few months, Kerry and Nnamdi have been hit with rumours of a possible separation, and Kerry stuck to her guns in standing up for her right to privacy once again in a recent chat with US Weekly. “If I don’t talk about my personal life, it means I don’t talk about my personal life,” she said. “That means not only did I not tell you when I was getting married, it also means if somebody has rumours about what’s going on in my marriage, I don’t refute them, because I don’t talk about my personal life.”
Ruling the red carpet
Kerry Washington is one of those rare stars who manages to avoid fashion fails while still taking risks. A few of her best looks include this black and white Versace gown at this year’s Academy Awards, an orange Prada dress at the 2014 Emmy Awards, and a shimmering number from Marc Jacobs at the 2015 Emmys.
Kerry consistently plays strong black women, from Anita Hill in Commitment, a slave in Django Unchained and a high-powered crisis manager in Scandal.
Protecting her privacy
While fame lets her rub shoulders with the likes of Julianne Moore, Isabel Lucas, Katie Holmes and Drew Barrymore, Kerry rejects the more negative side of celebrity, such as public intrusion into her private life, which she shares with daughter Isabelle and husband Nnamdi Asomugha.