Wednesday 11 December 2019

Kerry's Kingdom: Kerry Washington - a secret no longer

Once Hollywood's Best kept secret, Kerry Washington talks to Stephen Milton about losing her privacy. and those 
rumours she flirted her way into a white house ban

Kerry Washington
Kerry Washington
Smouldering: Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in Scandal.

Insider is fascinated by those lips. Inordinately plump with a mere hint of a cupid's bow, there's no wonder this face has sold both movies and beauty products.

It's no surprise the screen came a-calling even though Kerry's background is academic - no two ways about it, she is coquettish. She's sexy and she knows it.

"You know, I was named after County Kerry," she proudly reveals, giddy.

"I was named in the 1970s when African Americans were choosing these very Afrocentric, 'black is beautiful' names for their children.

"And my mother wasn't really into that idea. She's of mixed heritage; black, English, Irish, Scottish and read somewhere that Kerry means 'dark' in Gaelic. So it was her way of honouring all of it. To be like 'dark little, dark one', but also honouring her European connection."

It's a typified response throughout our chat; verbose, laden with emphasis, but there's an undeniable charm. Oh, and I'm totally mesmerised by her imperial poise.

Little wonder she was one of only two honorees this year to land a spot on both People's Most Beautiful list alongside Time's Most Influential.

The other recipient was Beyoncé.

"They are two amazing accolades but the People magazine list, it's timed for when actors have stuff coming out. I've been on that list and then not the following year and then, the year later, back on it again. And I'm like, 'Did I have a bad hair year?'"

Beautifully influential and influentially beautiful. It's a potent mix for an actress who was once called Hollywood's Best Kept Secret.

Graduating from George Washington University with top honours in anthropology and sociology and serving on Obama's committee for arts and humanities, Kerry (37) has crafted a character-fuelled repertoire, resistant of all trace of pattern and trend.

As Chenille in Save the Last Dance, she was hapless Julia Stiles' astute high school sage. Then came a smattering of blockbuster tidings; supportive fare in Mr and Mrs Smith and the previous Fantastic Four franchise.

Breakthrough came with Della, wife of Ray Charles, in Jamie Foxx's award-sweeping tour de force, followed closely by Kay, wife of Forest Whitaker's Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.

Both of her on-screen spouses won Oscars for their biopic portrayals, signifying the facing strength Washington offers her leading men.

Still, the New York raised daughter of Bronx-based professionals - Earl, a real estate broker, and Valerie, a professor of early primary education - remained noticeably off the radar.

"Someone asked me recently, 'you've spent most of your career being a great character actor where you disappear into these roles'. Like, 'oh that's the girl who's in The Last King of Scotland, who's in Ray, who's in Save the Last Dance'. But never actually knowing it was the same person.

"It allows me to maintain a great deal of privacy."

She pauses and smiles. "Although, as of late, that's changed."

A 'two-head punch', as she calls it, is ultimately responsible; Tarantino's Django Unchained, playing opposite Foxx again as enslaved beloved Broomhilda, and the lead in ABC's Scandal, a sharp, glossed-out melodrama from the Midas pen of Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes.

"I don't even know when it happened. Somewhere in between there was this hype around Django as people were watching Scandal. It came like a wave."

Offering a cynical glimpse into the underhanded exploits of a hyper-politicised Capitol Hill, Washington is Olivia Pope - an unflappable DC crisis management fixer with a killer wardrobe, a chequered past and a metal hide. Oh yes , and she's also sleeping with the President of the United States, played to suave aplomb by Tony Goldwyn.

Based loosely on the professional machinations of Dubya's former crisis aide, Judy Smith, the shiny-tressed commander of Pope and Associates solves the niggling problems of DC's elite - a politico with a dead prostitute in his bed; a politico with gay rumour issues; a politico who's rigged an election.

"With my position on President Obama's arts and humanities committee, the culture of the show in DC is a world that I understand. But the world of crisis management is a whole other ball game.

"I love that it's really this peek behind this curtain - what the most powerful people in world do when they get in trouble?"

Considering her close bond with the Obamas, do they relate?

"I've never asked them specifically, because I wouldn't want to put them on the spot and I could only imagine the press spin on that, no matter the response."

A rumour once circulated that the First Lady has banned Washington, married to NFL cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, father of their three-month-old, Isabelle, from the White House for getting a little 'too flirty' with the President.

"I remember reading that and thinking, 'that sounds very familiar. That sounds like a show I'm on'," chuckles the actress, casually chic in a white shirt and black trousers. "Which is great. It's like the ultimate compliment."

Amassing viewers of seven million in its first season and growing to nearly 11 million for recent third series - which lands on Sky Atlantic next week - Scandal is one of ABC's breakout new hits of the last few years. Fans have branded themselves Gladiators, after Pope asks a joining intern of the firm, 'Do you want to be a gladiator in a suit?'

A string of sites are dedicated to her sartorial fashion statements. Vogue unanimously approves - Pope is like a Carrie Bradshaw figure. without the narcissism.

And like SJP, Washington is now a fashion favourite. "There was a time when wearing a power suit meant looking like a man and Olivia is very feminine but very strong. Sexy, but doesn't traffic in her sexuality. She's not using her sexuality to manipulate, but she's not afraid to be a beautiful woman."

Largely responsible for Kerry's place on Time's Influential List, Olivia is consequently deemed a fitting role model for millions - and possibly, for her own daughter someday.

The actress, recently nominated for a second Emmy, subtly purses those pneumatic lips.

"I made a decision many years ago, after a not so great experience [posing for the cover of bridal title InStyle Weddings in 2005, shortly before the breakdown of her engagement to actor David Moscow] I just don't talk about that part of my life."

Is it becoming increasingly difficult to avoid matters of a personal nature given her ascending star, Insider asks? "I'm a private person and like to be consistent. It's something I won't change my mind on."

Much has been made of Scandal's ground-breaking profile - as the first primetime series with an African American woman as the lead protagonist.

"She's the first African American female lead of drama," corrects the star. "There've been comedies, half hours but of a drama, yes, Olivia is the first.

"And I think it's shocking to people that it hasn't happened in 40 years. There's never been a woman of colour who's won best actress for an Emmy in the United States either. I mean, there've been lots nominated but never won."

Nominated in the contentious category, could she shatter another glass ceiling this year? "You've also got some amazing actresses in there. I like to daydream of course. Who doesn't, it's fun!"

With celebrity coming relatively late for Washington, have the lists, the fashion icon status and the growing interest into her personal affairs, changed her outlook on life?

"Yes," she mocks ruefully, "I'm awful. I'm terrible to be around.

"But no, I have great family and friends who hold me accountable for my behaviour and I'm very lucky for that. And if all of that fails, I have a great shrink. You've got to have a great shrink."

Scandal begins on July 31 on Sky Living

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent
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