Looking for a female TV character who’s as fierce in her work life as she is in her (messy) love life? It’s been handled. As D.C. “fixer” Olivia Pope on ABC’s Scandal, Kerry Washington — building on a career that has included Oscar-winning films such as Ray and Django Unchained — stands in the eye of a pop culture storm, fronting a show that drops jaws with astounding frequency, makes Twitter all atwitter and offers, at long last, a chance for a black woman to win a lead drama actress Emmy.
TVLINE | You’ve said that your decision was not so much to do TV, but to do a Shonda Rhimes show.
Even more so, my decision was to do this show. When I read the script, I was so blown away. And knowing that this [was a Rhimes production] reinforced the idea that this could be a really amazing opportunity.
TVLINE | With your first full season behind you, how has the product met the promise?
Gosh…. I will just say that the level of excellence that the people around me produce on a daily basis continues to astound me — the writing that I’m able to hold in my hands week after week, the level of acting I’m surrounded by. Every member of crew, the cinematographers, the costume design…. All of it feels like a magical product to be a part of.
TVLINE | What do you think Shonda is doing that activates viewers so much?
One of the reasons we [on the cast] like to live-tweet the show is because when we are online with our “gladiators,” the viewers, we get to see from them exactly what we went through at our table reads. We have gasps and screams and cries of shock and awe, and weeks later the audience is having the same reactions. People are responding to how unpredictable this show is. [Also,] Shonda is not writing the typical archetype of good guy/bad guy; that is part of why you never know whom to trust.
TVLINE | After the election-rigging was revealed to President Grant, Olivia succumbed to multiple and varying degrees of breakdowns. Is it somewhat of an actor’s dream to tear a character down and build them up again?
That duality, being able to figure out how to play a character who can be so fierce in one setting and so vulnerable in another, is a challenge. But it’s an exciting one.
TVLINE | Did you by chance take issue with the message the show put out there this season, that love should be “painful, difficult and devastating”?
I struggled with that line. I remember asking Shonda, “Are all of those words exactly what we want to be saying?” I was sort of on board with some of them, but not sure about others. She was like, “Yep,” so I just had to wrap my head around that.
TVLINE | Some choose to view your success through the lens of being among the first African-American actresses to star in a hit TV drama. Do you lament there is still that distinction to be made, in 2013? Or do you welcome the opportunity to flag it?
It’s a balance. Like I said in [a New York Times] interview, I feel very proud that we live in a world where this show can be a success, so I think it’s worth noting the progress of that, for all of us to claim and all of us to take responsibility for. We’ve created a place where a black woman can be at the front of the show, but a lot of our success is in how strong of an ensemble show it is, that so many people can see themselves in it. We have a lead male who’s Latin. We have two black men. There’s older people, there’s younger people. There’s a strong gay character. I look forward to the day when a show like Scandal is a success and it’s not newsworthy. We’re not there yet, but we’ll get there.
TVLINE | Do you think about the significance of possibly earning an Emmy for this role?
I’ve been on the award campaign train several times in my career, with the success of The Last King of Scotland and Ray and Django [Unchained]…. Jamie Foxx and I joke about it, what happens to people when they’re “chasing Oscar.” So, I try not to think about my work leaning toward that goal. But it’s interesting that television and the Emmys have been around this long, and [a black woman winning Lead Actress in a Drama] has never happened. I mean, I was just beginning to have a career when Halle Berry [won an Oscar for Best Actress] — and not just [as the first] black woman, but a woman of color.
TVLINE | Over the past year, you’ve been out there significantly engaging in the real world’s political conversation….
What’s funny is that I’ve always done that kind of work. Tony Goldwyn and I used to trek through the Hall of Congress asking for or defending funding for National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for Humanities, with organizations like Americans for the Arts and the Creative Coalition….
TVLINE | But now you’re speaking at the Democratic National Convention and being cut to for reaction shots at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
Right. Right. I just think it’s important for me to be clear that I don’t engage politically because I’m in the public eye. I actually made a promise to myself early on that I would not stop because I was in the public eye, because I feel like it’s my responsibility as an American to be engaged. If my participation encourages other people to participate, no matter what party, I’m glad. America works when all of us have a seat at the table.
TVLINE | Your college major combined theater with anthropology and sociology. How did that inform your skill set?
My mother’s a professor, so the idea of research is something that I grew up around. One of the things I love most about acting are those moments, that don’t happen every day, when you really, truly do something raw in a moment and you forget who you are. When you in the moment disconnect to the extent that you go into an alternate reality. When that happens, it’s bliss. The other thing that I really love is the research — pulling articles, learning things, interviewing people and then you study, study, study, from an anthropological perspective. [In] preparation for [Season 1's] “The Trail,” Tony, Jeff [Perry] and I watched The War Room, that documentary with George Stephanopolous. I mean, we studied that. That’s the kind of stuff that I love.
TVLINE | Is there an actor you looked up to as you embarked on your career?
The actors I that I loved — not even “looked up to,” because I didn’t think I was going to be an actor in any way — were the ones who did comedy and drama, people who worked on the stage and film and television. People like Julie Andrews, Rita Moreno, Diahann Carroll, Barbra Streisand, women who were never limited by just doing movies or just being actors. That’s been a part of their longevity.
TVLINE | And if you could give Olivia Pope one piece of advice, what would it be?
I might refer her to a couple great therapists. [Laughs] I think Olivia does really well, but I wonder how things would be different if she had a really great shrink in her life. It would probably be a lot less interesting!
This story first appeared in the pages of TVLine’s print sibling Awards|Line. The specialty Awards|Line editions canvass various facets of the Emmy and motion pictures awards season including deep coverage, analysis and interviews with the leading contenders and industry players.