Matt Webb Mitovich editor at large of TVLine and an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the June 5 issue of AwardsLine.
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 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.
You have 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 blown away. And knowing that this (was a Rhimes production) reinforced the idea that this could be a really amazing opportunity.
With your first full season behind you, how has the product met the promise?
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, the level of acting I’m surrounded by, the cinematographers, the costume design—all of it feels like a magical product.
What is Rhimes 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—the gasps and screams and cries of shock and awe. 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.
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. I feel very proud that we live in a world where this show can be a success, so I think it’s worth noting that progress 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 it is, and so many people can see themselves in it. We have a lead male who’s Latin. We have two black men. 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.
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 a lead drama actress Emmy) has never happened. I was just beginning to have a career when Halle Berry (won a best actress Oscar)—and not just (as the first) black woman, but a woman of color.
Over the past year, you’ve been seen significantly engaging in the real world’s political conversation.
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, because that’s democracy.
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 truly do something raw and you forget who you are. That’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.
Is there an actor you looked up to as you embarked on your career?
The actors 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 a part of their longevity.
And if you could give Olivia Pope one piece of advice…
I wonder how things would be different if she had a really great shrink in her life. It’d probably be a lot less interesting!