Kerry Washington: From Scandal to star

The actress talks about her hit show, crisis management and working with Quentin Tarantino.

More people should watch Scandal, not for the rapid dialogue, hairpin plot twists and government sleaze, but for Kerry Washington.

The actress is so convincing as aggressive Washington D.C. political fixer Olivia Pope that I half expected her to sniff out my weaknesses over the phone and use them to control the interview.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Instead, Washington seemed genuinely touched by the fact that I dig her show.

Created by Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy), Scandal is based loosely on the career of former D.C. press aide-turned-crisis manager Judy Smith, who serves as a producer on the series.

The first season of the hour-long drama, which debuted this April on ABC, has just arrived as a two-disc DVD set. You’ll need it if you’re planning to tune in next season. In just seven episodes, Scandal covered enough salacious material to make the Drudge Report read like a nursery rhyme.

CL: First of all, I’m not a big TV-watcher, especially when it comes to serial drama-type shows, but I’m hooked on Scandal. I love it. It’s smart and juicy!

Thank you. Thank you. Those are the good vibes I like to hear.

I couldn’t stand to be left hanging after the finale.

It’s sort of a show that’s become appointment television for people. That’s why I think the (first season) DVD is really rewarding for fans. It has a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff. It even has footage from when we were auditioning, which is tremendously embarrassing for us, but for fans it’s terrific.

Your character on the show, Olivia Pope, is based on an actual woman with a crisis management firm in D.C. –– Judy Smith. Did you spend a lot of time together before filming began?

Judy is a producer on the show so she’s around a lot. She and I have actually become very good friends. I adore her. She’s been really helpful to everyone in understanding the way crisis management works. At some point, though, I had to remind myself that there’s a very significant difference between Judy Smith and Olivia Pope. Judy Smith’s personal life is really wonderful. Olivia Pope’s personal life is a little more complicated.

Because your character is sleeping with the president of the United States?

Oh, that’s sooo complicated. I think all the relationships in general are complicated. On top of that you’ve got infidelity and being involved with the leader of the free world...

Yeah, about that. Your affair with Tony Goldwyn (Goldwyn plays U.S. President Fitzgerald Grant) is so juicy, even when it’s not steamy. Those little scenes, like the one in Olivia’s apartment when the two of you curl up on the couch for a minute and say nothing to each other? It was so good it made my heart hurt.

It’s funny because so often when you’re doing a scene with another actor, you’re looking at them and witnessing their work. When you watch the scene, there’s nothing that surprises you because you’ve already experienced it. In that scene where we snuggled, it was just as moving for me the first time I saw it because I wasn’t aware of the intensity and emotion on Tony’s face. It was a very moving surprise.

Is there more pressure to perform when you’re playing a character that’s based on an actual person?

This isn’t the first time I’ve played a real person. In Ray, I played Ray Charles’ wife, Della Bea Robinson and Idi Amin’s wife (in The Last King of Scotland). But with Olivia Pope it’s different. I feel like it’s the first time I’m playing someone who could destroy my life and reputation. Judy Smith is such a powerful fixer. If I don’t get it right, it could be really bad for me.

Like if you screw this up you’ll never get work in Hollywood?

(Laughs.) Like suddenly I’ll never be able to get a credit line ever again. You just don’t know the limits of this woman’s power.

Are you anything like Olivia Pope?

Not really.

C’mon. We all have our bulldog moments. When’s the last time you had to be a hardass?

Um. Uh. Yeah. I can’t really think of a time right now. I’m sure it happens. We all have our moments and people we stand up for, but I think my character has much more access and power than I do. Certainly the way she wields her influence and power is different.

Were you a fan of Grey’s Anatomy before you signed on to do Scandal?

I was actually. Funny enough, I re-engaged with television when I was doing David Mamet’s Race on Broadway. I was having a really hard time coming down from the play. It ends on such a high, intense adrenaline moment. I couldn’t even sit and read at night because my brain and body were buzzing from the show. So my friends suggested I start recording some TV shows. For an hour or two every night, I’d sit and unwind by watching Grey’s Anatomy.

It used to be that TV actors stuck to TV, film actors stuck to movies and stage actors stuck to the stage. This is not the case anymore. You seamlessly slide between all three. Do you prefer one platform to the other?

No. I’ve always enjoyed bouncing around. I feel it keeps me on my toes. The different media require different approaches and techniques. I’m able to flex different muscles when I go from TV, to the stage, to film. I thrive in diversity. I hope to continue my career that way. It keeps me fresh.

I just saw the trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. You play Jamie Foxx’s wife in the pre-Civil War south. What has the experience been like so far?

We’re still shooting, so it’s tricky to talk about something I’m still doing. I don’t have an objective take on it yet. It’s been a pretty profound experience working with this director and these actors (Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson). My character couldn’t be more different than Olivia Pope. She’s not even considered a human being according to the U.S. Constitution.

Is life on the set of a Tarantino flick as exciting as it seems? Or has this shoot been tough?

I would say it’s been both. Quentin runs a really fun set. The material has been very difficult emotionally and psychology … wait a minute … hold on one sec …

(A person yells something loudly in the background. Washington yells something back. There’s a loud rustling noise and a bang.)

Everything OK?

Yeah. This person driving by was telling me my door wasn’t closed.

Are you driving around Los Angeles?

Yeah.

While talking on the phone with your car door open?

Yeah. And that person just freaked out when they realized they were talking to Kerry Washington.

Heidi Kurpiela is the award-winning Arts & Entertainment Editor for the Sarasota Observer and an avid blogger. Catch up with her work at whilemyboyfriendwassleeping.com.

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