kccu

'She Wrote Her Own Rules': Kerry Washington's 'Little Fires' Role Reminds Her Of Mom

Apr 6, 2020
Originally published on April 6, 2020 2:59 pm

Growing up in the Bronx as the only child of an academic and a real estate broker, actor Kerry Washington remembers her family had two cars and a dishwasher in their apartment — which meant, "in my neighborhood, in my context, we were rich."

And then Washington went to middle school — specifically Spence, an elite private school on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "Suddenly," she says, "I was in math class with girls who had helipads on their Hamptons estates, or where elevator doors open into their apartments, or where they were flying first class to go on family vacations or flying private."

Washington says the culture at Spence gave her an early exposure to code switching — and ignited her interest in acting. "Not that I was acting my way through junior high school and high school," she says, "but I did start to realize that you could shift perception of who you are by taking on different characteristics in the world."

The experience of being an outsider — and challenging people's notions about her race, class and gender — is something that Washington draws on in the Hulu series Little Fires Everywhere. Her character, Mia Warren is a bohemian single mother who is adjusting to life in suburban Ohio. Washington co-produced the series with co-star Reese Witherspoon.


Interview Highlights

On how author Celeste Ng left Mia Warren's race ambiguous in her novel

I think the novel is so much about identity and how the roles and the context of our identity contributes to how we live and relate to others in the world. So we knew that adding this layer of race would add to that complexity in an exciting way. And then when I met Celeste Ng, the writer, for the first time, she actually admitted to me that she had always thought of Mia as a woman of color, and that she had been drawn to the idea of writing Mia as a black woman. But she didn't feel like she had the authoritative voice to do that in the right way. And so she was kind of vague about her race in the novel. So it was exciting that we were in step with Celeste in diving into the places where she wanted to to grow out the book in ways that already lived in her.

On drawing inspiration from her own mother to play the role of Mia

I think there's so much of my mom in Mia. ... One of the things I witnessed growing up was that my mom was very aware — as a black woman, as an academic, as the daughter of immigrants — she was aware of the assumptions that people would make about her, and she would play with those assumptions. Not in an aggressive way, but she liked to watch people try to figure her out and she liked to not fit into a box.

My mom didn't always feel the need to always make a situation comfortable for somebody else. - Kerry Washington

My mom is not somebody who has ever really fit into anybody else's box, even in terms of the performance of racial identity, or her hobbies, or interests, or how she parented me. A lot like Mia, she wrote her own rules when she was raising me. I remember a lot of her peers were shocked that she never hit me. I was never spanked. I think I was grounded once. There were different approaches to life. My mom didn't always feel the need to always make a situation comfortable for somebody else. ...

She was from the South Bronx, and [if] that made the other moms, who were living on Park Avenue ... uncomfortable, she let it make them uncomfortable. ... As a teacher, she also knew that that was a learning opportunity for them. If she walked into the school in a fur coat and spoke the Queen's English and came across as the academic that she was ... that other mother was going to learn something about her own assumptions and prejudices and biases. And my mom let her have that learning opportunity.

On why she named her production company Simpson Street, after the street where her mother grew up

Simpson Street is, as much as it's a street, it's also, like, a land in my imagination, because as kids we would hear stories about Simpson Street, about what things were like on Simpson Street, or what they did on Simpson Street. And so I think it's also about the story of my family, which is very much also the story of an American dream.

My mom's parents were immigrants who came to this country from Jamaica, and they were supers in their building in order to not pay rent. My mom was one of seven kids. They worked really hard in the building and also held other jobs. My grandmother cleaned homes on Park Avenue and my grandfather worked out at the piers as a watchman. I guess it was in some ways a nod to both my mom and dad having these legacies of sort of hard-working American dreams and wanting to make room for all of our stories in this country, in this global society.

On being cast as the Washington, D.C., crisis manager Olivia Pope on the ABC series Scandal

I was around 34, 35 at the time ... [and] in my lifetime, I had never seen a network drama with a black woman as the lead. So this was a highly coveted role. And [showrunner] Shonda [Rhimes], really, she says she saw almost every black actress in Hollywood between the ages of 19 and 60. She really wanted to give everybody a shot. ... So when I read the script, I thought, this is mine. It felt like it was written for me. It brought together so many of my worlds and so much of my life experience working in Washington, working on the campaigns. I really felt like I was born to play her. But there were, like, 20 other actresses who felt the same way. So there were a series of auditions, several auditions, and first I had a meeting with Shonda, and then several auditions, and eventually I really had the privilege of being able to take this on.

On being a founding member of Time's Up, an initiative aimed at combating sexual harassment inside and outside of the entertainment industry

When there were a lot of women coming forward in the entertainment industry, there was this incredible act of grace where the women of the Farmworkers Alliance wrote an open letter in Time magazine thanking women and entertainment for coming forward. When a lot of the world was saying, like, who cares about these actresses? Who cares about these privileged people? The women and the Farmworkers Alliance came forward and said: You are our storytellers, and you have a pedestal and a voice that people listen to and you are calling out injustices that happen to us and happened to women in all industries.

And that letter was really an invitation for us to step up and try to create a movement that embraced all women in all industries. That act of gratitude toward us was really an invitation for us to create a movement that could embrace all women in all industries.

I was invited into the movement by other women who are friends of mine who were doing the work, who were at these meetings. ... We were still filming Scandal at the time and I was working 16 hour days. But I started getting text messages from Rashida Jones, and Eva Longoria, and Reese Witherspoon saying: There are these meetings happening and you need to be there. We need your voice and we want your input. And we know you would want to be there. And so I went, and they were right.

On her memory of Anita Hill's testimony about sexual harassment at Clarence Thomas' 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and how that memory informed her approach to playing Hill in the HBO movie Confirmation

I remember really distinctly when the hearings happened, because it was one of the first times that I really saw my parents disagree on a social political issue. Usually my parents were really in agreement around issues having to do with money or politics or black identity. But because of intersectionality, this was a moment where I watched my mom and dad process this experience very differently as a black woman and a black man. And it was disturbing to me. I'll never forget it, because it really made me question who was in the right. ...

I think Anita Hill is such a hero, and I wanted to be able to explore — for both characters, for both Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill — what was at stake for them and what it cost them. And in particular, because Clarence Thomas, I think, is often perceived as the winner in that situation, because he got to have his seat on the Supreme Court, but Anita Hill transformed society. She changed the shape of Congress and gave us language for sexual harassment — really transformed our cultural practices in this country. So I wanted to be able to shine a light on that as well.

On how she's coping in this time of COVID-19

I'm keeping my spirits up with a lot of prayer, and I'm doing some meditation, which is something I always want to be doing. (And by some meditation, I mean three minutes a day.) ... When I hear about loss — people, friends and loved ones of friends that are sick and dying — to try to just continue to express love and support and stay connected to each other.

It's a really scary time, so I've been trying to figure out how to not ignore my fear, but also practice acts of faith, in order to engender more faith and just kind of hold onto that space for myself and my family and my loved ones and people I get to share my day with, like you.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. One of the new shows people are streaming in this stay-at-home COVID era is "Little Fires Everywhere," starring my guest, Kerry Washington. She produced it with Reese Witherspoon, who also stars. It's adapted from the bestselling novel by Celeste Ng. Washington also starred in the hit ABC series "Scandal" as a political fixer who has a crisis management firm and is having an affair with the president of the United States. Kerry also played Anita Hill in the HBO movie "Confirmation" and played a slave named Hildi in Quentin Tarantino's film "Django Unchained." Along with Reese Witherspoon, Washington is a founding member of Time's Up, the movement of women working for gender equality and opposing sexual harassment. She also served on President Obama's Council on the Arts and Humanities and worked on both of his campaigns.

Let's start with a clip from "Little Fires Everywhere," which is streaming on Hulu. Reese Witherspoon plays Elena, a part-time journalist who lives with her husband and their four children in a wealthy section of Shaker Heights in Cleveland. One day she sees a stranger - Washington's character, Mia - asleep in a car with Mia's teenage daughter. Assuming this woman and her child are homeless, Elena calls the police. Soon after, Mia responds to an ad for an apartment for rent. It turns out the woman renting it is Elena. Feeling guilty about calling the police on Mia, Elena rents the place to Mia and eventually offers her a job as her house manager. But when Elena calls one of Mia's references, Mia's previous landlord, he says he's never heard of Mia. So Elena does a criminal background check on Mia, and then Mia finds out. In this scene, it's evening. And Reese Witherspoon is at her home, and Mia is still there working.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE")

REESE WITHERSPOON: (As Elena) You really didn't have to say this late.

KERRY WASHINGTON: (As Mia) I need to talk to you. I saw your fax machine, the criminal record check.

WITHERSPOON: (As Elena) Oh, OK. Well, I feel terrible. But you were coming to work in the house, and I always trust my instincts.

WASHINGTON: (As Mia) I did lie. I had to break my last lease because I couldn't find a month-to-month apartment, so I put down a fake reference. And when you called me on it, I made my boss at Lucky Palace call you. I'm sorry. I've never been arrested. I'm not a criminal. But a lot of landlords, when they see a single black mom, they don't want to rent to me. But you did because you're different, and I should have seen that and just been honest. So I understand if you're not comfortable having me work here anymore. I do.

WITHERSPOON: (As Elena) Why don't we have a glass of wine?

WASHINGTON: (As Mia) OK.

GROSS: Kerry Washington, welcome to FRESH AIR. How are you? How is your family?

WASHINGTON: Oh, thank you for asking. It's a real honor to be chatting with you from my bedroom.

(LAUGHTER)

WASHINGTON: But...

GROSS: I'm at my kitchen table.

WASHINGTON: (Laughter) But we're OK. We're all OK as of now. And teaching at home, homeschooling - it's just a new world. And I know how blessed I am to have a home and to be able to be at home safely with my family right now in this world where we're all navigating exposure. It's a new balancing act, for sure, for a lot of working parents.

GROSS: Well, let me ask you about your new series, "Little Fires Everywhere," on Hulu. You know, in the novel that it's adapted from, the race or ethnicity of your character isn't mentioned. So when you and Reese Witherspoon decided to produce and star in this, how did race change the story and the subtext of the story?

WASHINGTON: It wasn't my idea to make Mia black. I didn't cast myself in the role. It was Reese Witherspoon's idea and Lauren Neustadter, her producing partner. They had the idea to call me up and send me the book and ask me if I wanted to do it. And I thought it was an amazing idea. Of course, when I read it, I was reading it through the lens of Mia being black because I'm black. I think the novel is so much about identity and how the roles and the context of our identity contributes to how we live and relate to others in the world. So we knew that adding this layer of race would add to that complexity in an exciting way.

And then when I met Celeste Ng, the writer, for the first time, she actually admitted to me that she had always thought of Mia as a woman of color and that she had been drawn to the idea of writing Mia as a black woman. But she didn't feel like she had the authoritative voice to do that in the right way, and so she was kind of vague about her race in the novel. So it was exciting that we were even in step with Celeste in diving into the places where she wanted to grow out the book in ways that already lived in her.

GROSS: The story is set in the '90s, and Reese Witherspoon's character lives in a privileged bubble and prides herself on being colorblind, which she isn't, really. But how has the idea of colorblind changed? Like, how does colorblind sound to you today?

WASHINGTON: I think we all - many of us - thought about being colorblind in the '90s - maybe less so people of color (laughter) - because it was, like, admirable that you could see beyond someone's race and to see them as just a human being. But when I hear it now - I think, you know, part of who I am as a human being is that I'm a woman, I'm from New York, I'm an Aquarius, and I'm black. I'm also African American. Like, those are all distinct qualities that contribute to what I have to offer in a room.

GROSS: Your character's very observant but reveals very little about herself, and I assume that's out of self-protection. When she doesn't trust somebody, she's very careful on how she talks with them. She's very careful to not reveal much, and language becomes inexpressive and more of a barrier than a way of really communicating. You've said that, in some ways, you drew on your mother for that because when people asked your mother where she was from, your mother could say New York City or the Bronx or the South Bronx (laughter) depending on who the person was and how your mother wanted to be perceived. Can you talk about that a little bit?

WASHINGTON: Sure. I think there's so much of my mom in Mia. There is so much of my mother in Mia. And at some point in the preproduction process, actually, Reese and I, we were looking at some costume boards that Lyn Paolo had put together for the teenagers. And we were saying, like, oh, I had those shoes, and I had that shirt. And it dawned on us rather late in the process, I have to admit - it dawned on us that we were playing our mothers because we were both teenagers in the '90s. And when I had that realization, it was like a door opened for how I could bring this character to life. And I realized that I really was being invited to step into my mother's shoes in a lot of ways.

And one of the things I witnessed growing up was that my mom was very aware - as a black woman, as an academic, as the daughter of immigrants, she was aware of the assumptions that people would make about her, and she would play with those assumptions. She would - not in an aggressive way, but she liked to watch people try to figure her out. And she liked to not fit into a box. My mom is not somebody who has ever really fit into anybody else's box even in terms of, like, her - the performance of racial identity or her hobbies or interests or how she parented me. A lot like Mia, she wrote her own rules when she was raising me. I remember, like, a lot of her peers would - were shocked that she never hit me. I was never spanked. I think I was grounded once. There were just, like, different - there were different approaches to life.

My mom didn't always feel the need to always make a situation comfortable for somebody else. If her answer was that she was from the South Bronx and that made the other moms, who were living on Park Avenue - because I went to a private school in New York. If that made - if that answer made them uncomfortable, she let it make them uncomfortable, I think because as a teacher, she also knew that that was a learning opportunity for them. If she walked into the school in a fur coat and spoke the Queen's English and came across as the academic that she was and then the response to where am I from is the South Bronx, that other mother was going to learn something about her own assumptions and prejudices and biases. And my mom let her have that learning opportunity.

GROSS: How did she talk to you?

WASHINGTON: Well, my mom is an educator. So I think, again, like, you know, there were lots of teaching moments that she let me have. Or there were, like, tricks, you know? I think I was much older than I should have been before I learned that trunks didn't make a loud noise when they closed because there were always lots of kids around - cousins and friends - piling in and out of cars. And so my mom would say, everybody, close your ears. It's going to make a loud noise when I close the trunk. And later on, I learned, like, oh, that's just so that nobody's hand got slammed in the trunk, right? Like, she told us to cover our ears so that all hands would be accounted for. So, you know, there were ways that she was teaching and taking care of us that weren't always completely transparent.

But my mother is an extremely warm person. She's a reserved person. She doesn't - she's not very emotionally expressive, I think, in some ways. Like, she used to joke that she worked very hard in life to learn how to not have feelings. And then I came along, and I'm just like - I was like a walking feeling, just, like, an id with legs walking around as a child. But again, my mother's warmth - even though she may not have been herself emotionally expressive and able to, like, meet me where I was, she quickly realized that she had to find an outlet for me. And so I was thrown into children's theater companies, where I could be emotionally expressive and have those big feelings in a place where it could be embraced.

GROSS: When she had you go to, like, a drama club or drama school so that you could express yourself emotionally, did you love it right away?

WASHINGTON: No. I had a lot of stage fright. I loved being part of a community of artists. Like, that's what I always loved about theater companies. And I loved getting lost in the storytelling. I didn't really love, like, performing in front of people (laughter). Like, I was nervous about the part - when it felt like it was me onstage, I was nervous. When it felt like it was a team of people onstage or it felt like I was another character onstage, then there was, like, real comfort.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kerry Washington. And she's starring in the new series "Little Fires Everywhere," which is now streaming on Hulu. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMY RIGBY SONG, "PLAYING PITTSBURGH")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Kerry Washington. She stars with Reese Witherspoon in the new series "Little Fires Everywhere," which is streaming on Hulu. Washington and Witherspoon also produced the series.

You said that at some point, you realized you were playing your mother in "Little Fires Everywhere" because it's set in the '90s, when you were a teenager, the same age as the children in the story. And in the story, your teenage daughter, who resents you for moving all the time from one place to another - now she has to enroll in a new school again. And because it's a kind of upper-class school, she's - and she's the newcomer and she's African American, there's a lot of assumptions being made about her. You went to a private high school in New York that, you know, was a pretty elite school. Did you experience that kind of thing? Do you relate to what your character's daughter is going through in the series?

WASHINGTON: Yeah, there was so much that I related to. And Lexi - you know, we were filming this scene, and this is both in filming and editing we were having this conversation. When Lexi first walks into the Richardson household and she is taking in this kind of picture-perfect Shaker home with the mom who's baking cookies and the chandelier in the entryway, there was the belief among some members of our producing team that this was, like, a cheerful, happy moment, where the music should be upbeat, where she was being exposed to, like, a magical wonderland of perfection that she'd never witnessed before.

And I was really grateful to be part of the producing team at so many moments of the show. But that's one that will stick with me for a long time because what I got to share with my fellow producers was - I remember distinctly the moment that I was standing in an elevator in an apartment building. And where I come from, you know, in the building that I grew up in in the Bronx, when the elevator door opens, there is, like, 20 apartments. And like most apartment buildings, you walk off the elevator, and you find your apartment.

And I remember what it felt like to stand on an elevator and the first time those elevator doors opened and that was the apartment, that the entire floor of the building belonged to one family. And I remember it because it was such a complicated feeling for me. I did feel awed and mystified and impressed, but I also felt betrayed and confused and angry because I didn't know anyone who lived this way. I had never seen anybody who lived this way, and nobody that I knew who looked like me lived this way.

And so it was as if there was a different society - mostly white people, wealthy white people - who were allowed to live a different quality of life that I didn't even know existed. I didn't even know to aim for it because I didn't even know it was possible. And so that ignited in me a real complexity of emotions, and I remember hiding those emotions from the friends I was with because if I had expressed any of that, I would have identified myself as other in that moment. And so those feelings I wanted to capture for Lexi in that moment.

GROSS: So you grew up in the Bronx, and you went to this private school in Manhattan. Compare what the neighborhoods were like or what the culture of the school was like compared to your neighborhood.

WASHINGTON: The neighborhood I grew up in in the Bronx was a working middle-class neighborhood, but we were definitely, like - we were perceived as a more well-off family because we had two cars, we had a dishwasher in our apartment. My parents bought a cabin in upstate New York when I was in elementary school. Before that, we used to rent homes out in Long Island in the summer. So we were, like, a really - in my neighborhood, in my context, we were rich. And then I went to Spence, and I was...

GROSS: That's the school. That's the name of the school.

WASHINGTON: Yeah, I went to Spence, and - which is a fancy school on the Upper East Side. It's where Gwyneth Paltrow went as well. And suddenly, I was in math class with girls who had helipads on their Hampton estates or where elevator doors opened into their apartments or where they were flying first class to go on family vacations or flying private. And so it was a real culture change for me, and I think in some ways, it was when I started to realize that we express identity through lots of different cultural symbols - right? - that, like, how we walk and how we dress and how we talk - these are all identifiers of who we are.

And so I think it was, you know, that early exposure to code-shifting I think was the beginning of my interest in acting in some way. And not that I was acting my way through junior high school and high school, but I did start to realize that you could shift perception of who you are by taking on different characteristics in the world.

GROSS: So can you think of an example of code-switching when you were living in the Bronx and going to high school on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, in a private school?

WASHINGTON: Yeah. I mean, I think even today, if I'm on - and this was really pronounced in high school. But even today, if I'm on the phone with my cousins from the Bronx (laughter) and I get off the phone, you can immediately tell that I was talking to them because this - you know, I take on more of that sound and rhythm of just, you know, that girl from the Bronx who's says, no, that's what I mean. That's what I told her. I told her to go to the store, and she didn't go. And she should have gone, right? Like, so there's a different way than if I'm hanging with family than this kind of media talk that I'm talking with you, which - I think I'm trying in this interview to bring my, like, most purest, not code-switching into anything because that's what I try to do in these sort of situations. But I know also that if this was an interview with BET as opposed to NPR that there would be a different tone to how I was talking, and that was really pronounced in high school.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. I'm not surprised to hear that the tone would be different. I mean, I hear code-switching all the time, and I think we all do it to one degree or another.

WASHINGTON: For sure.

GROSS: Yeah.

WASHINGTON: And one of my favorite Terry Gross moments ever (laughter)...

GROSS: Yes?

WASHINGTON: ...That we talk about a lot with friends because it's just so great is - you know, there's this thing in the black community where you just say at the end of a sentence, you know what I'm saying? And we say it a lot. Like, so that's where I went, you know what I'm saying? And you had an interview with Lizzo where she said that at the end of a sentence, and you said, I do know what you're saying. And it was my most favorite Terry Gross moment of all time.

GROSS: Did I sound very clueless when I said that?

WASHINGTON: No, it was fantastic because it was like - no, you really - it was very real. It was very real. I thought, we should say that to each other more often. We're constantly saying, do you know what I'm saying? And nobody gets affirmed that we are hearing each other (laughter).

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and joining us from her home, from her bedroom by phone is Kerry Washington. She's starring in the new series "Little Fires Everywhere," which is streaming on Hulu. We'll talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN PATERSON'S "LUCKY SOUTHERN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Kerry Washington, who's now starring in the new series "Little Fires Everywhere," which is streaming on Hulu. It also stars Reese Witherspoon, who produced the series with Kerry Washington. Washington also starred in the hit ABC series "Scandal" as a political fixer who has her own crisis management firm and is having an affair with the president of the United States.

Let's talk about "Scandal" and how that series changed your life. Let's start with a scene from it. And in "Scandal," you play a political fixer who has your own crisis management company. And your character's name is Olivia Pope, and you've been hired by the president to handle an aide, a young woman who claims she's sleeping with the president. And what we don't know at this point is that your character has a romantic history of her own with the president. And she confronts the president about this aide, and he tells her it's a lie. So in this scene, you're dealing with the aide. She's sitting on a park bench. Her name is Amanda, and she's sitting on a park bench with her dog. You speak first.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCANDAL")

WASHINGTON: (As Olivia Pope) Cute dog - golden retriever?

LIZA WEIL: (As Amanda Tanner) Yeah. His name's Thomas Jefferson, which is lame, I know, but he's very presidential. Aren't you, T.J.?

WASHINGTON: (As Olivia Pope) Amanda, it would be a mistake to think there would be no consequences to you telling lies about the president.

WEIL: (As Amanda Tanner) How do you know my name? Who are you?

WASHINGTON: (As Olivia Pope) My name is Olivia Pope, and I want to be clear I'm not here in any official capacity. I'm only here to warn you because you should know what could happen. It could become hard for you to find employment. Your face would be everywhere. People would associate you with a sex scandal. All kinds of information about you would easily become available to the press. For example, you've had 22 sexual partners that we know of. Also, there's that ugly bout of gonorrhea. And your family, your mother's mental illness, a psychotic break, two years at Bedford Hospital - I bet that's private. She runs a day care now, right?

WEIL: (As Amanda Tanner) He told me he loved me. He gave me this dog.

WASHINGTON: (As Olivia Pope) See; it's those kind of lies that could hurt you if you said them to other people, people not as nice as me. I'll give you some free advice. Hand in your resignation, and pack up your dog and your things. Get in your car and go. Find a small city - Minneapolis, maybe, or Denver. Get a little job. Meet a boring boy. Make some friends because in this town, your career is over. You're done.

WEIL: (As Amanda Tanner) Why are you doing this to me? I'm a good person.

WASHINGTON: (As Olivia Pope) You know who else was a good person? Monica Lewinsky. And she was telling the truth, but she still got destroyed.

GROSS: So that was Kerry Washington in a scene from "Scandal." The character that you played in "Scandal" was loosely based on a real crisis manager named Judy Smith, and one of her clients was Monica Lewinsky. Did you meet Judy Smith before playing this role?

WASHINGTON: Well, the first thing I want to tell you is that that was my audition monologue (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, you're kidding.

WASHINGTON: So I get emotional when I hear it, actually, because it really - like, to hear that, for me, is - it really exemplifies the journey of the show because I was doing that monologue before the part was even mine. So it's really special to hear it. But yeah, I did. The character - we were always careful to say that Olivia Pope was inspired by Judy Smith but not based on Judy Smith because Judy never had sex with George W. Bush (laughter). That's super important. She was never having an affair with the president, but she did work in the Bush White House. And she was a fixer, and she did work with Monica Lewinsky.

And Judy and I spent a lot of time together when I was developing the character and then really throughout the series, especially in Seasons 1 and 2. We talked to each other almost every week, and we would talk about plotlines and character and how to make the show as authentic as possible. And I love Judy. We still talk now.

GROSS: You just said what we just heard was your audition, which I had no idea. But how did you get the part?

WASHINGTON: When the script for "Scandal" was circulating - this has been talked about a lot in the press, but there hadn't been a black woman as the lead of a network drama in almost 40 years. And I was - I don't - around 35, 34, 35 at the time. So in my lifetime, I had never seen a network drama with a black woman as the lead. So this was a highly coveted role. And Shonda really - she said she saw almost every black actress in Hollywood between the ages of, you know, 19 and 60. She really wanted to give everybody a shot. And when I...

GROSS: And this is Shonda Rhimes, who produced the series.

WASHINGTON: Yeah, it was our showrunner, the brilliant Shonda Rhimes. So when I read the script, I thought, this is mine. Like, it felt like it was written for me. It brought together so many of my worlds and so much of my life experience, working in Washington, working on the campaigns. I really felt like I was born to play her, but there were, like, 20 other actresses who felt the same way. So there were a series of auditions, several auditions. And first, I had a meeting with Shonda and then several auditions. And eventually, I really had the privilege of being able to take this on.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting because you were the first African American actress to be the lead in a TV series in about 40 years since "Get Christie Love," but you were not, like, a role model. Like, your character did a lot of bad things.

WASHINGTON: Yeah.

GROSS: So...

WASHINGTON: Well, I think there was a balance between her. I think in many ways, she was aspirational, right? She was an entrepreneur. Everybody wanted her closet. In fact, we did a clothing line based on the character with The Limited. There was a lot about her fashion and her world and her intellect and her sexiness that was very aspirational. But there was a lot about her character that was questionable - that she was having an affair with the president, that she would take on clients who were not always deemed as the good guys. So I think that complexity was part of what drew people in.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kerry Washington, and she's now starring in the Hulu series "Little Fires Everywhere." We'll be right back, but first, we're going to take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIZZO'S "JUICE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Kerry Washington. She stars with Reese Witherspoon in the new series "Little Fires Everywhere," which is streaming on Hulu. Washington and Witherspoon also produced the series.

You and Reese Witherspoon are both founding members of Time's Up, which is the organization responding to the #MeToo movement working on gender equality, working against sexual harassment. And you played Anita Hill in the HBO movie "Confirmation." You were probably a teenager during the Clarence Thomas hearings, so I don't know how closely you followed what was happening. But playing her and having to do the research about what happened, what were one or two of the things that you found just, like, most disturbing about how she was treated and how the hearings were handled?

WASHINGTON: Well, I remember really distinctly when the hearings happened because it was one of the first times that I really saw my parents disagree on a social or political issue. Like, usually my parents were really in agreement around issues having to do with money or politics or black identity. But because of intersectionality, this was a moment where I watched my mom and dad process this experience very differently as a black woman and a black man. And it was disturbing to me.

And I'll never forget it. It really made me question who was in the right. And I think Anita Hill is such a hero, and I wanted to be able to explore, for both characters - for both Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill - what was at stake for them and what it cost them - and in particular because Clarence Thomas, I think, is often perceived as the winner in that situation because he got to have his seat on the Supreme Court. But Anita Hill transformed society. She changed the shape of Congress and gave us language for sexual harassment, really transformed our cultural practices in this country. And so I wanted to be able to shine a light on that as well.

GROSS: What did you learn about your parents, hearing them disagree about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill? And I'm assuming your father defended Clarence Thomas and that your mother was on Anita Hill's side.

WASHINGTON: Yeah. I think my dad - and I really - when I look back, I understand. My dad was devastated that this black man who was going to, you know, sit on the highest court in the land was being raked through the mud. And he felt that Anita Hill should have had more loyalty to the black community - that this was bad for black people as a whole.

I must say that my dad is now not of that opinion - that my dad has grown in his feminist ideology through the years. I would be remiss to not say that. My dad is a pretty amazing person. But he was the product of his time and felt the way a lot of black men did at the time. And my mom believed Anita Hill. And so I think it was one of the first moments that I realized the unique challenges of being a black woman.

GROSS: My impression watching the Anita Hill during the hearings is that she was trying so hard not to show any emotion, to just kind of give the facts, answer the questions and remain as firm but as emotionally neutral as possible. Did you feel that way, too, and did you try to play her that way?

WASHINGTON: Yeah. I mean, I could probably recite the hearings to you now. I watched them so much. And I tried to approach playing her with the influence of Anna Deavere Smith. Like, I really tried to watch the video and listen to the audio and capture the cadence and the rhythm of Anita Hill, and I tried to figure out what I could learn about her personality from the placement of the way that she was speaking to those senators and even in her everyday life - that it's so very different from how I speak and that that difference is reflective of who she is.

So it was really fun to kind of work in that way and wrap my head around her, using her voice and her posture and her walk in sort of an outside-in approach to the character.

GROSS: She had very good posture.

WASHINGTON: She actually - she did have very good posture. But she also has a little - I won't call a slump because she's far too graceful and elegant to call it a slump. But she protects her heart when she sits. And so there's a slight curvature to her shoulders in the way that she protects her heart and doesn't let people have access to her innermost heartfelt feelings and identity. And in her...

GROSS: I - wait. Wait. Stop a second. I love the way you've turned her body, her posture into a metaphor.

WASHINGTON: Well, it is. I mean, you really - you know, you can study Alexander Technique or you know how people move in the world says a lot about who they are. I used to go to rehearsal for "Scandal" in sweatpants and a sweatshirt, but I could not do the scene unless I had the shoes - high heel shoes on - four-inch heels because Olivia Pope had a walk and she had a posture and she had a stance. And I couldn't rehearse a scene in flip-flops or sneakers. Even when I was nine months pregnant playing...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WASHINGTON: ...Olivia Pope, I was in four-inch heels. Sometimes wedges - but I still had to have that heel because that extra height and that extra lean forward and that extra tightness in the belly, in the core that a heel requires, that's part of the steeliness of who Olivia Pope is. So I always say I don't know who a character is until I know what shoes they're wearing, until I figure out the walk, until I figure out how they stand.

GROSS: You know, one of the things you try to do is to be of service in the causes that you're active in. And now with the virus, one of the things that you did in conjunction with the World Health Organization and Global Citizen is you did a Q&A with California's surgeon general, Nadine Burke Harris. And you asked for questions from - I guess it was through Instagram that you asked for questions. And then you posed the questions to her and she answered.

And in the - this, like, eight-minute Q&A that you had with her, you said one of the questions that you were really surprised that you were asked but you had to ask it was the question, is the virus affecting black people? And you know, can black people get the virus? What did it say to you that people were wondering about that?

WASHINGTON: Well, I think the landscape has changed dramatically since then. We've had a lot of...

GROSS: This was a few days ago, yeah.

WASHINGTON: Yeah. We've had a lot more black people be impacted and affected by the virus. But I think at the time, it speaks to kind of how separate our communities remain in this country and how...

GROSS: I thought you might say that, yeah.

WASHINGTON: There's a huge gap between worlds in a lot of ways that we don't always - if we watch the news and we don't see somebody who looks exactly like us, we don't necessarily think that it has to do with us.

GROSS: I want to preface this question by acknowledging something I know you'd want acknowledge, which is that you're very lucky right now in the sense that, like, you don't have to worry about employment or having enough money to pay rent or get food or - you know, you're covered on all those things. But that doesn't mean that you're not worried. It doesn't mean you're not worried about your children and your husband and that it's just not, you know, really radically changing your life. So how are you keeping your spirits up? If you are.

(LAUGHTER)

WASHINGTON: I think I'm keeping my spirits up with a lot of prayer, and I am doing some meditation, which is something I always want to be doing. And by some meditation, I mean three minutes a day, not 30.

(LAUGHTER)

WASHINGTON: But I am setting my timer and doing three minutes of meditation before running downstairs and really trying to be honest with the people that I - that are safe to be honest with about what I'm feeling and what my struggles are and how I can do better for myself and my family and for society. And when I hear about loss, you know, people, friends and loved ones of friends that are sick and dying, to try to just continue to express love and support and stay connected to each other.

It's a really scary time. So I've been trying to figure out how to not ignore my fear but also practice acts of faith in order to engender more faith and just kind of hold on to that space for myself and my family and my loved ones and people I get to share my day with, like you.

GROSS: Oh, Kerry Washington, you have really brightened my day. I thank you so much for this interview, and I wish you and your family and everyone you care about good health during this crisis.

WASHINGTON: Likewise. Likewise. Thank you. Thank you for innovating and evolving your own setup so that we don't have to lose this amazing show while we're all home needing it.

GROSS: Oh, that's so nice of you to say. Be well and thank you for this.

Kerry Washington stars in the new series "Little Fires Everywhere," which is streaming on Hulu. Coming up, our critic at large John Powers reviews two series and a novel he recommends if you're looking for stories to distract you from endless thoughts of COVID-19. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAJOFONDO'S "PA' BAILAR (INSTRUMENTAL ALBUM VERSION)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.