The Root Interview: Kerry Washington on 'Night Catches Us'

The multifaceted actress stars as a Black Panther sympathizer in her latest film, Night Catches Us. We caught up with her and chatted about the new movie, co-starring with Anthony Mackie and, of course, politics.

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Kerry Washington might not have much in common with her character in her latest film, Night Catches Us, in which she plays a conflicted attorney and mother who spends her days defending her former Black Panther comrades in 1976 Philadelphia. But if the two met today, they would probably bond over their intense passion for the causes they believe in. Washington warned us during a recent phone conversation that she couldn't offer an unbiased answer to political questions because she's actually a member of the Obama administration, serving on the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

Her part in Night Catches Us, directed by newcomer Tanya Hamilton, is the latest in a series of heavy roles (she was seen most recently in Tyler Perry's emotionally wrenching film For Colored Girls and David Mamet's play Race). For a change, she's now shooting a comedy: We the Peeples with Craig Robinson. She took a break from filming recently to talk to The Root about Night Catches Us, memories from the For Colored Girls set and the midterm elections.

The Root: The Black Panther movement is often romanticized in black culture, but we don't often think about the time period following its heyday. What attracted you to this project?

Kerry Washington: I'm often really drawn to characters whose humanity other people may not be so quick to see. I often play women who people would be quick to judge or put in a box -- like the wife of a famous person who stays even though he's cheating, or the wife of an African dictator who's one of five wives, or a transsexual, drug-addict prostitute. This was such a great opportunity to explore who the woman is who devotes her life to [the Black Panther] movement -- not only who she is in the movement, but who she is 10 years after the movement.

TR: You and Anthony Mackie had really nice chemistry in the film. Is that something you have to work at with a co-star, or does it come naturally?

KW: Every situation is different because filmmaking is an art. It's not chemistry or baking. So I can't tell you, "It always takes one cup of concentration and two teaspoons of laughing at his jokes." It's not that simple, but I would say with Mackie that a lot of where it comes from is the mutual respect we have for each other's talent and work. He has this crazy Juilliard training that he carries around very loosely. He's not always throwing it up in your face. He doesn't have to, because the moment you work with him, you go, "Oh my gosh, he's so talented and so skilled."

KW: Are you kidding? Of course. I would look in the mirror and be like, "Oh my gosh, I am my mother." It would totally take me back to pictures that I've seen of my mother with all of her peace beads and bell-bottoms. One day I called her and I said, "I don't understand how you made it through the summers of the '70s in all this polyester." It was so hot [during filming]. We had that total East Coast summer, hanging out on the block with all the local "iladelphs," and it was ridiculous. Polyester literally does not breathe. But it was fun.

TR: You've worked alongside Anthony Mackie, Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker, to name a few. Are there any actors that you're dying to work with?

KW: I'd really love to work with Denzel. Everybody thinks we're family, anyway; it would be fun. The right thing hasn't really come along yet, but I hope it does.

TR: For Colored Girls was a celebration of black actresses, in a way. It's not often that you see a cast with so many accomplished black actresses in a mainstream film. What was it like to work with these women?