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?
KW: It was such a magical time. Every day at work was like a master class, because I'd come to work and be sitting with and hanging out with and watching and creating art with women who literally are the reason I'm an actor today.
Whoopi Goldberg's one-woman show on Broadway changed my understanding of what art could do for human consciousness. I don't think I would have even imagined a career in acting if it hadn't been for Phylicia Rashad on The Cosby Show. Also, I can't tell you how often I would get a call from my agent: "Well, it's down to you and Thandie," or "It's down to you and Anika." Because of Tyler Perry, there's room for all of [us] at the table. That was amazing.
TR: As someone who is a member of the Obama administration, how did you feel about the results of the recent midterm elections?
KW: I think the president is doing an incredible job. We as Americans got very, very, very excited about the [presidential] election. And we have to continue to be excited about the progress that's been made — and continue to stay involved. Historically, people don't come out in as big numbers in midterm elections, but we have to make sure that we continue to participate. Because when we participated, we literally changed the face of history.
TR: You're very involved in politics, promoting the arts and various other causes. Do you think it is the responsibility of people in positions of prominence to lend their voices to social causes?
KW: No, I don't. It's my responsibility as an American to participate in my democracy, because that's what a democracy is. Our leaders only know how to represent us in a representational democracy if we let them know what we're thinking and feeling.
I don't speak out as a celebrity; I speak out as an American. I grew up in a household where, when you came of voting age, the whole family celebrated. For me it's my responsibility not to let my celebrity stand in the way of who I am as an American.
Night Catches Us is showing in select theaters and is also available on Video on Demand and iTunes.
Lauren Williams is the associate editor of The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Lauren is a former Deputy Editor of The Root.