Kerry Washington Talks Addressing Race on Scandal: 'The Life of a Black Woman Matters'
The actress appears on the cover of the May issue of Glamour, and PEOPLE has an exclusive first look at her interview, in which she opens up about celebrating race, life on Scandal and how she’s using her platform in Hollywood.
“In the first season, it was as if Olivia Pope was raceless. There was no denying that Olivia was a black woman, because I’m a black woman playing her in badass white trench coats that call to attention the fact that I’m not looking like anybody else on television. But we didn’t talk about her identity as a black person,” Washington, 40, told Glamour.
But the actress says there was a deliberate change in her “Gladiator” alter ego’s storyline later in the hit series.
“[Since then] the writers have become more and more willing to deal with race,” said Washington. “When Olivia was kidnapped, it was not lost on me that the fictional president of the United States was willing to go to war to save one black woman at a time when hundreds of black women were missing in Nigeria and we were begging the world to pay attention. Shonda [Rhimes, creator] was saying, ‘The life of a black woman matters.’”
The star added “it’s up to Shonda and to the network” as to how much longer she’ll be on the show — but that taking on the role completely changed her life.
“It’s impossible to say that Olivia Pope hasn’t been one of the most transformative roles for me,” she said. “I’ve never played a character for this long. Olivia Pope also took my anonymity away. Before, I was a character actor: Nobody really knew that the girl from Save the Last Dance was the same girl from The Last King of Scotland. So I could show up and be a person in the public eye when it was useful, then dip out and have my life. Olivia Pope has really changed that.”
A civil rights and LGBT advocate, Washington — who has two kids, 2-year-old daughter Isabelle and 5-month-old son Caleb, with husband Nnamdi Asomugha, 35 — believes the recent politically charged climate will affect perspective as an actor.
“That idea of holding each other’s hands at the Women’s March — it feels like we are being invited to do that every day. So many of us are feeling attacked, whether it’s a woman’s right to choose or headstones in a Jewish cemetery, immigrants being deported or banned. So many of us feel the need to protect and defend our democracy. And march toward the dream of being ‘We the people,'” she said.
“So that’s exciting, scary, and frustrating. We’re awake. We are awake more than ever before, and we have to stay awake,” she added. “Can I say one more thing? For democracy to work, everybody has to have a voice. It’s not about demonizing other voices. It’s important that there be real conversations across the aisle. There are people on the opposite end of the political spectrum who think that I’m part of a left-wing propaganda machine. It makes me sad that people would think that, because I believe for democracy to work, there has to be diversity of thought.”
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And the actress hopes to use her voice to allow for more diversity.
“My deepest desire is to create a world where there’s room for all of us, where no matter who you are, you get to wake up in the morning and know that you are worthwhile and deserving,” she said. “If that’s the world I want to live in, I have to do the work to make that true for me. I have to do the work of self-love and affirmation, and say, ‘I am a woman, I am a person of color, I am the granddaughter of immigrants, I am also the descendant of slaves, I am a mother, I am an entrepreneur, I am an artist, and I’m joyful.’ And maybe in seeing my joy, you can finish your sentence with, ‘And I am joyful too.’”