Kerry Washington talks politics and protecting women

Kerry Washington wears top by SAINT LAURENT, bra by Yasemine Eslami and earrings by Natasha Schweitzer. Photographed by Liz Collins for Porter. All items can be purchased straight from the magazine pages via NET-A-PORTER.COM.

Actor, producer and director Kerry Washington talks to NET-A-PORTER’s digital title, PORTER, about bonding with Reese Witherspoon on the Time’s Up movement and how she’s always wanted to feel heard: “I always have, even as a child, been really opinionated. I’ve always wanted an environment where I could feel seen and heard.” 

Washington describes how she came to understand her growing influence: “I don’t even know that I saw myself as a leader, I just saw myself as a person with a lot to say. I think the more I started to work in this industry, I started to understand that there weren’t a lot of people who understood my perspective as a woman or as a woman of colour in power, and I had to create that opportunity.”

Growing up in the Bronx, New York, Washington found herself attending Upper East Side’s Spence School, whose alumni include Gwyneth Paltrow and Jade Jagger: “I remember distinctly being 12 or 13 and going from my neighbourhood in the Bronx to a very posh elite school. Seeing other people’s homes, I remember understanding that there was ‘another world’ and feeling overwhelmed, angry, inspired, delighted and betrayed at the same time. Thinking, Why does nobody I know live like this? Or, more so, why does nobody who looks like me live like this?” 

Now that Washington has her own production company, Simpson Street (named after the street where her mother grew up in the Bronx), she makes sure that representation is seen throughout her projects. “A lot of our mandate at Simpson Street is centring otherness and really reminding ourselves, and each other, that protagonists look like all of us – that anyone can be the hero of their own story and their own life.”

Washington stars alongside Reese Witherspoon in the TV adaptation of Celeste Ng’s bestselling novel, Little Fires Everywhere. They “knew each other from the industry and were waiting for a chance to work together” and subsequently became close, sharing not only the lead acting credits but co-executive-producer titles on the project. “She’s just amazing, and a great friend. The sort of girlfriend who, when she asks you how you are, you can tell really cares about the response. I have such great respect for her, not only as a friend but as someone who has her own production company. She was so willing to share her mistakes and what she had learned.”

The pair also bonded as active members of Time’s Up, a movement that Washington says “has created a myriad of female creative partnerships, though that was never our intention. That was always secondary. Our actions had to be working for the protection, the safety, the equity for women in all industries. When we brought all of those amazing activists with us to the Golden Globes, we knew this wasn’t about just us.”

Talking further about the imbalance of power in the industry, Washington adds: “One thing that a lot of us have talked about is this idea that, because of the imbalance of power and the delineation of who gets to be the protagonist, so often in our careers, there was one woman on a set. We were siloed. And so we were told about each other. And the story was often, ‘She’s difficult. She’s needy. She’s crazy. She’s unpredictable. She’s a diva’. Now we talk to each other, we work together and we know that not to be true. Even with Little Fires Everywhere, it deals with the nuances of womanhood and motherhood regardless of outward identity.”  

Washington has considered taking on lighter roles but notes that even this would be seen as a political act: “I did one but, even to do a Nora Ephron comedy, because I’m black, it is political and it means something. Which is OK with me because I’m happy to be doing that work. I think the interesting thing is that, as a black woman, any time I put myself at the center of the story, it is a political act – whether I want it to be or not.” 

In real life, Washington is a mother of three, with husband Nnamdi Asomugha, though she keeps her relationship and her children under wraps. “As I’ve gotten older and more well-known I’ve lost some of my anonymity, so I’ve become more boundaried in my relationships with people. I have the pull of an artist, where you love your private life, and you love the people you love, you love your children, and you also love your art.” 

Kerry Washington wears coat by Bite Studios, dress by Helmut Lang and shoes and earrings by Bottega Veneta. Photographed by Liz Collins for Porter. All items can be purchased straight from the magazine pages via NET-A-PORTER.COM.

Turning to the 2020 presidential election, Washington (who supported Barack Obama in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016) stresses the importance of voting at a time where “our civil liberties are at huge risk”. Washington reveals her hopes for the next election: “My hope is that, come November, we are galvanised by the attack on so many of us. On women, on people of colour, on poor people, on the LGBTQ+ community, on immigrants, on Latinx people. Wake us up to the idea that the power is ours if we show up for it. But if we remain on the outside and decide that it’s not worth it to participate, then that power will be taken from us.” 

Interview highlights:

Kerry Washington on having always been really opinionated: “I always have, even as a child, been really opinionated. I’ve always wanted an environment where I could feel seen and heard.” 

Kerry Washington on having a lot to say: “I don’t even know that I saw myself as a leader, I just saw myself as a person with a lot to say. I think the more I started to work in this industry, I started to understand that there weren’t a lot of people who understood my perspective as a woman or as a woman of colour in power, and I had to create that opportunity.”

Kerry Washington on attending Upper East Side’s Spence School [other alumni include Gwyneth Paltrow and Jade Jagger]: “I remember distinctly being 12 or 13 and going from my neighbourhood in the Bronx to a very posh elite school. Seeing other people’s homes, I remember understanding that there was ‘another world’ and feeling overwhelmed, angry, inspired, delighted and betrayed at the same time. Thinking, Why does nobody I know live like this? Or, more so, why does nobody who looks like me live like this?” 

Kerry Washington on her mandate at her production company Simpson Street: “A lot of our mandate at Simpson Street is centering otherness and really reminding ourselves, and each other, that protagonists look like all of us – that anyone can be the hero of their own story and their own life.”

Kerry Washington on her latest release, Little Fires Everywhere: “I am very excited about it.”

Kerry Washington on  being sent  Little Fires Everywhere by Reese Witherspoon: “I started reading [the original book, by Celeste Ng] and I couldn’t put it down. I inhaled it. I called them as soon as I had finished and said, ‘Let’s do this!’”

Kerry Washington on assembling a group of writers with Witherspoon they felt: “could really dive into the complexity of these issues of class and gender and motherhood… and who loved the ‘90s as much as we did!” Washington says. “Having Asian voices in the room, having black voices in the room, having men in the room, having women in the room and people who came from non-traditional writing backgrounds was all so important.” 

Kerry Washington on Reese Witherspoon: “We knew each other from the industry and were waiting for a chance to work together”

Kerry Washington on Witherspoon being a great friend: “She’s just amazing, and a great friend. The sort of girlfriend who, when she asks you how you are, you can tell really cares about the response. I have such great respect for her, not only as a friend but as someone who has her own production company. She was so willing to share her mistakes and what she had learned.”

Kerry Washington on bonding with Witherspoon on the Time’s Up movement: “[The movement] has created a myriad of female creative partnerships, though that was never our intention. That was always secondary… Our actions had to be working for the protection, the safety, the equity for women in all industries. When we brought all of those amazing activists with us to the Golden Globes, we knew this wasn’t about just us.”

Kerry Washington wears tank by The Line By K, pants by Commission and earrings by Bottega Veneta. Photographed by Liz Collins for Porter. All items can be purchased straight from the magazine pages via NET-A-PORTER.COM.

Kerry Washington on the imbalance of power in the industry: “One thing that a lot of us have talked about is this idea that, because of the imbalance of power and the delineation of who gets to be the protagonist, so often in our careers, there was one woman on a set. We were siloed. And so we were told about each other. And the story was often, ‘She’s difficult. She’s needy. She’s crazy. She’s unpredictable. She’s a diva’. Now we talk to each other, we work together and we know that not to be true. Like even with Little Fires Everywhere, it deals with the nuances of womanhood and motherhood regardless of outward identity.”  

Kerry Washington on  keeping her relationship and her children out of the public eye: “As I’ve gotten older and more well-known I’ve lost some of my anonymity, so I’ve become more boundaried in my relationships with people. I have the pull of an artist, where you love your private life, and you love the people you love, you love your children, and you also love your art.” 

Kerry Washington on whether she would consider lighter roles: “I did one but, even to do a Nora Ephron comedy, because I’m black, it is political and it means something. Which is OK with me because I’m happy to be doing that work. I think the interesting thing is that, as a black woman, anytime I put myself at the centre of the story, it is a political act – whether I want it to be or not.” 

Kerry Washington on the importance of voting: “Our civil liberties are at huge risk. My hope is that, come November, we are galvanised by the attack on so many of us. On women, on people of colour, on poor people, on the LGBTQ+ community, on immigrants, on Latinx people. Wake us up to the idea that the power is ours if we show up for it. But if we remain on the outside and decide that it’s not worth it to participate, then that power will be taken from us.” 

Kerry Washington on having a lot of projects on the go simultaneously: “You’ve just got to have a lot of pots boiling.”

Kerry Washington on learning to take care of herself: “I think through all of my roles, all of the roles my production company creates, I centre others and otherness and, sometimes, I am really bad at centring myself. So I think in my life, my career, my work, I am learning to take care of myself on this journey. But it is an ongoing process.” 

To see the full interview, head to PORTER or download the NET-A-PORTER app for iPhone, iPad and Android

In this Story: #icons / #style / fashion