Kerry Washington sat down with SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris for an Actor to Actor interview to discuss the role the union has played in her life, diversity in the industry and the meaning of the Foundation’s Actors Inspiration Award.
Gabrielle Carteris: When was the first time you worked on a SAG job, before we were merged?
Kerry Washington: It was actually, I think, seventh and eighth grade, I did an ABC Afterschool Special. GC: I did those!
KW: Which is so funny because now I’m on ABC, obviously. I’ve always been really grateful to the union and grateful to the [SAG-AFTRA] Foundation for everything that we do to help actors take care of themselves and their careers.
GC: I want to talk about the fact that you’re the first African-American woman since 1974 who has been a lead on a network drama. What does that mean to you?
KW: I’m so excited that now in our television landscape there are so many more characters of color and there are so many more opportunities for women and people of color in television than ever before. And I’m really excited to be a part of that legacy. I think it’s important. I’m always joking that it’s a delicate balance with what we do with entertainment, because we’re not brain surgeons, we don’t necessarily save people’s lives; we’re not in the ER actually giving necessary blood transfusions. But, what it means when I hear that statistic is that, in my lifetime, I had never seen a black woman as the lead of a network drama. It just didn’t happen. I didn’t have that image to be oriented toward because I hadn’t seen it. And now we live in a world where that’s not how it is. Where no matter who you are, you can see yourself in the media. And we still have work to do in that area.
GC: That’s really important, what you’re talking about. You have to see it to be it.
KW: You do, you do. That’s what we do every day in storytelling. You know, it used to be in ancient times that we’d gather around campfires and tell stories to figure out who we are and who we want to be. Now we gather around a different kind of flickering light. It’s the light from our television or our movie theater screens, but we’re still figuring out who we are and who we want to be. And we help to do that as actors.
GC: You just finished a project playing Anita Hill in Confirmation. I would love you to be able to talk about that, because there’s a great buzz around this project, and I know that you really committed a lot of time to it.
KW: It’s a very special project to me because it’s kind of my coming out as an executive producer. I’ve been part of the project from the very beginning, all the way through to the end with editing and marketing. And I really love producing, but also loved being able to have great partners in producing in HBO and Groundswell and Susannah Grant so that I could take off the producing hat and really dive deep as an actor.
GC: You had an incredible cast. I love some of the performers who were in it. That is a great support as an actor.
KW: Absolutely. Being able to show up every day and work alongside Erika Christensen and Jeffrey Wright was just so magical. Actors make each other better, you know. The wonderful thing I love about creating film and television is that it’s a communal art. It’s not like painting or writing where you’re alone in a room — you really do rely on your village to do it. I feel like every element of this production really called on the best of me. I really felt like I had to grow as an actor. And I’m so grateful that I got to play a role that’s so different from Olivia Pope. I think some of the best compliments that I got about the performance were from people I work with every day on Scandal who said, “I was looking for Olivia Pope, I was looking for her.” And she’s so different.
GC: What does the SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s Actors Inspiration Award mean to you?
KW: I feel very moved, because I was terrified to pursue acting as a career. I really didn’t think that this was an industry that I had what it takes to compete in. Because I didn’t and I don’t necessarily have a drive toward fame. That’s not something that really calls to me. And so I thought I’d never make it, because I’m not one of those girls that wants to be on the cover of every magazine — I just really love to act. And it wasn’t until I found out about the existence of actors unions, and knowing what unions mean in our country and in our history, that I thought, if there are unions for actors, that must mean there are thousands of people making a living, doing what they love to do, even if they’re never famous. So maybe I’ll give it a try.