The star of Shonda Rhimes’ unpredictable drama talks about working while pregnant, the unraveling of Olivia Pope during the “dark season,” and why she’s “blessed” to have received an Emmy nomination.
It’s been four weeks since the Emmy nominations were announced and Kerry Washington is still lamenting Tatiana Maslany’s Emmy snub. “It’s so crazy that she’s not nominated,” Washington said of the Orphan Black star, who was overlooked for a nod after playing seemingly 18 characters on the sci-fi show. “Just, like, insane.” The fact that Washington, who is Emmy nominated — as Best Lead Actress in a Drama for her incendiary work as fixer Olivia Pope on Season 3 of ABC’s zeitgeist-grabbing Scandal — would take time out of her interview to shower praise on the competition makes it easy to believe the 37-year-old when she utters that commonly said, rarely meant platitude: This nomination is the real award.
“I have this crazy overwhelming gratitude because there are lots of people who do good work and don’t get nominated,” Washington told BuzzFeed. “It’s a very small number who are able to receive this honor of being nominated, so I feel lucky and blessed because I know how many actors out there didn’t get that call on Emmy morning.”
But Washington is quick to add that she’s careful not to equate accolades with accomplishment. “I think there’s a little bit of a danger in making any award thesymbol of success,” she said. “There are phenomenal actors like Tatiana that aren’t nominated this year, and absolutely deserve to be. So, I’m always reluctant to say this is the symbol of doing good work — but that being said, I feel very, very, very blessed.”
Blessings were in no short supply for Washington during Scandal’s third season: The Shonda Rhimes-created drama notched its highest ratings ever,owned Twitter every Thursday night, and reinforced her image as one of Hollywood’s most adored actors. While always powerful, Washington’s third season performance featured her at her most sensual (Vermont jam), complex (reconciling the realization she’s “the help”), and emotional (so many trembling lips) thus far.
All the while, Washington was taking pages out of Pope’s playbook and secretly planned her June 2013 wedding to football player Nnamdi Asomugha — the couple welcomed their first child, Isabelle, in April 2014. While Washington’s pregnancy wasn’t written into the show, she did reveal it had a profound effect on her performance.
“The thing that was challenging in a beautiful, exciting way this season was that I was going through this miraculous life transformation physically and emotionally, but Olivia was not,” she said. “Because my body is where I usually ground myself as an actor — I look for ways to express character and identity through physical expression — it was fascinating for me when my body was changing every day, and I didn’t have the same kind of access to my body as an artist, so I really had to access Olivia in other ways. ”
“When you’re a pianist, the piano is your tool of expression,” she continued. “When you’re a painter, your canvas and your oils, those are your tools of expression. When you’re an actor, your body, mind, and soul are your tools of expression, so as you change, your toolbox changes, and how you interact with that toolbox changes. It’s why self-reflection is important for me as an actor. I have to understand my instrument to understand how to play it. So as life changes, the tools change and I really had to discover those tools in a new way because I didn’t have use of my body in a way I was used to and it was changing constantly.”
And that acting evolution continues in Season 4 (which begins on Sept. 25) now that Washington is a mother. “I’m still discovering every day how it’s impacted my toolbox because it’s all very new,” she added. “I’m an actor who loves to study — I work with teachers, I work with coaches, I’m always studying and reading and trying to grow as an actor, so it’s exciting.”
An unintended side effect of not writing the real-life pregnancy into the show began to crop up with increasing frequency later in the season as the coats and props had to get bigger and bigger in order to properly mask Washington’s growing bump. “It made me laugh to see that stuff online,” Washington says of the internet obsession with calling out the various bags, lamps, and actors who were used to maintain the illusion. “But I was always hopeful that none of it was too distracting from the story because it’s not about me. I always wanted to make sure that we kept telling the story and fans would be able to stay engaged with the circumstances of the show.”
Washington’s wish seemingly came true as fans devoured every aspect of the show with a voracity rarely seen today, lighting up Twitter and transformingScandal from a watercooler show into a full-fledged global phenomenon. “I am floored and blown away,” Washington said of the 1.7 million Twitter followers she’s amassed since the show’s 2012 debut, most of whom spend Thursday nights exchanging 140 characters — mostly “OMFG”-adjacent exclamations — with the cast, who live-tweet nearly every episode. While Washington is astounded by the fervency with which fans approach the show, she also completely relates to it.
“I understand it as a fan because when I watch Bellamy Young act I am floored,” said Washington about her colleague. “When I do a scene with Darby Stanchfield I feel like, How did I get this lucky? Every time I show up to work and sit on a park bench with Jeff Perry, I know how blessed I am as artist to work with that level of talent. That’s across the board: Guillermo Diaz, Katie Lowes, and Tony Goldwyn … I thank God for Scott Foley. I relate to how our fans feel about these actors because I feel that way about these actors.”
Scandal’s third season put family front and center, expanding the role of Olivia’s father, Eli “Rowan” Pope (Joe Morton) — the head of B613, a covert government agency — and introducing Olivia’s presumed-dead mother, Maya Lewis (Khandi Alexander) — a manipulative criminal. While it’s perhaps unsurprising that Olivia came from two such terrifying forces of nature, many — Washington included — were completely caught off guard by how the presence of Olivia’s parents unraveled the formerly unflappable Gladiator.
“This was a really, really challenging season for me,” Washington said of “the dark season” — a term coined by Rhimes. “Watching Olivia, in many ways, turn into a little girl around her parents was really unexpected for me. This character, who [we] have learned to see as this very powerful, very strong, very commanding presence, really came undone this season, which was scary for me as an artist. I had to let go of a lot of my own ideas. I had to really be willing to go into that flawed territory in a big way and not worry about how I hold her in a certain esteem or how other people hold Olivia in a certain esteem. You can’t afford to think about that when you’re playing somebody with a rich life like this.”
As a result of entering such precarious territory, Washington said she felt fans gained a clearer picture of why Olivia Pope became Olivia Pope. “You got to understand why she wants to fix everything around her — because she comes from such extraordinary dysfunction,” she said. “And that, to her, creating this family of Gladiators is a substitute for the lack of family that she had, and the desire to fix every client that walks in her door is an attempt to somehow make her world a safer place.”
Learning about Olivia’s past also provided some much-needed context for her increasingly murky illicit relationship with Fitz. “We began to understand her dysfunction in being able to be part of a healthy loving dynamic with a man she loves because she doesn’t come from a home where love is expressed in a healthy way,” Washington added. “This season — more than any other — was about the unraveling of Olivia. It was complicated and messy and sometimes unattractive and uncomfortable, so the fact that this is what is being acknowledged and, honestly, welcomed into people’s homes and people’s consciousness, is meaningful to me.”
Washington openly admits the emotionally and mentally grueling season — which ended with a broken Olivia Pope abandoning her entire life and fleeing Washington, D.C., for parts still as yet unknown — took its toll on her, something she only came to realize in hindsight. “I never thought about it in those terms because I just love acting so much and my love for what I do allows me to embrace the challenges because living in those moments of challenge is the reward,” Washington said.
“Acting itself fulfills me. The challenge of figuring out how to tell this story in a way that resonates in other human beings with an emotional and psychological truth is my job. The more complicated the circumstances, the more rewarding the opportunity as an artist because you’re unlocking the puzzle and giving it to other people. When people tune in and feel something or think something or are moved by the work, that’s the reward because we’re doing it for the viewers. We’re doing it to tell stories. We’re not doing it for ourselves; we’re doing it to be a part of something that moves people. The Emmy nomination is like the cherry on top and you partly appreciate the cherry because that might allow us to continue to do what we do, and that’s the real reward.”