HOLLYWOOD — Kerry Washington rolls up in jeans and flats. They’re designer flats, but this is off-duty mom mode, at least until the Scandal star emerges from her trailer a bit later in a chic patterned crop top, high-waisted skirt, glittery heels and violet lips.
It’s fair to say Olivia Pope, the fictional Washington fixer the actress has steered to two Emmy nominations, has a different take on workwear.
Just sneak into Olivia Pope’s closet. “It’s nuts,” Washington says on the set, having unlocked the door to her character’s massive wardrobe. Look around the giant space and see overflowing racks of luxe clothing in muted tones: rows of dove-grey and powder-blue cashmere sweaters, counters holding cream and shell-pink Prada bags and stacks of boxed Manolo Blahnik heels.
“The other day I had this really beautiful brown suit on and everybody was like, ‘Whoa, we haven’t seen brown in awhile!’ she says. “I was like, ‘I know, I think not since Season 2.’ ”
Clothes say a lot, especially on Scandal. “For a couple of seasons things got very black and white in her world, and I think there’s a little bit of nuance back into her world and into her ideology,” Washington says.
“Nuance” is another way of saying that in Season 5, Olivia and President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) have finally bitten the bullet and gone public with their illicit relationship. So far this season, Fitz has demanded a divorce from the first lady (Bellamy Young); Congress has begun screaming for an impeachment; and Olivia is now known as “America’s Mistress,” subjected to slut-shaming and a media storm.
Washington has no idea where any of this is going. She (and the rest of the cast) finds out Scandal’s plot “episode to episode,” she says. “There are times when we have a table read on the day that we’re starting a new episode and you have to memorize it immediately.”
Here’s creator Shonda Rhimes’ version of how that goes down:
“My contract with the actors is, I will present you with the script, you will say every word in the script,” she says. “I will never tell you how to say the word or what the intention is under the scene or what we need.
“And then the beauty of it is then I get to go into the editing room and watch the scene sort of come out on the other side of the soundstage, as I say, and see what the actors did with it. And then I run upstairs to the writers room, and I go ‘Oh my God, you all … they’re playing it this way! And it’s wonderful.”
The writers have been toying with Olivia and Fitz for years. In Season 3, the president dangled a secret hideaway in Vermont where they could fade from the public eye after his term.
But much has changed.
“What’s true on our show is what’s true in life,” Washington says. “That once you commit to a relationship, that’s the beginning, not the end. And so it is an entirely new beginning for Fitz and Olivia to exist in a way they’ve never existed before.”
Pre-Scandal, Washington was famous, but nothing like now. She had juicy roles in movies such as Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Ray and The Last King of Scotland, had swung byBoston Legal and made the requisite stop on Law & Order. Washington’s also been a fashion favorite for years, but now?
She’s a superstar.
Goldwyn says he has watched her humility and marveled. Most in her position, he says, “become a little crazy,” succumbing to the trappings of their fame and importance.
Not so with Washington, whose film career continued to rise with 2012’s Django Unchained.
She is active in charitable endeavors, was appointed to the President’s Committee on the Arts and partnered with Allstate Foundation’s Purple Purse initiative, which raises money and awareness for financial literacy for victims of domestic violence.
“The No. 1 reason women stay in abusive relationships is because they don’t have the wherewithal to take care of themselves financially,” she says. “So Allstate Foundation has put together an entire curriculum to help women be self-supporting – because it’s not only the reason they stay, but it’s also the No. 1 reason people go back.”
Goldwyn says “there’s almost no one I know like Kerry. Maybe Tom Hanks. That’s the only other person I knew before he was super-famous who became a mega icon superstar who’s as normal as he ever was.”
How has life changed for Scandal’s stars?
“People have houses they didn’t have, and cars they didn’t have,” Washington says. “I have a husband, I have a child. We’ve all changed so much in the last five years. We’ve really grown up together.” (She married former NFL cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha in a hush-hush ceremony in June 2013. Ten months later, they welcomed a daughter, Isabelle.)
Kids are welcome at work. On the sets of both Scandal and the Rhimes-produced How to Get Away With Murder, for instance, “Kerry and Viola (Davis) were building playrooms so that you can have your children around,” says Rhimes, who lobbied for daycare centers for her shows but was turned down, she says, because of insurance concerns.
Still, “the culture in my office is, bring your baby to work. Breast-feed in the writer’s room. We don’t care,” Rhimes says.
During last summer’s Scandal break, Washington kept working, playing Anita Hill in the HBO film Confirmation. It’s not an Anita Hill film, she says. “It is a movie about the hearings” for Clarence Thomas’s confirmation as justice, beginning “the day Thurgood Marshall resigns” as his predecessor.
Washington worked through the summer with purpose; it meant a lot to her to tell this story.
“I really took the last two hiatuses to experience the expansion of my life. I got married and went on my honeymoon two years ago, and then last (year) I basically was on maternity leave because my daughter really timed herself perfectly for our hiatus.” Washington laughs. “And so this hiatus it was time for me to do a movie.”
Even Olivia Pope can’t have it all
Olivia Pope hasn’t even gotten around to contemplating motherhood yet. The political pro is still grappling with whether or not she can have Fitz and her career, let alone a child.
And even a dynamo like Pope contends with racism. On the Oct.15 episode, dog-whistle politics took center stage, with Scandal‘s TV pundits deploying coded racial language to call “the president’s girlfriend” “well-spoken” (the unspoken inference: “for a black woman”), “sassy” and a woman who (despite an extremely expensive international education) “pulled herself up by her bootstraps.”
Rhimes said she and Washington didn’t speak about exposing Olivia to baked-in racism before shooting. “Both of us understand what dog-whistle politics are,” she says. “Both of us have been in that situation. Both of us are black women. Both of us know exactly what that feels like.”
This year, Washington was in the audience when Viola Davis made history as the first black woman to win the best-actress Emmy. “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” Davis said in accepting the award. Cameras cut to Washington, who had tears in her eyes.
Today, Washington says she can’t believe her “insane luck” to have opted for television during its “golden age” of quality and inclusivity. Sure, “it’s not perfect,” she says. “I love that line when (Emmys host) Andy (Samberg) was like, ‘Racism is over! (Dramatic beat) Don’t fact-check that.’ it was one of my favorite lines of the night.”
The end of Scandal?
Where does Scandal go from here? The soapy drama’s ratings have dipped 9% in Season 5, but it’s still a top drama, especially among young adults..
“Shonda has said publicly that she sees the end to the show. This is not a show that’s supposed to be around for 20 years,” says Washington. “In the life of a show when you get to season five you know, you’re not the new show anymore.”
How soon could the end come calling? Washington’s contract is likely up as early as May 2017. But Rhimes’s Grey’s Anatomy is still plugging along in its 12th season.
“There’s a plan in place,” Rhimes says. “I know where the show ends and I know where all of our seasons end. The road map to getting there becomes interesting after that.”
Just don’t worry about Olivia. If anyone, Fitz is the one who “needs to be saved in the middle of the movie,” Rhimes says.
And Pope? She’s in one long trust-fall with Rhimes and what Washington calls their “fearless and brilliant” writers.
“From Day One of choosing to do this show, a lot of my work has been in trusting this journey,” Washington says. “I’m constantly closing my eyes and falling backward into our writers. And they’re back there ready to hold us up all the time.”