Emmy-nominated actress Kerry Washington remembers when Anita Hill accused then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991. Despite what her allegations, Thomas was sworn in as a justice in the highest court in the land. But Hill’s testimony did change the way sexual harassment is viewed and handled at work.
Washington, who is best known for her five-season role as political fixer Olivia Pope on ABC’s Scandal, was 14 at the time. Nearly 25 years later, the memories are fresh in her mind. Such recollections helped her tackle the role as Hill in the upcoming HBO movie Confirmation, which premieres this spring and tells both Hill and Thomas’ side of the story.
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“My mother was an academic who had very passionate feelings about it as a woman of color,” Washington said Thursday at a Television Critics Association panel in Pasadena. The New York native is also one of the film’s executive producers.
“My dad had very passionate feelings about it as a Black man,” she said. “And I was immersed in how complicated and how complex the issues were from a very young age, and it always stuck with me how passionate both of my parents were and how differently they looked at the situation.
“So that was part of what was important for all of us in the making of this film, is that we really courageously stick to the complexity of the situation and not try to one-note any character or any one moment of this process.”
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As a wife and mother who fights to keep her private life private, Washington said she could relate to Hill on a lot of levels.
“I have met her, and she is very private,” Washington, 38, said of Hill, 59. “I felt that that was something that she and I shared, that idea of the circumstances of your life being thrust into the public eye, when it’s not necessarily your choice. That was something that we really were able to bond on. I wish that I had the level of elegance and grace that I think Anita did. I wish I had that in the beginning, but I just keep trying to learn how to live a public life and still have some private space.”
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In preparation for the role, Washington, Wendell Pierce (who stars as Thomas), and their costars all had to undergo workplace sensitivity training.
“We all had to sit through a sexual harassment orientation before we started filming the movie, which was a little bit surreal. We knew why we were having that orientation, based a lot on the story we were about to tell,” Washington said. “And yet some of the issues are still rearing their head in terms of gender and in terms of race and how we understand those things. So I think, really, the outcome of what happened was that the conversation began and we want to make sure that that conversation continues.”
Confirmation premieres April 2016 on HBO.