Forget everything you know about Kerry Washington “the actress.” Sure, the marquee beauty known for her luscious pout has costarred in Academy Award–winning blockbusters (“Ray”), but this George Washington University grad is so much more than her silver screen credits. Meet KW, the activist and concrete rose from the Bronx who grew up with hip-hop. An educated sister whose relentless, vote-or-die campaigning for one Chicago-based presidential hopeful rivals the fervor of any rapper’s aggressive hypeman. And whose crusade to raise funds for ovarian cancer research is more than just a philanthropic effort. Yes, people, Kerry is just as passionate about her grass-root connections as she is about reaching Tinseltown’s silver lining. As she prepares for the release of her latest film, “Lakeview Terrace,” a psychological thriller, Washington talks with ESSENCE.com about cultural and generational clashes, why we need to Barack the vote and her love affair with hip-hop.
ESSENCE.COM: In the film, you play Lisa Mattson, a newlywed who along with her husband is harassed by an ornery cop (Samuel L. Jackson) who has a problem with your interracial relationship. As someone who was once in an interracial relationship, did this film hit home for you?
KERRY WASHINGTON: One thing I’m learning is that no matter who you choose to date or spend the rest of your life with, folks are going to have something to say. Honestly, the film isn’t as simple as overt racism; it’s really about a cultural and generational clash—old school versus new school. My husband and I are environmentalists; kiss each other in public. Sam Jackson’s character is a conservative Republican law enforcer with a strict moral code. It’s an interesting film because it reminds me of the election. It also reminds me of one of the reasons I became involved in [the development] mixed income property. When neighborhoods change and the rich meets the poor, exactly how do you reconcile and coexist? Unfortunately, we haven’t overcome that kind of racial divide and discrimination. As a Black woman it’s an integral part of who I am; just as being raised in the Bronx is or just as being a woman is. So how do you ever get someone to accept or tolerate all those things that make up who you are.
ESSENCE.COM: Yes, classicism is the bane of our society and if for nothing else such government initiatives are needed to promote multiculturalism. As a celebrity and activist you are very outspoken about the election and its candidates. Are you ever concerned that publicly expressing your views might jeopardize your work?
WASHINGTON: It’s funny to me because I come from a political and socially conscious family, so my involvement in social politics and activism doesn’t come from my being a celebrity. Honestly, I would be this active as a [noncelebrity], especially as a Black woman. People died for Blacks to have the right to vote so we better exercise that right. There is no one in the world who could convince me to quiet that. As Americans we live in a representational democracy and unless we express our political voice by voting then we are to blame for the outcome. If you are not doing everything in your power to make this happen—making phone calls, donating $10, then you have to accept the responsibility if anybody but Obama becomes our next president. Are you willing to look yourself in the mirror on November 5 if Obama loses and carry that guilt? I’m not. Do people realize the next president could pick the next three Supreme Court justices and women could lose their right to choose? We are not exercising or owning our power. Change works and if it didn’t we’d still be in slavery. People get scared, but they have to remind themselves that this is a country of change that’s why we celebrate Independence Day because we said we no longer want to be a British colony. Four years ago, I cried like a baby when I was campaigning in Florida for Kerry because I couldn’t believe we were putting this man [George W. Bush] back in office again for another term. [The Bush administration] has been such a horrible abuse of the executive power in our country. We literally lost by fewer people than filled the stadium at the Democratic National Convention to hear Obama’s speech. Can you believe that? I can’t and I won’t go through that kind of pain again. So yes, I will continue to be as vocal as I need to be.
ESSENCE.COM: Go head, sis! In addition to campaigning, you lend your time to L’Oréal ovarian cancer research. Is this an issue you’re equally passionate about?
WASHINGTON: When I was meeting with the different cosmetic companies it was important that I worked with a company that wasn’t trying to be like the rest of the cosmetic industry where they sell product to make women not feel good enough. In other words, [the selling point] is always, “Go out and buy this product to make you feel and be beautiful.” What I love about L’Oréal is that they believe every woman is worth it, so when she awakes in the morning she should celebrate her beauty and treat herself. My mom is a breast cancer survivor because she was able to detect it in its early stage. I’m hoping that with the $14 million L’Oréal raised it will help women take advantage of early detection and fight their conditions.
ESSENCE.COM: Your activism and passion is inspiring. Many Black actresses say that there are not a dearth of roles for them and that they often become pigeonholed or typecast. How have you managed to diversify your resume?
WASHINGTON: When it comes to building a career you have to do you. Different choices work for different people. All I can ever really do is stay true to myself. Part of being a grown-up is that you have to make choices that feel authentic to you whether it’s because of your religion or where you live. As an actress, I believe that if you’re living your reality, then you’re doing what’s right for you at that time in your life. So I really can’t say that I had a specific strategy more than I simply try to be true to who I am.
ESSENCE.COM: And tell us Ms. Kerry, who directs hip-hop videos for rapper/actors like Common and gets a BET nomination for her creative vision–who in the world are you?
WASHINGTON: (Laughs) It’s weird because people see me as this actress who does Oscar-nominated films, who attended private school, and I’m the silliest and goofiest person you ever want to meet. Now, I might not show that side of me publicly much, but I’ve always been the little girl from the Bronx. So it’s not weird for me to be nominated for a hip-hop award because the culture has always been a part of my life. How could it not be? I’m from the Bronx! It’s always hard for people to take in all of who someone truly is. Hey, every once in a while I enjoy being a hoodrat! It’s important to embrace where I come from and where I’m going so I can make room for all parts of myself. So to answer your question, I’m still finding my way and trying to build, grow, do and be the best I can.
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