Kerry Washington's career transcends generations, a statement we don't make lightly. The proof, of course, is in her work—a series of pop culture–defining moments, ranging from Save the Last Dance to Ray to Django Unchained and Scandal. Her beloved characters and iconic screen moments continue to dominate the zeitgeist long after they make their debut, and if you doubt that assertion, we'd like to direct you to TikTok, where countless tributes to STLD are created on a daily basis, including a submission by Washington and her co-star Sean Patrick Thomas.
But perhaps even more impressive is Washington's ability as an actor, producer, and director to keep us on our toes. With every project it seems, she shows a different facet of herself and a new multidimensional woman to fall in love with or resonate with. Next month, we'll see her in a completely new realm—fantasy—for Netflix's The School for Good and Evil. The project is an adaption of the popular young-adult book hexalogy of the same name, and Washington is stepping into the role of the angelic Professor Dovey opposite Charlize Theron's devilish Lady Lesso. Aside from the jaw-dropping, couture-like costumes and talented young cast, the film showcases Washington's larger-than-life performance that is not to be missed. And that's not all. Adding to her already busy 2022 slate, which includes the narrative podcast The Prophecy on Audible, she is serving as executive producer and director on the upcoming Hulu series Reasonable Doubt, a legal drama centered on fearless defense attorney Jax Stewart that is premiering on September 27. Washington has been a shape-shifter in Hollywood for the last three decades, forging her own path both in front of and behind the camera. The best part? She still has so much more to bring to the table.
For our Fall Issue cover story, Washington joined contributing editor Courtney Higgs to talk about the defining moments of her career thus far and what it means to show up as her most soulful self on the red carpet and lean into her Aquarian traits. (Psst: You can listen to the full interview on the Who What Wear podcast!)
Chrisean Rose; Styling: Christian Siriano dress; Christian Louboutin heels
Hi, Kerry. How are you?
I'm good. How are you?
I'm great. I'm so excited to be able to talk to you today. I have so many core memories that are tied to moments with you, strangely, in my personal life and professional life. So this feels like a very full-circle moment to be able to talk to you and interview you for Who What Wear, and I'm very excited to be able to do that.
Tell me! You can't stop there. You have to tell me more.
Back when I was just starting college up in Sacramento, I submitted some street style photos to Essence magazine—just like, "Oh, I've got to get my foot in the door in fashion." They chose the photos, and the book that those pictures ran in, you were on the cover. I was already a huge fan of yours, and to be in a magazine that you were on the cover of just felt kismet. You are very much part of so many core memories for me, and it's not lost on me the full-circle, meta moment that it is to be able to speak to you now.
I so appreciate you sharing that with me. It feels like a privilege to have a glimpse into your personal journey but also just to be invited into your life and in your heart that way. It's interesting. Because of what I do for a living, people do associate different times and phases of their life with you. So it's always nice when those memories are positive, and I just feel really lucky that I get to be bonded with people, even in ways that I may not initially know.
You are part of people's lives quite intimately whether you know it or not.
Yeah, I think about it all the time with musicians because, of course, I have those same kinds of associations with albums or music videos even. But it's funny when people say it to me about seasons of Scandal or where they were when they saw Save the Last Dance or what Ray meant to them and their mom. It's just a real privilege to get to be in people's lives and in their hearts.
So Kerry, 2022 has been a trip. There's a lot going on in the world. What does this current period of time look like and feel like for you?
There are so many transitions happening in so many different areas of our lives. It's a lot to wrap one's head around right now. What's happening in terms of climate change, what's happening in terms of politics and human rights, what's happening in terms of COVID and the economy, there's just a lot happening in the world. And I find that, for me, that also means that there's a lot happening inside my world, right? There's upheaval and turmoil and trauma and also renewal and deep, deep love, all in a day. Every day has so many twists and turns.
Whenever somebody asks me how I am, there are 17 ways to answer the question. I'm trying to learn how to be okay with that, with all the complexities of what we're feeling and that, within a day, something can be really, really great and something can be really, really horrifying. And that doesn't make me crazy. It just makes the world… Maybe it means the world is crazy, and I'm just in the truth of it, you know?
Yeah, and I do try to take the shoulds out of it because I think, at this point, there are no shoulds. You just feel what you feel. I'm trying to be present for it and not be forcing myself to feel something else but also, again, making room in the complexity. If what I feel right now is really angry, that doesn't mean that I can't also feel really grateful and at peace about other things or about even the same thing. I'm just allowing for the feelings to be what they are and to flow with it.
That's really powerful. The Aquarius just jumped out of you a little bit and this idea of flowing through your feelings and not getting so caught up in the shoulds and the coulds and the woulds of all of it.
That's probably true. I'm sort of a textbook quintessential Aquarian from what I know.
Oh, in what ways? Share.
Well, like you said, I'm really attracted to flow and trying to bring flow into situations. But also, I'm a bit of an idealist. I like to think of the best versions of things, people, places, and situations. I like to believe in the goodness of people, which moves me toward being humanitarian. But also, I can be a little flaky, and I don't always have an easy time committing. I haven't in the past in my life. I've learned to. I think we were born with what we're born with, and then we get to have the opportunity to grow and evolve and adjust, so I've really learned what commitment can look like and feel like in beautiful ways for me, but I wasn't oriented that way in the beginning. What else? I love the water. I am more comfortable in a pool or in the ocean than I am on land. It's weird, but it's true.
That's a special connection, and on your social media, we see that quite a bit—you out by the pool often. So that's a fun detail that you truly spend a lot of your time out there because that's maybe your safe space, being closer to the water.
I do, and that's very true. It runs in my family. My family, we exist around bodies of water. My parents' first date really was at the beach. They met at a party the night before, but the next morning, they went to the beach. And I grew up spending my summers at a pool and at a lake. We just were all swimmers in my family, all my cousins. All my richest memories of childhood tend to revolve around our time spent swimming.
Photo:Chrisean Rose; Styling: Miu Miu dress and chokers; Fleur du Mal bra and underwear; Christian Louboutin heels
So taking it back a bit, your very first IMDb credit dates back to 1994, which is a career that, at this point, spans three decades. That's incredible. What's the most significant change you've noticed across the industry since you first got your foot in the door?
There have been so many changes across the industry and so many ways in which the ways that we tell stories in film and television and theater have deepened and become more expansive. There's still so much work to do, but it is so different from 1994. The biggest change that I've witnessed [in the industry] is the acknowledgment that stories need to be told from more than one perspective, that a complete culture of storytelling needs to include a multitude of points of views and life experiences. It's not enough to have just one person—straight, white, male, cisgender, heterosexual—telling the stories that define our culture. That culture is actually all different kinds of people being able to tell all different kinds of stories and see themselves reflected in the narrative and also be able to witness limitless amounts of others in narratives about humanity.
That's a really profound change that's been happening over the last decade, but significantly so over the last few years—this idea that perspective and point of view and representation matter just beyond checking boxes. It's really important to bring in all the richness of diversity into storytelling. What is something that you would like to see change more?
From an operational perspective and from the point of view of the decision makers—the studio heads, the producers, the financiers, the directors—it feels like a newer battle. But for those of us who've been deeply entrenched in the artistry of telling stories about humanity—the actors and writers—this is not a new battle. When I did Save the Last Dance, I knew that it was my job to make Chenille a fully realized, three-dimensional human being, regardless of what was on the page, regardless of what the director intended, regardless of what the editor thought, and I wouldn't have the power to do that wholeheartedly, right? I wasn't a producer, I wasn't a director, so it wasn't up to me to make the final decisions. But I knew that, in the process of contributing what I was able to contribute as an actor, it was my job to make Chenille's point of view as a young Black woman [and] a teen mother living in the inner city central and important and undeniable.
So the battle for me and for friends of mine who have been doing the same kind of work creatively and just in life, like Gabrielle Union and Viola Davis, this is not a new struggle. I think what's changed, as I said before, [is] having more of the final decision makers … catching up to this idea.
Photo:Chrisean Rose; Styling: Roberto Cavalli dress; Piferi heels
Your upcoming film that's coming out later this fall on Netflix, The School for Good and Evil, it's this fantastical enchanted tale. And correct me if I'm wrong, but it's something that's a little bit of a road less traveled for you, the genre. What drew you to this script?
Yeah, that's really true. I've felt this way for a long time. I'm really drawn to comedy and to genres outside of drama, but I've trafficked mostly in drama in my career. I always say to people … outside of anything having to do with motherhood, because that's just its own brilliant, gorgeous pot of gold, … my two most favorite weeks of my life were my honeymoon and when I hosted SNL. And I actually was pregnant when I hosted SNL, so I think that is part of it. But I love comedy. I love outside-the-box creative swings. I love going to work for joy. And I just haven't been able to do a lot of it.
When I got the call from Paul Feig, who's one of my favorite directors (Bridesmaids is just one of the best films ever made), that he was interested in having me come play this role, I would have said yes to him to run craft services. I just am such a fan. On set one day, somebody asked if I auditioned for The School for Good and Evil, and he said jokingly, "Yeah, she auditioned eight years ago when I saw her hosting SNL. That was her audition for this film because I just saw so much light." Because he's such a generous, creative person, he wanted to give me the opportunity to continue to do that kind of work. He could see and tell how much fun I was having. I'm really grateful. I love the material. I think the content is super interesting and provocative and important themes for young people to be grappling with—like, What is good? What is evil? Is anybody all one thing? How do we balance the ratio of goodness and evil? When is it okay to be bad? When is it better to be good? I think these are ideas that all of us are grappling with right now and that young people especially are grappling with. How much do we challenge the institutions that define what good and evil mean? Thematically, it's important, and it just was so much fun.
Also, working with Charlize was a dream come true. I'm a huge fan. She's just such a phenomenal actress and so accomplished. To go toe-to-toe with her was super fun and working with all these young actors who are crazy inspiring and raw talent. Also, the costumes are amazing. The hair and makeup were fabulous. There weren't a lot of reasons to say no.
You've got these heavy-hitting co-stars and this young talent that's vivacious and young and hungry in a way that probably reminds you of a little bit of yourself when you were back in those shoes.
Yeah, it's true. There was a lot of reciprocity. Everybody was really giving and pouring their hearts into each other and into the material. It was in the middle of the pandemic when we were shooting, and my whole family, we up and moved to Northern Ireland to Belfast to film, and that was a whole other incredible education and cultural experience. So I'm really grateful for the film, and I'm really proud of it. I'm excited for people to see it. Professor Dovey is a little bit larger-than-life. … One day, we were on set, and Charlize had just gotten into town, so she was a little bit jet-lagged and drinking her coffee, and I looked at the clock, and I was like, "Oh my god, it's 11:11. Everybody, make a wish!" And she was like, "I think we've been typecast as the dean for good and the dean for evil." We had a lot of laughs just being able to take on these larger-than-life characters and also bring really silly parts of ourselves to the table.
Also working with Laurence Fishburne. This is my second project with Laurence this year. We have a podcast called The Prophecy on Audible. I'm so grateful that Laurence agreed to do that with me as well. That project is also like a spectacular pandemic project, where it was really being able to be in a sound booth acting without the hair and makeup and just relying on sound and the purity of emotion, and Laurence is so… His performance in that series and that podcast—it's a narrative podcast—he's just so tremendous. So to get to work with Laurence twice this year and Charlize and Paul and both Sophias, they're just incredible actors, all the actors really. I just had a blast.
Photo:Chrisean Rose; Styling: Wiederhoeft bustier and tights; Else bra and underwear; Octavia Elizabeth earrings; Christian Louboutin heels
Laurence Fishburne is the voice of many generations at this point. If there's a movie that has moved me in many different stages of my life, it's The Lion King. Laurence Fishburne as Mufasa will never get old—not to me at least.
It's so funny because you could have finished that sentence in so many ways. You could have said Boyz N the Hood. You could have said What's Love Got to Do With It.
The Matrix. Yes, Star Wars. He's just a tremendous legend. It's been really fun to spend this year working with him on two very different projects. The Prophecy is also a little bit in the fantasy realm, but the premise of that narrative series is, What if the events being told in the Bible did not happen in the past? What if it was a prophetic document about things unfolding right now? When [Laurence] said yes, I thought, "Oh, well, now we have a show." The moment you hear it, you know it's him, and he brings all his gravitas. He does that in The School for Good and Evil as well.
We don't often get to see you play an out-and-out villain. Actually, I can't think of one time where I've seen you play an out-and-out villain. Maybe you have some low-key villainous tendencies in some of your roles…
I would say the closest I came would be a film that came out a year and a half ago: Ryan Murphy's The Prom based on the musical. I pretty much play a villain in that. But when Ryan called me about that film, he was like, "I really would love you to take on this role because I don't want her to be just a villain. I want her to feel complicated. I want us to maybe even like her a little bit, even though she has awful politics in our opinion." So yeah, I don't play a lot of villains, but I do play a lot of people, and I've never actually thought about this before, but as I'm talking to you, it occurs to me that I do play a lot of people who think that they're 100% good, and they most definitely are not.
Olivia Pope, we love you, but…
Yeah, Olivia Pope, who's so flawed, [is] like, "I'm so perfect. Judgy McJudgerson sleeping with the married president." Or my character in Little Fires Everywhere, who as a mother thinks she's doing everything right and should not be challenged and has made all the right choices and then has to eat humble pie. So that is an interesting thing for me to ponder, this idea that I've played a lot of characters who think that they're good and may not be as good as they think they are.
Photo:Chrisean Rose; Styling: Christopher Kane dress; Laurel DeWitt pins; Christian Louboutin heels
It's just such a fun balance because we get to see you mostly angelically on-screen, and then we see you on a red carpet, and you turn out these looks that are edgy and cool.
Yeah, that's so interesting. In my personal style, I like to traffic in some of the complexity that we're talking about. It feels important to me to not wear a look that's just completely straightforward and common or easy. I really love working with classic silhouettes but finding ways to add a bit of edge. Whether it's through modernity or through palette or accessory, I like to add some quirk or some edge or a sense of individuality. I think dressing, particularly dressing on the carpet but even dressing in everyday life, is such an opportunity to express something. So I try to not waste that. Even if I'm drawn to more classic colors and silhouettes and forms, I find ways to make sure that my individuality is peeking through.
You work with Law Roach, who is really known for helping people carve out their identity in fashion. Has he helped you to shift your image or shift your sartorial prowess in a direction that you didn't see yourself going?
He's such a genius. I really love working with him. If anything, he has really helped me to lean into exploring and discovering more of a sense of self. I tend to think of red carpet dressing more as a costume. There's this character, red carpet Kerry, and I dress her. Working with Law has really encouraged me to reveal a bit more of myself in the simplicity of the choices and not having the spark of individuality need to be attached to risk-taking and something loud, but being willing to more soulfully reveal myself in the simplicity of the moment. Not that it's not elegant, not that it's not fire, not that it's not all of those things, but somehow looking for more of a central truth about myself on the carpet and less dressing up.
You turned 45 in January. How does that play into your overall fashion goals? Has it changed anything for you in the way that you want to dress and present?
I really don't think about it a lot. It really is only when other people bring it up that I find myself thinking about my age. There's something actually very Aquarian about that. I know traditionally Aquarians are detached, sometimes from reality or from material things or ways of quantifying. So it's funny because, in some ways, I love data. When it comes to identifying, defining, analyzing success and what it looks like, I'm really interested in data. But for myself, I don't tend to think about being 45 a lot.
If there are considerations that are adjacent to the idea of age, I do sometimes think about the fact that I'm a mom. I think that plays a role in my choices. And to be honest, I try to make sure that it's not limiting me too much, that I'm still making the choices that feel right for me right now in my life while also being respectful to my identity as a mom and to my relationships as a mom and a wife. I think about those things, and I think about ways to fold my identity as a wife, a mom, a daughter into the choices that I make—not as reasons to hide, but more just reasons to really make sure that I'm leaning into the truth of what I want to be wearing and how I want to be wearing it, whether other people approve or not.
I love to hear that. And I love to hear that there are so many other elements of your life that play into how you present yourself. After all, it is just a number, right?
It is. It's a meaningful number. I was at dinner with some girlfriends this week and talking about how one of the benefits of being 45 is also the humility that comes with it, the real sense of time that time is not infinite. Again, it's like more and more reason to lean into the truth. How much time do I want to waste not being me?
It's really tempting to ask you what's next because you are always going somewhere and doing something exciting.
I'm really proud of a show that I have airing this fall called Reasonable Doubt. I feel like I can talk about that because it is both forthcoming but also in the can, so it's a nice balance. For me, this show is so meaningful on a lot of levels. I just love Emayatzy [Corinealdi], who's our lead actress. She is a star. She's so talented and so beautiful, and the show's really exciting. It's created by a writer that I've worked with for many years named Raamla Mohamed. She was one of our early research writers on Scandal, and we've come up through the ranks together. She was one of the writers on Little Fires Everywhere, and now, this is her show. My company, Simpson Street, couldn't be more proud to be helping Raamla bring this show to life.
I directed the pilot for the show, so it was really such an honor to help create the world that the show lives in and a first for me. I've done some directing, and I really love directing. I've directed on shows that I love, including Scandal and Insecure and SMILF, but it's so fun to be able to create a show and build a world. That will be airing this fall on Hulu. So that's one thing that's in the near future that I'm super excited about. And just all the things we're talking about—like this invitation that I'm feeling on my heart to lean into the truth of what I want to do and how I want to do it—I'm just really looking forward to continuing to explore that idea in fashion, in storytelling, as a producer, as a director, as a mom, as a person who walks red carpets, as a person who gets dressed to go to the grocery store. I'm really excited at this time in my life to be leaning into making choices that reflect the deepest truth of me that I have access to at the moment.
You have a team around you to help you get dressed and do your makeup, but when left to your own devices, what are your go-to hair, makeup, and fashion choices?
Even just as Kerry, outside of what I do for a living, I'm a bit of a shape-shifter. Even when left to my own devices, I like to switch it up. But I definitely lean toward natural hair. I love my curl and coil. I lean toward a little concealer, a lot of hydration, both internal and external. I lean toward some mascara and really classic, beautiful denim and a crisp, well-fitted, fashion-forward tee that's much more elegant than a T-shirt should be, but so be it. And then accessories that feel both unique and special and classic and simple.
Thank you for putting words to it.
In the pandemic, I have really embraced athleisure. I never knew I would embrace athleisure to this level. I have a sweatsuit collection. It's very beloved. I'll never be as much of a sneakerhead as my husband is, but I do love my kicks. That's where the Bronx in me peeks through. Love my athleisure—I'll never let it go.
Photo:Chrisean Rose; Styling: LaQuan Smith dress; Alexis Bittar bangles; Christian Louboutin heels
What is the pair of kicks right now that, when you put them on, you're like, "I'm that girl—no one can tell me anything."
This is probably because I'm working on a new series for Hulu that I'm in. I play a character named Paige, and we just got some really cute Jordans for Paige. I'm obsessed, so I have to buy a second pair for myself.
A classic Jordans girl. I would not have guessed that, and I love that for you.
I have to be. Don't get me wrong. The new Balenciagas are ridiculous. I love those, but when I'm really back to my roots, it has to be the Jordans.
One last thing. Do you have any kind of mantras or affirmations that you're leaning on right now that are indicative of where you stand right now in 2022 as Kerry Washington?
Maybe just breathe. Just breathe, girl.