Kerry Washington plays high-powered problem-solver Olivia Pope on the hit ABC drama Scandal, now in its third season. But after tackling edgy queer roles in the films She Hate Me, The Dead Girl, and Life Is Hot in Cracktown, the Emmy-nominated actress doesn’t need crisis management to confirm that Olivia has come out of the closet.
By Brandon Voss
The Advocate: What do LGBT viewers love most about Olivia, her attitude or her outfits?
Kerry Washington: It’s all about her walk in the outfits. [Laughs] I think they probably appreciate that Olivia is an underdog who’s risen to power. She’s a woman and a person of color, so she’s not who you’d expect to be the most powerful person in the room, and yet she is. She’s overcome a lot of limitations that society places on us, and she collects others who have been victimized or rejected by society. She looks out for the disempowered.
In the pilot, Olivia empathizes with a closeted gay war hero because of her own secret affair with Fitz, the president of the United States.
That was one of the things I loved most about the pilot. As actors, we can allow somebody a window into a world they don’t normally have access to, break down those walls, and then point out the similarities. Olivia identifies with that soldier because she, too, is in the closet. What basically happened at the end of last season is that she was outed against her will.
Isn’t it better to have the truth in the open?
When it comes to sexuality, yes, but I’m not sure Olivia would agree… [Laughs] The truth is always the better way to go. Unfortunately, Olivia and Fitz are always being pulled between the truth of their hearts and the truth of the world that they live in, which is something the gay community can identify with.
What does the support of the LGBT audience mean to you?
For our show in particular, because it represents such diversity on so many levels, sexual orientation included, it means a lot. I always want to be a part of work that speaks to people across the lines that divide us. When fans came up to me, I used to play this game where I'd guess which of my movies they wanted to talk about. It was a totally horrible game based on outward appearances and assumptions about identity. Like, if it was an older black woman, I knew she wanted to talk about Ray. If it was a guy in his 20s, it was Fantastic Four. And if it was a lesbian, it was She Hate Me. But because it has such an amazing following that crosses age, race, gender, and sexual orientation, Scandal has changed the game completely.
What was your introduction to the LGBT community?
I had a dance teacher named Larry Maldonado at the Boys and Girls Club in the Bronx. He was actually Jennifer Lopez’s mentor. He was such an important, pivotal force in my childhood, and at some point I became aware of his sexuality — or that his partners were men. I grew up in a progressive household. Both my parents had gay friends — some who were out and some who still aren’t out — so I didn’t grow up without exposure to gay people, and that was a definitely a gift. At 13 I started working with NiteStar, a theater education program in New York City that came together at the very beginning of the AIDS epidemic. We wrote and performed a show about adolescent issues and sexuality, and as a peer educator I worked closely with people in the LGBT community and alongside LGBT performers.
Homophobia within the black community gets a lot of attention. Have you witnessed it firsthand?
I have. In fact, something that brings me great joy is knowing what Scandal’s audience looks like in terms of African-American households and knowing that so many African-American people and families are being introduced to our characters James and Cyrus. It’s really exciting that millions of viewers each week are living life with this amazing, complex couple, stepping into their gay marriage and adoption experience, which is such a vital storyline in our show.
You’ve been in the business a long time. Have you known many closeted actors?
Sure. I’ve actually talked with friends about the similarities between being closeted and the idea of passing in the black community. Those in the black community who could pass for white often did so to get more opportunities in life, but it came at such a great cost. When you buy into the cultural idea of what’s acceptable and unacceptable, you reinforce negative stereotypes and prejudices. That wouldn’t work for me. I don’t love to give advice to anyone because we all have to make our own choices, but I’d want to live my life in truth. But there also have to be changes within the Hollywood community. Casting directors and producers have to look beyond sexual orientation in the way that they’re just barely, barely beginning to look beyond race. Until Hollywood learns that actors are artists of transformation, it will continue to be limiting for minorities.
You’ve tweeted your support for marriage equality and your disappointment in Russia’s antigay laws. Why is it important to let people know where you stand?
When there are crimes against humanity being committed in the world, we are all so vulnerable. We have to look out for and protect each other.
Have you gotten any backlash from conservative followers?
Oh, all the time! I like when people express a difference of opinion on Twitter, because that’s so wonderful about the country we live in. You don’t have to agree with me, but if you come at me with hatred and slurs, I will block you.
Along with soccer pro Robbie Rogers, you recently acted as honorary co-chair for the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s Respect Awards, which are dedicated to ending bullying in schools.
It’s important to fight for equality on a policy level, but we also have to address these issues with young people. We don’t come out of the womb filled with prejudice, racism, and homophobia. Kids are taught to hate, so we have to protect our young people’s minds from those evils.
Were you ever a victim of bullying?
I was way too much of a flaky theater kid to pay attention. I definitely had periods of feeling like an outsider, but I’ve never experienced the terror that so many young people are experiencing today. I was lucky.
Although you recently married a man, some gossips have assumed you must be a lesbian because you’re so notoriously private about your love life. Do you mind?
It’s interesting how much people long to fill in the gaps when someone in the public eye doesn’t share their personal life. I understand their frustration. I like how people will post pictures of me with other women that I adore, hugging on red carpets, and say, “See?” Are we so uncomfortable with love between two people of the same gender that we immediately label it as sexual? But I’ve never been bothered by the lesbian rumor. There’s nothing offensive about it, so there’s no reason to be offended.
ou’ve spoken about how director Spike Lee sent you and some of your costars to a “lesbian boot camp” to help prepare you for She Hate Me. Did you learn any valuable lesbian lessons?
Well, I definitely had a leg up — no pun intended — over most of the other women in the movie. Because of my experience with NiteStar, I went into it with a lot more information. The best part for me was when we would just go hang out together in lesbian clubs. I always approach a role like an anthropologist, so I like to lose myself in a culture and an identity. It was amazing to spend time in that world.
You played the prostitute lover of Brittany Murphy’s prostitute character in The Dead Girl. Did you see them as lesbians, or was that just a codependent relationship rooted in loneliness and desperation?
Brittany and I talked about that. We felt that neither one of them were politicized enough to identify as lesbians, but they did have a deep commitment and love for each other. It was a lesbian relationship, but they probably would’ve identified as bisexual.
You also played Marybeth, a heroin-addicted transgender prostitute, in Life is Hot in Cracktown. Did you receive positive feedback from the trans community?
Yeah, I did. I had an amazing coach on that film, a phenomenal trans woman named Valerie Spencer. I spent a lot of time with her at home, at work, just hanging out. We also had a lot of trans women in the film, so we really wanted the community to feel present both on set and on screen.
There was some buzz a few years ago that you might play Kristin Chenoweth’s lover in a Dusty Springfield biopic, but the project seems to have stalled. Now there are rumors of another Dusty biopic starring Adele. Could you see yourself opposite Adele?
Sure! Listen, I’m still a little partial to Kristin because she’s so amazing, but I’d be honored to play the lover of either one of those gorgeous, talented women.
Presenting alongside you at the Emmys this year, Miss Diahann Carroll noted, “The men are much more beautiful than when I was doing television.” Who has been your most distractingly beautiful leading man?
Oh, gosh! I can’t compare! It’s like asking a mother to pick her favorite child. I have been so lucky to work with the most amazing leading men in Hollywood, from James McAvoy to Jamie Foxx to Tony Goldwyn. How do you even begin to choose?
Can you choose a leading lady?
I will say that part of what’s so wonderful about being on Scandal is that all the women in the cast, who are so different but so uniquely beautiful, are ridiculously supportive of each other. There’s no backstabbing or weird competitiveness, like, “I don’t want her to look as pretty as me!” We truly want each other to shine. They're more beautiful to me every day.
The Advocate, December 2013/January 2014 issue; extended online version.