Two years ago, Kerry Washington found herself in the deep South with nothing to do. She had swung down to South Carolina to check out the presidential debates, only to learn her next film was in writers'-strike limbo. So the Bronx native decided to go in a different direction: She took to the road on behalf of Barack Obama.
"Everything I needed to know about stumping I learned in that car," Washington says of her immersion in political theater.
Her mentor then was Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. "I studied her the way an actor would," says Washington. "What is she doing right? What is my pitch going to be?"
Buttonholing in the Bible Belt as an official surrogate in a presidential campaign is a peculiar hiatus by Hollywood standards. It's certainly unexpected for an ingenue best known for a string of big-screen supporting roles -- Angelina Jolie's junior assassin in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Forest Whitaker's doomed wife in The Last King of Scotland, to name two -- and for being one of the stunning faces of cosmetics giant L'Oréal. But Washington took to the gig like a politico takes to a straw boater.
"I just got bit by the bug," she says.
That "bug" is actually more of a passion Washington has had for social justice, starting from when she was a child. It informs not only her politics (Washington is an appointee on President Obama's Committee on the Arts and Humanities) but her day job back in Hollywood. At 33, she is amassing a body of work that, with increasing frequency, explores the nexus between politics, morality and history.
Take her latest project, Night Catches Us. Washington plays a single mom and former Black Panther living in 1970s Philadelphia. She was drawn to the movie by the character's peculiar parental challenge --raising an inquisitive African-American girl in an era when police brutality was as common as coveralls.
Director Tanya Hamilton sees a depth and empathy in the actress that made her a top contender for the role. During a pivotal scene, Washington's character, Patricia, has to tell her daughter the details of her father's violent death at the hands of law enforcement.
"You could feel the weight on her back," Hamilton says of the actress' approach.
Washington found herself channeling her own mother, Valerie, who would have been pregnant with her at the time the movie takes place. Valerie, too, considered it her job to instill a political conscience in her daughter. "I come from a socially aware family," Washington says. "Affirmative action or a woman's right to choose or gentrification--these were things that were talked about all the time at the dinner table."
Night Catches Us caps nearly two years of dramatic heavy lifting for Washington. In 2009, she appeared in Mother and Child, playing an infertile woman who melts down after an adoption falls through. She also crawled into the skin of a conniving lawyer in David Mamet's Broadway production Race.
After months of Mamet, a less hardy actor might have been tempted to retreat into fluffier fare. Instead, Washington opted for her most brutal drama yet, For Colored Girls, Tyler Perry's film adaptation based on Ntozake Shange's choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. It's a story populated with rape, AIDS, incest, domestic violence.
For Colored Girls, Washington had to embody a social worker named Kelly, a big-city ball of empathy who cannot conceive because of a college bout with venereal disease.
And yet she saw the gig as a kind of welcome release and came to love the character she was playing.
"Here I am on Broadway, doing a play for months and months and months, playing this very angry woman, hardened and brilliant and manipulative," Washington says.
"And then I read this script, and I knew that Kelly was the exact opposite--this walking open heart of compassion who just wanted to do good."
Now, finally, Washington is starting to let herself laugh. She's currently in Connecticut shooting a comedy called We the Peeples with Craig Robinson and David Alan Grier.
And there's plenty of fresh stumping in her future. Sure, Obama is sitting in the White House, but there are other sociopolitical matters that need tending--for one, the arts.
She credits childhood ballet lessons, church choirs and the time commitments they require with helping to keep her out of trouble as a girl in New York, and she wants to make sure other kids get that same cultural exposure.
"You see the transformation that the arts have on young people," Washington says. "It changes their lives for the better. That's where my engagement is."
Photographs by Ruven Afanador; Styling by Hayley Atkin; Produced by Kim Pollock