Everybody knows Kerry Washington: Striding through the Grand Salon of the Baccarat Hotel here she greets multiple acquaintances, and a bestselling author pal stops by briefly to share a copy of her new memoir. But if you think you know Washington as Olivia Pope (her uber-popular “Scandal” character), HBO’s “Confirmation” offers whole new insights into what she can do as a woman subjected to the personal and literal politics of D.C.
Playing Anita Hill, the professor drawn into the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Washington is nuanced, vulnerable and just as electrifying as when playing Pope – but for entirely different reasons. She dug into some truffle fries and chatted with The Envelope recently about the work required for the role.
You were a teenager during the Anita Hill hearings in 1991. How did they factor into conversations around your house?
Usually my parents were on the same page politically, but my dad as a black man was feeling compassionate toward Clarence Thomas, and my mother was pulled toward Anita. It was the first moment I became aware of intersectionality in my identity and my politics; that being a woman and being a person of color might be more complicated than I thought.
There’s that great quote about how history is told by the winners – and I don’t know who the winners are in this story.
Who knew that in future years you’d be taking your first steps as a producer while starring as Hill in a movie about it all?
I have fallen in love with producing. This sounds so Olivia Pope – I really like problem solving. I really like giving people an opportunity to do what they do well. I do like the fixer part of it, whether it’s cracking the plot with the writer, or helping an actor who’s not happy with their accommodations, or craft services. We were meeting with directors in my trailer at “Scandal” because we were trying to fit it in at the end of the season.
You couldn’t have known when you first started filming “Confirmation” that it would be so timely in 2016, and yet it is.
There’s that great quote about how history is told by the winners – and I don’t know who the winners are in this story. Yes, he’s sitting on the Supreme Court, but you can see the impact the hearings had on him and Anita Hill and the Senate. The American people really had an impact on those hearings and on transforming the way we think about sexual power and sexual harassment. Sexual harassment was not a word anybody used before the hearings, and now it’s commonplace because the culture has so changed.
And yet the film almost makes you feel empathetic for the old boy network – nobody gave them the memo that a new day had come.
You can feel the change, and you can feel their fear coming from their resistance to that change. Their entire concept, their paradigm of what power looked like and how it operated was going to be transformed. For a lot of them it was like, “If what she’s describing is sexual harassment, how many of us are guilty?”
Geena Davis’ Institute on Gender in Media found a few years ago that when there’s 17% of women in any crowd, men feel women have achieved parity; if there’s 33% women, men feel overwhelmed. So maybe not a lot has changed.
That reminds me so much of what’s going on right now in our national stage with the election, the whole idea of making America great again. It was great before. The push-back is alive.
“Confirmation” is about so many things, but to you is it more about gender, race or class?
I really think the film is about power and access. Olivia Pope is usually the most powerful woman in the room with the most access – but Anita Hill was the opposite. She had no access, no authority, no external power in that community. She had to hold firm to her truth despite all that. Most straight white men don’t understand why she would stay [with Thomas in multiple jobs]. But anyone who comes from a disenfranchised community understands. You want to push through until you can make change on a higher level.
Anyone who comes from a disenfranchised community understands. You want to push through until you can make change on a higher level.
Would Hill get a fairer hearing today?
I’m not sure. Because of social media it would be different. Particularly all the things that weren’t included – all of the people who didn’t testify, or the details about his renting porn videos that weren’t allowed. You think, “TMZ would have broken that three days ago.” Things are so different. And yet, they’re not: Cosmopolitan did this amazing story about sexual harassment and how many people still don’t report it – out of fear they will be penalized.