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Q&A: What Anita Hill and, yes, Clarence Thomas taught ‘Confirmation’s’ Kerry Washington and Wendell Pierce

‘Confirmation’

“It was important to us that this not be an oversimplified version of winners and losers,” said Kerry Washington, who plays Anita Hill, with Wendell Pierce, who plays Clarence Thomas in the HBO movie “Confirmation.”

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“Who do you believe?" 

In October 1991, as law professor Anita Hill came forward to accuse her former boss and Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, it was the question everyone in America was asking. The dramatic confirmation hearings, broadcast live on television, sparked contentious debates about race, gender and politics — not to mention the correct pronunciation of the word “harassment” — which continue to rage 25 years later.

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On Saturday, HBO is revisiting the media spectacle that captivated (and eventually disgusted) the nation with “Confirmation,” directed by Rick Famuyiwa (“Dope”) and written by Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”). The film stars Kerry Washington, who also executive produced, and Wendell Pierce as the lead adversaries in one of the most notorious cases of he-said, she-said in American history. 

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The two actors, who appear together in just one brief, dialogue-free scene in the film but share an easy rapport in real life, recently sat down for a joint interview to discuss the making of “Confirmation” and the legacy of the hearings. Below is an edited version of the conversation

Tell me about how you approached telling such a divisive story.

Washington: It was important to us that this not be an oversimplified version of winners and losers. This was a very complicated part of American history about really complicated people in an unbelievably complicated set of circumstances, and so we didn’t want to tell an Anita Hill story.

We wanted to tell a story about the hearings and really make sure that all of these characters were three-dimensional and complex and fully realized. Because when I saw the documentary, “Anita” a few years ago, I really loved it and it also left me wanting more. Same for Clarence Thomas.

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[To Pierce] By your own admission, you hold different political views from Justice Thomas. How were you able to empathize with him?

He’s a very public political figure but the personal figure is who I have to play. I tried to put the politics aside and realized here’s a man at the pinnacle of his career, about to lose everything. An event in his life happened that was perceived, whether it’s true or not, in a way that would cause someone to come and make these accusations. He’s in shock, he has to defend himself and how a person reacts to that event in their life is what I focused on. 

What were your impressions at the time of the hearing?

Pierce: I watched it every day. It was a painful episode. It was painful and I remember thinking at the time that I felt for both of them. Then came the realization of well, obviously, we can’t accept this sort of behavior. Whether it’s true or not, we’ll figure that out or maybe we’ll never figure that out, but we cannot accept this sort of behavior. Having a public discussion was ultimately valuable because we were having those discussions.

Washington: It’s funny to remember because sexual harassment, we use that term so fluidly now but back then, it was a vague legal term that nobody really understood.

Pierce: What I learned doing the film is how important that was. It’s the reason we’re even doing the movie. It resonates now because we have to be ever-vigilant about it. It’s not something that we can take for granted. Ignorance that your behavior is offensive does not absolve you of its impact, which for a man, is real news.

Washington: By the way, it’s the same in terms of issues of race. That’s one of the reasons why the film resonates so powerfully with people. If you hold positions of power as a white person, you could be saying things that you don’t know are offensive. It doesn’t mean they’re less offensive, it means we all need to be educated and aware.

Pierce: I have my preconceived notions about Clarence Thomas and I realize that what helped me to put it aside was to realize that it was all political. When he defends himself in the hearing, he points out the racial overtones of this [all-white] tribunal accusing this black man of certain behavior. But as a justice, he never gives that same benefit of the doubt to any plaintiff who asked for redress. That is where, in the community, there’s this frustration. He has such personal clarity about how offensive and impactful racism can be in his life but he won’t allow someone else that same opportunity.

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Washington: Also, he had to be backed up against the wall to have that perspective. It was not a perspective that came easily, it’s a perspective because it was a moment of reckoning. It was like, “If I don’t lean into this truth, I could lose everything.”

Pierce: It was almost an epiphany for him. There is a moment in the hearings, and we replicate it in the film, where he finishes his statement, leans back and comes back in a moment of revelation to say the iconic line, “You know, this is a high-tech lynching.”

Washington: We got to benefit so beautifully from the real footage. There’s also a moment in the Anita testimony that wasn’t originally in the script —  I think my husband could recite the whole hearing because we watched it so much in my house — but that moment of Joe Biden interrupting her in the beginning, we didn’t have that in the script. I thought, “That’s so important,” because it’s this moment when she’s ready and then he throws her off her game. It’s such a power move that really shakes the room. I said, “Can we put that back in?” So having that raw footage was so informative for us.

[To Pierce] Has playing Thomas complicated your view of his political and legal opinions?

Pierce: It actually brings a little bit more clarity. For instance, I’m an avid gun control advocate. He made it clear for me why he’s an avid supporter of the 2nd Amendment. He said the first gun control laws were to keep guns out of the hands of newly freed African Americans and I don’t want my community to ever, ever lose that 2nd Amendment right. That opened my eyes. I had never thought about it like that.

The fact that he could change it and put in that context actually helped me see that he’s not monolithic, but then at the same time, he writes opinions that say, “The government cannot deny you your dignity and the government did not deny the dignity of African Americans when they enslaved them for centuries and Japanese Americans when they were interned.” 

The epiphany for me was learning how much we had in common, not how little we have in common — putting a premium on education in a Southern, black family that goes back for generations. But then having a different reaction to what he would perceive as a slight or racism. When he went back to Savannah after law school, he didn’t get a job at any of the law firms there because he was a young, black lawyer. But he perceived it as something else. 

How did you go down that road and I go down this road? That is just a burning curiosity. I know he would never share it with me. He shares it in the briefs. I hope he sees that I tried to show his humanity.

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Realizing that we had so much in common really opened up a window for me. Also, love of family: How am I going to be perceived by my son, as a father whose integrity and character is being challenged?

Someone actually told me that before I started the process. He said, “Wendell, you’re playing Clarence Thomas. At the end of it, you’re going to be in his corner.” I said, “No, no, no. We are totally on separate pages.” Now, I’m constantly texting someone who knows him saying, “Please have him watch, please have him read this article. Let him know that I tried to portray his humanity.”

[To Washington] What were your recollections of the hearings?

Washington: I was about 14 so a lot of my memories are actually through the eyes of my parents. It was a very pivotal moment for me in my understanding of identity politics. My parents were always on the same page politically. They were supporters of [Walter] Mondale together and their views on affirmative action were the same and their views on a woman’s right to choose were the same. These were things that we talked about in my house, because my mother is an academic.

This was one of the first moments that they were not on the same page. My father was really having a set of emotions about watching this African American man have his reputation and his career ripped from him in a public setting by a panel of white men.

And my mother was feeling pulled by this professional, African American woman who clearly, in her eyes, had been the victim of inappropriate behavior in the workplace. And I was like, “Whoa! They are not on the same page.” I think it was my first moment of understanding intersectionality, that there were going to be times that I was going to feel certain ways as a woman, as a feminist, and there were going to be times I was going to feel certain ways as a person of color, and they may be at odds with each other.

It was my introduction into Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman,” where do you fit into the various movements when you belong to more than one disenfranchised community? It always stuck with me.

So you didn’t meet with Justice Thomas, but did you reach out?

Washington: We all did. Even in the early research process, we reached out to try to involve him; to invite him to be part of the process and Wendell has done a lot of due diligence.

You have talked to some of his friends and colleagues. Have any of them been helpful?

Pierce: They’ve all tried to be helpful, and it comes back to the political figure. They want to be clear and very supportive of his understanding of conservatism. They are conservatives too, the ones I’m reaching out to. We’ve had great conversations about that, but I’m tapping into the humanity. They haven’t really told me anything about him personally. They don’t want to be so presumptuous, but they’ve given me enough to know that he’s a very faithful man and loves football, things like that, which really informs you also as you develop a character. I’ve talked to other justices actually who are very liberal who helped me understand how being a justice works.

The big question everyone says is why [Thomas] doesn’t say anything from the bench, but that has everything to do with the protocol. There is a limited time for the lawyers. So he doesn’t want to disrupt that. And it’s a complete assumption and a presumption on my part; there’s also the deferment and that loyalty, that sense of, “Scalia will do it.”

Washington: Well, the fact that [Antonin] Scalia passed and now he speaks. We were doing some Q and As, somebody said, “Do you think he spoke for the first time because he knows the movie is coming out?” and I was like, “No. I think Scalia passed.”

[To Washington] Tell me about your interactions with Hill. Was there anything that helped guide your performance?

Washington: I learned a lot spending time with her. A lot of it has to do with her rhythm but I think a lot of that I got from watching the hearings. I think understanding where she comes from helped me a lot, her relationship with family, what it meant to not just have to say these things on a national stage but say them in front of her parents.

I always feel like a character walks into my life when they have something to teach me. I feel like they choose me in a way and that at the end of it, it’s almost like we get to benefit from the best parts of reincarnation in this lifetime. I was really struck by how much she was teaching me about myself as a woman, as a leader, as a truth-teller, as a family member, as a person dealing with gender issues and issues of assault in my own life. I was really, really struck by how much she changed me.

[Anita Hill and I] were talking a little about the performance and she said, “Well, I hope you can let go of her.” I said, “You know, it doesn’t really work that way. There’s a little part of you now that’s always going to be woven into me. It’s like that with Della Bea Robinson from ‘Ray’ and it’s like that with ‘Olivia Pope.’” I tried to say it in a very composed way and she said, “Well, there’s no one I’d rather be woven into,” at which point, I lost it. I was like, “Aaargh!” I just lost it.

We started talking about issues of privacy and I said, “You know, one of the things I really identify with in your experience is the loss of anonymity against your will.  I love being an actor but I never wanted to be famous. I don’t enjoy the lack of anonymity in a lot of ways, but I feel like acting keeps choosing me in the way that I know you felt called to the hearings.” And so that idea of the circumstances of your life leading to the loss of your privacy was something that we were really able to connect on.

I think she understood then that I was really invested in storytelling. That for me, this wasn’t about fame and like, “I want to put on a turquoise suit because it’s really cute.” This was about the importance of telling a story and that there is something sacred about what we do by holding up this mirror to society. That’s when she started to open up a little bit.

Have you encountered or witnessed sexual harassment in your own lives? 

Washington: Sure. Not just in Hollywood, in academics, in politics, in business. I mean I have done a lot of things in my life; I’ve worked in a lot of places. Yeah, I think people are always so quick to judge Hollywood and it’s probably because, again, we are the storytellers so we carry the imagery forward through society, but it’s prevalent everywhere. Sure, Hollywood is as bad as anywhere else with racism and sexism.

Pierce: There are times where I meet men in business outside of Hollywood and in Hollywood who have so little perspective on how offensive they are being. And it amazes me at times. You feel this responsibility of like, “OK, I have to educate them,” and this may cause a lot of tension in a relationship but it’s a teachable moment, it’s more important than the comfort of the relationship. It is paramount so you have to say, “No.”

Washington: I have a very dear friend who’s a very powerful CEO and African American man, and he and I were talking. He said to me, “Kerry, the thing to always remember is that the most racist thing that has ever been done or said about you and the most sexist thing that has ever been said and done, you don’t even know about it because you weren’t even allowed in the room.” 

For young people who weren’t around during the hearing, what do you hope they take from the movie? 

Pierce: I hope that generation realizes that the protections that they have, having sexual harassment seminars and a strong HR department, is not something to trifle with. It came out of really hard, difficult times. With another confirmation hearing on the horizon, I realize how profoundly important it is that you are involved, because this appointment is a lifetime tenure. 

Washington: One of my favorite parts of the movie is when the phones start to ring in the offices [during the hearings] because to me, that is the unwritten character of the American people saying, “We have a voice that needs to be heard.” Sometimes we have to remind them, #doyourjob.

Follow @MeredithBlake on Twitter.

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