Actress Kerry Washington’s career has been a slow and steady climb. Born on January 31, 1977 in New York City, NY and raised by her two working parents in the Bronx, she attended the exclusive all-girls Spence School (which boasts Gwyneth Paltrow and Emmy Rossum among its alumni). Kerry participated in a host of extracurricular activities (including gymnastics, ballet and acting). It eventually became clear, however, that her true talent laid in the world of performance, and the aspiring actress soon found herself attending classes and hitting the audition circuit with gusto.
In 1994, at the age of 17, Kerry Washington made her professional debut with an appearance on an ABC After School Special entitled Magical Make-Over. She followed that up with a four-year stint at George Washington University where she eventually graduated with a degree in theater. During those years, Kerry honed her craft by appearing in several school plays and local productions, and it became clear to her friends and family that she possessed an undeniable gift for acting. She grabbed our attention as a struggling teen mom in the 2001 film “Save the Last Dance”. She followed that with “Bad Company” with Chris Rock and a small indie film “Night Catches Us” with Anthony Hopkins.
Critics raved about her first break out role in the 2004 Oscar nominated “Ray” starring Jamie Foxx. She portrayed Ray Charles’ wife Della Bea Robinson. She’s known for bringing life to roles such as Idi Amin’s wife Kay in the “Last King of Scotland”, which was one of her most challenging roles to date acting opposite Oscar winner Forest Whitaker. She found herself being challenged and pushed further than she ever had been before. The hard work clearly paid off, as Kerry received oodles of kudos and acclaim for her searing performance. In two of the “Fantastic Four” films she was Alicia Masters, the blind love interest of Ben Grimm/The Thing.
She played sexy very well as in “I Think I Love my Wife” (2007), and she also was featured in “For Colored Girls” (2010). She teamed up once more in 2012 with Jamie Foxx for Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” Not one to sit on her laurels, Kerry Washington started using her burgeoning fame to increase the awareness surrounding several of her most passionate causes — including the V-Counsel, a group dedicated to ending violence against women, and the Creative Coalition, a political advocacy organization for the entertainment industry.
Kerry Washington is one of Hollywood’s “it girls”. It seems like nothing will change for a while. She’s a spokesperson for L’Oreal, has graced the covers of every magazine imaginable and made her Broadway debut in David Mamet’s Race.
Scandal and Success
Since April of 2012, Washington has starred in ABC’s drama series Scandal, created by Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s’ Anatomy and Private Practice). Scandal stars Washington as political power fixer Olivia Pope, the owner of a crisis management firm, working with an elite team to make sure damaging information never reaches the public. Scandal is a commercial and critical success. The character is based on the real Washington operative Judy Smith, a former member of the George H. W. Bush White House and well-known crisis manager who has represented, among others, Monica Lewinsky and Michael Vick. (Ms. Smith is a co-executive producer on the show).
Scandal, heading into its third season with an October 3rd premiere date, has been a success for ABC. Reports show that in a week Scandal ranked in 3.52 million viewers aged 18 to 49 and 8.4 million total viewers. Among the group aged 18 to 34 it typically ranks first in its 10 p.m. Thursday time slot.
The show’s other sweet spot — one that network executives seem less eager to discuss — is its success among African-American audiences. According to Nielsen “Scandal” is the highest rated scripted drama among African-Americans, with 10.1 percent of black households, or an average of 1.8 million viewers, tuning in during the first half of the season.
Kerry Washington became the first African-American female lead in a network drama in almost 40 years. (The first was Teresa Graves as an undercover cop in “Get Christie Love!” which had its debut in 1974. At the 44th NAACP Image Awards she won the award for the Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series and was also presented the President’s Award. TV Guide named her “Favorite Actress” and Scandal “Favorite Drama” this year as well. The show has garnered her recognition as People Magazine’s Best Dressed in 2013 and an Emmy nomination as lead actress in a drama series. The last time an African-American woman was up for such an honor was when she was starting out. (Cicely Tyson was nominated for her work in “Sweet Justice” in 1995.
According to “Scandal” creator Shonda Rhimes, all the accolades couldn’t be happening to a more well-deserving actress. Rhimes calls Washington a very rare bred of a person. “She knows every single person’s name on the show. And, more importantly, she says, the very thing that I am really trying to learn from her — I have never heard Kerry Washington complain. That sounds like a casual thing to toss off, but think about the fact that she works more hours than anybody. I literally never hear her complain.”
Scandal is one of the most talked about drama series on Twitter. The political thriller has attracted some inside-the-beltway fans like the political strategists Donna Brazile and Roland S. Martin, who have both tweeted about the show. “Scandal’s” success — and consequently her own — has partly been attributed to the series’ active social media presence. Cast members live tweet during every episode, and Washington is especially engaged with fans re-tweeting them and answering their questions.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the social media strategy paid off last season in the form of higher ratings and increased buzz. For Washington, it translated into the chance to compete with Claire Danes of “Homeland” and Robin Wright of “House of Cards” for television’s most prestigious honor. Washington has said she fully embraces the recognition, but for her, it has always been about the craft.
“I don’t approach the work or the life of the work from the perspective of, like, what are voters gonna think or, what are critics gonna think. Once you try to please a specific perspective or audience, it gets in the way of the work. The work is telling the story, and that’s what you have to do: Tell the story in the best way possible to serve the creative vision and to serve the story. You can never control how it’s going to be received.”
For many, Scandal represents a new era of post-racial television, in which cast members are ethnically diverse but are not defined by their race or ethnicity.
“There’s an audience of African-Americans who just want to see themselves in a good story, not necessarily a race-specific show,” said Joan Morgan, a fan of the series and the author of “When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost,” a book about black women and feminism today. “It’s not about this being a black show,” Ms. Morgan said. “It’s about seeing the show where black women and other women are represented less about race and more about who they are.”
For Dr. Brittney Cooper, co-founder of Crunk Feminist Collective and assistant professor of women’s studies at Rutgers University, the subtleties of Ms. Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, make her most attractive.
“The few black women we’ve seen in prime-time roles in scripted shows, they have to be morally above scrutiny, and she’s not,” Dr. Cooper said. In addition to her relationship with the president, Ms. Washington’s character has defended the reputations of dictators, executives and politicians.
“She’s the most complex black female lead we’ve ever seen in prime time,” Dr. Cooper said. “You’re not getting an archetype, you’re not getting a stereotype, you’re getting a fully fledged human being,” she said.
Creator Shonda Rhime who’s shows that have also prominently featured ethnically diverse casts and interracial relationships, has been less interested in talking about the subject of race and “Scandal.” While excited about the shows success among African-American audiences, she’s quick to point out the shows success among all audiences.
It is rare in Hollywood to keep your personal life private while being so accessible to your fans. The actress knows a thing or two about keeping a secret. She managed to pull off a Hollywood coup by getting married without the world even knowing she was dating. Washington recently married San Francisco 49ers cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. “I have girlfriends in this business who talk about their personal lives, and it works for them, and I love it. But not for me.”
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