Kerry Washington: 'I Don't Think About My Femininity as Being Important to Me'

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When I met up with Kerry Washington in a hotel room at the Beverly Hilton, she was poured into a slinky dress, wearing perilously high heels, and busy cleaning up some dirty dishes as though the Hilton didn't have plenty of cleaning ladies who'd be around soon to do just that. In her onscreen roles, Washington shows just as much surprising commitment, and as Marybeth in Buddy Giovinazzo's Life is Hot in Cracktown, she goes the furthest she's had to yet: playing a drug-addicted, male-to-female transsexual. It's a role as unlikely as Washington's dish-cleaning glamour girl, and as she told Movieline, it's one she had to fight for.

Hi, Kerry.

Welcome to my home. [Her publicist notes dryly, "She's hilarious, by the way."]

Well, I always thought she was! To me, you've really punched through in some of your more comedic roles. Actually, this is going to sound weird, but--

Uh-oh. Stalker alert!

No, I was going to say the first time I really took note of your comic potential was in The Dead Girl, which is not exactly a funny movie. But you and Marcia Gay Harden team up in it and your chemistry is just so kooky that I couldn't help but laugh.

Yeah, no, that's true! By the way, off-camera, Marcia Gay Harden and I were constantly doing a ridiculous buddy comedy: the uptight mother and the crack ho. [Laughs] We talked about it often.

Now, with your role of Marybeth, what I thought was interesting was how you found the right balance between making her sort of normal and mundane, yet still incorporating these fierce little physical flourishes.

That's so interesting. What a really cool observation! One of the things I had to wrap my head around very quickly, and it proved to be a fundamental piece I had to learn to understand this character, was that as a trans woman, what Marybeth is is a woman. These are women that have been born with their biologies having betrayed them in some way. So I had to ask myself, what would that be like for me as a woman if I wasn't this kind of new millennium, post-feminist, take-my-femininity-for-granted woman? What if I had to actually live in the world in a way where I had to make sure people would see me as the person I knew I was inside, psychologically?

So it made me think about my womanness in a different way, and how to celebrate it and embrace it and own it more. Us modern women are trying to get rid of our butts, but what if instead, you were spending your life savings on black market hormone therapy and injections so that you could have a butt? How might you embrace and celebrate yourself differently if that was the case?

So how do you act that, physically?

I think a big part of it comes from connecting to the physical, understanding how important the physical is and appreciating it more. I don't think about my femininity as being important to me, because it just sort of is. But what if you actually had to work for it? How might you stand differently, walk differently, be in the world differently? The nails were more important, the hair was more important, the waxing was more important. It became like a fine art, almost like being a geisha, you know what I mean? It's like the art of womanhood, as opposed to the way we run around. I mean, I run around in flip-flops and jeans, never really thinking about it.

And here I am in flip-flops and jeans, too.

And there you are! [Laughs]

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Did you talk to anyone in the trans community to help you with this role?

I met this incredible trans woman named Valerie Spencer, and she wound up being my consultant on the film. I had her on set most days, and she was important not only to me but to Buddy and to Mark [Webber, pictured above with Washington]. She really helped us navigate this world. She was also really generous to me, inviting me into the trans community: we hung out, we went out to eat, we went to her church. I really was able to immerse myself.

What kind of notes did she give you on your performance?

Every day, it was something. Because it's really all about the details, you know? I often think of my work as an actor as being more of a psychologist and an anthropologist, and the psychology part is something I can do on my own. It's like, what do I know about the internal experience [of the character]? I could relate a lot to Marybeth in terms of being in a relationship and not knowing whether it's the right relationship for me, is he gonna leave me, should I leave him, those kind of insecurities. Feeling unlovable, feeling unworthy, feeling like I deserve better. Those are human, psychological realities, right? But then, the anthropological stuff, that's where the research comes in: really getting to understand the details of another community, another society.

Are there any vanity issues inherent in playing a transsexual?

I think it is an issue, but I think I've always been pretty clear in my career that I didn't become an actor because I want people to like me, you know? I became an actor because I really love the art of storytelling. This, to me, was a really important, interesting, unique story to tell. So that's what I do. That's who I am as an actor.

How does this role compare to the roles you usually get offered?

I kind of think people don't know what to do with me! I do different stuff all the time and try not to repeat myself, and part of that is just wanting to keep my craft in good shape.

But does that make it hard sometimes to cast you, since there isn't necessarily one way you're perceived?

Yeah, kind of. I mean, I have a really beautiful rejection letter that Buddy sent me for this film. One of the most beautiful rejection letters I've ever received, so I kept it! [Laughs] But the more that he immersed himself in the trans community, the more he realized he was surrounded by beautiful women. So he thought, "Let's go for it."

How familiar were you with trans issues before you did this film?

I didn't know a lot of trans people. I did do a lot of work as a teenager, I was in this really incredible theater company that did peer education going into high school. It was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the early nineties, maybe two or three years after those "strange gay cancer" articles. So we would go into schools and community centers and do a show about safer sex and homosexuality and self-esteem and living with HIV. Because of the nature of doing that work at the time, I wound up working with a lot of people in the LGBT community, and I continue to do work as a peer educator even outside of being an actor. So I have a lot of colleagues who are in that community. So I would say that it's something I've always been aware of, but I definitely didn't have the sort of intimate relationship with the issues that I do now.

One other place you made a strong impression on me this past year was as an official advocate for President Obama. I remember you on Real Time with Bill Maher...

[Smiling] Yeah, yeah...

...and you were very ably debating Michael Steele, who went on to become the head of the RNC.

I know! I just saw him at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.

Was that the first time you'd seen him since your little debate?

I think it was. But he's very warm. He loves going, "Did you see her kick my butt on Real Time?" [Laughs]

Obama's in the hot seat right now when it comes to LGBT issues. Having just played an LGBT character, what's your take on the matter?

I think it's definitely a situation in process. We're living in a really intense civil rights moment for LGBT issues because it is literally unfolding minute to minute. I don't have any inside information on the administration, but I think it's a really scary and exciting time to be living in, you know? I just keep trying to remind people about how dangerous it is the moment we take away anybody's civil rights. You just think about how in the moment Obama was born, there were several states where it was illegal for his parents to get married in! It's such a slippery slope when we start legislating access to civil rights. ♦



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