Kerry Washington: The Sundance Interview

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As the 2010 Sundance Film Festival beings today, Kerry Washington's accomplished the the indie cred-burnishing feat of having two buzzy films here. The first is Tanya Hamilton's Night Catches Us, where Washington reunites with her She Hate Me costar Anthony Mackie in the story of two ex-Black Panthers, and the second is Rodrigo Garcia's female triptych Mother and Child, which made its well-received debut in Toronto last fall and costars Annette Bening and Naomi Watts.

Before either of us left for Sundance, I spoke to Washington about her festival entries, the limits of control, and the challenges of her current Broadway stint in David Mamet's Race.

Back in 2001, you had Lift at Sundance, and it helped jump-start your career. What do you remember about that experience?

What do I remember about that? [Laughs] I can't believe it was that long ago. It was really exciting for me. The first film I ever did went to Sundance, Our Song, but I wasn't able to go because I was shooting Save the Last Dance. Sundance is cool, though. Everybody talks about how much the festival has evolved and changed over the years, so I'm kind of excited to go back and see what it's become.

Night Catches Us is a period piece that takes place just around the time you were born. Was it fun to go back and revisit some of those hair and wardrobe details?

Yeah, but it's not exactly revisiting -- I was barely ambulatory then! [Laughs] No, it was really kind of cool. I mean, I feel really lucky because between this and Last King of Scotland and Ray, I've been able to cover a lot of this past century, which is pretty fun.

So tell me about who you and Anthony play in Night Catches Us.

We play two people who were heavily involved in the Black Panther movement ten years ago, and then for different reasons, we've moved on. He goes underground and I become slightly more mainstream in my approach to civil rights and justice. We don't talk to each other for ten years, and then when his father passes, he comes back into town and we're sort of forced to deal with a lot of the mysteries of our past and forced to face some of the complications involved in a movement like that.

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How has she changed in those ten years?

She becomes a civil rights lawyer and tries to become more of an advocate within the system. Instead of operating outside the system like the Panthers, the Weathermen -- a lot of those groups at the time -- she gets her law degree and works as an advocate for people in the community who may not have access to legal representation otherwise.

How did you come to the film?

Well, there was actually another actress cast in the film first. I had known about it for years through its development and I was really looking for another film to do before I gave my life over to the Broadway stage, which is what I'm doing now. For some reason, this actress had to go back out of the project, so it was one of those lucky things where I got to do this literally right before going into rehearsal for what I'm doing now. It's great that it worked out because I had heard about it and read about it so much. Well, maybe not so great for the other actress. [Laughs] But happy for me!

Mother and Child found distribution after Toronto, and we'll see what happens with Night Catches Us. Does it scare you when your films' releases are kind of up in the air?

I don't know if "scared" is the right word. I think sometimes it's unfortunate that a film might not have a larger audience. Like with Lift, we didn't have theatrical release, we were sold to Showtime, and for that reason I think we were seen by a much wider audience. Sometimes you have those stories where films find a home, and other times you don't. I don't think I'm scared of it, but I think in the indie world, you go into it thinking that those are the possibilities. For that matter, I've done big studio movies that are sitting on a shelf somewhere. Anybody who's looking for security and stability should not gravitate toward this business.

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