The Private World Of Kerry Washington

Her characters are famous for handling messy situations, often through sheer force of will. Can that approach succeed in real life?

by Kendra James
Ahead of 'UnPrisoned' Season 2, Kerry Washington talks to Bustle about Olivia Pope and 'Thicker Than...
Micaiah Carter/Bustle

Like her most famous character, Scandal’s Olivia Pope, Kerry Washington is dedicated to her profession. “I’m actually working this summer,” she says when I ask her about her plans, although it turns out she’s actually doing something even more ambitious than that. More ambitious than Pope, a certified workaholic who dreamed of escaping Capitol Hill but always felt its pull. She’s doing it ~all~. “I’m going to be filming overseas, so we get to have this adventure as a family,” she says of husband Nnamdi Asomugha and her three children. “It’s a country we’ve spent some time in, so we’re going to do trips from there.”

Washington, at 47, still has shades of Pope’s “fixer” tendencies, which is clear from our hour-long meeting in Beverly Hills. (She arrives in characteristic business casual, a white blouse and slacks, paired with simple jewelry, her natural hair slicked back tightly against her scalp.) In addition to acting and producing — earning Emmy nods for the latter with Confirmation (2016), American Son (2019) and Little Fires Everywhere (2020), plus a win for live-variety special — she also runs a nonprofit that assists grassroots political workers. And her next release, Season 2 of Hulu’s UnPrisoned, out July 17, humanizes formerly incarcerated people via a father-daughter relationship complicated by the criminal justice system. It’s strangely paralleled her relationships with her parents, which she recently “excavated” in her bestselling memoir, after discovering she was conceived via sperm donor.

Because this is Kerry Washington, and as is true in many of her characters, she’s nothing if not working through it.

Ashish clothing, Hermès scarf, Alexis Bittar cuff, Van Cleef & Arpels ring, CHANEL Fine Jewelry ring, talent’s own wedding band
Dries Van Noten clothing, Ben Amun earrings, Lizzie Fortunato bracelet
1 / 2

In UnPrisoned, your character’s inner child helps narrate the show. How is your inner child doing today?

My inner child is not as spicy as my inner child on UnPrisoned, generally. Today my inner child is in a quiet pride. I’m walking through some stuff in life, feeling very proud of myself for navigating it all, but also humbled by how delicate life is.

When did you learn to allow yourself to feel proud and celebrate success?

My husband, he always picks a New Year’s resolution, something he’s going to work on or commit to. One year it was literally, “We’re going to open gifts when people give them to us.” I can have a gift — even something he gives me — and it’ll sit in the corner of my room. I feel like it’s become a metaphor for receiving life’s gifts. So I don’t know that I’m great at celebrating. It’s something I’m working on. What made you ask?

Oh, just you saying that your inner child was sitting with some pride right now. I worked for Shonda Rhimes for a little over two years, editing for her lifestyle site, and the importance of celebration is one thing I learned from her.

She’s good at celebrating.

She’s really good at it, and about honoring successes, while also honoring what she needs to be successful. She even acknowledges the “wants,” which we’re sometimes taught to ignore or feel shame about.

I’m still learning that from Shonda. I was at a dinner with her a couple of weeks ago, and she was talking about moving out of LA, and asked if I’d thought about where I would go live, if I could go anywhere. And I was like, “I can’t even imagine asking myself those kinds of expansive questions.”

I still don’t have an answer. I’m lucky that my work allows me the adventures of living in other places. It’s been a real benefit for my kids, too. They’re well-traveled kids, and they’ve experienced living internationally, which I think is important. But again, that’s always because someone else has taken me somewhere.

Prada clothing and necklace, Lorraine West ring, Talent’s own wedding band
1 / 3

Last year, you told W that before you read the scripts for some of your biggest projects — Scandal, Ray, Last King of Scotland — you had been “really, really done with this business [Hollywood].” Did you feel those circumstances righted themselves post-Scandal, or have they surfaced again?

When I was younger, there was more melodrama to the decision. I was lacking some of the nuances of, “I need a break.” So, a break became, “I’m done. I’m never acting again. I need to find something else to do.” I’m willing to be more in the nuance of my relationship to work now, but it’s an ever-unfolding journey.

Starting my own production company helped. Once I started producing in the middle of Scandal, I could be more nuanced about what I did and didn’t want to do. I have so much more agency.

It’s a real second act, which is one of the things I love about UnPrisoned.

In some ways, that’s what the show is about, right? This woman, Paige, thinks her life is one thing. She’s a woman whose dad is away, and she’s figured out how to live her life in his absence. And then, he comes in. It requires a second act for her, where she has to figure out how to be a daughter and how to allow herself to have a relationship with [him].

How did finding out the truth about your father affect the way you thought about father-daughter relationships, like Paige’s?

I always felt like I needed to be a better daughter, yet I didn’t know how to be. I felt frustrated by a lot of the dynamics in our relationship. But for me, it wasn’t because my father was in prison; it’s because our family was imprisoned by this secret. There was still this barrier between us, but when it was lifted, it allowed me to explore a different kind of openness and intimacy with my dad, which in many ways mirrored Paige’s attempts at trying to have a different kind of closeness with her dad.

There’s that moment near the beginning of Season 2 when Paige says, “This stops with us,” referring to the trauma passed down from generation to generation. That acknowledgement is such an important step.

I think all of us have pathologies in our family. We all have trauma that’s passed down, sometimes epigenetically. [To write my book, I went] back and excavated my relationship with my parents. There are so many things about who they are and what they gave me that I want to pour into my children. Yet there are other things that have to stop with me. The secrets have to stop with me.

That navigation is something I feel very in alignment with Paige on — figuring out what parts of my dad it’s OK to love, what parts of my mom it’s OK to love. [I want to] celebrate them and carry their legacies forward, but also have the clarity and willingness to say, “No thank you” to other things.

Marc Jacobs clothing and shoes, Saint Laurent earrings c/o Paumé Los Angeles, Heili Rocks ring (right hand), Jade Ruzzo ring (left hand)

There’s another aspect of the show I want to talk about, too. The definition of “felon” changed for a lot of people recently, given Donald Trump’s conviction. It’s a different word now, and it has a different face nationally, one that doesn’t necessarily look like Paige’s father, Eddie. Has it changed for you?

Everything has changed in terms of how I feel about the so-called justice system. We’re in such an interesting moment when it comes to [the question of], “What is a felon?” I love what people have been sharing on social media, [saying that] if a person who is a convicted felon can still run for president, then we should be removing that box from job applications.

Mm-hmm. Voting, too. If a felon can run for president, a felon should be able to vote. Full stop.

That’s huge. Huge. The irony is that [Gov.] Ron DeSantis has been trying to make it impossible in Trump’s home state. A bill was passed in Florida to allow formerly incarcerated folks to vote, and DeSantis has been trying to do everything he can to [undercut] that. Donald Trump may not be able to vote in his home state.

It’s one of the most delicious ironies.

Yes! Allowing for that complexity is one of the things I’ve been most proud of with UnPrisoned. Being a felon has become just another box that we put people in, to assume who they are and what they’re capable of, in the same way we do with gender or race, or that I can do with astrology. [Laughs.]

When Scandal first came out, for a lot of people, Olivia Pope was the Black woman they knew best. Until they spent an hour with her every week, they hadn’t allowed a Black woman to spend that much time in their home. And she was a real human being, beyond the label of “Black woman.” [She had] complexity, nuance, flaws, brilliance. She was aspirational and also such a mess.

Now we’re allowing for that kind of social, psychological deepening with felons and returning citizens, too. It’s exciting to have a show that helps people understand and connect to the humanity of returning citizens.

CHANEL swimsuit, Issey Miyake hat, CHANEL earrings c/o Paumé Los Angeles
Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello dress, Lorraine West ring, talent’s own wedding band
1 / 2

Olivia Pope grew up educated and worked in elite white spaces. I went to Taft and you went to Spence. Neither are the Swiss boarding schools Olivia attended, but they’re as close as we’ve got in America. I’ve noticed that just mentioning where I went smoothes the waters with a lot of white men in power. What effect did attending Spence, and then going to George Washington University — two private white institutions — have on the way you entered elite spaces at the beginning of your adult career?

I definitely think navigating those institutions allowed me to have more confidence in traditionally white spaces. When people find out that I went to Spence, there’s an immediate softening, and an invitation into their idea of normal. Suddenly I fit into the picture, as if, by just telling them that I went to Spence, we are all acknowledging that I understand their ground rules, that I’m not going to do something to make them uncomfortable, because I’ve been trained well. And as a Black person, there’s a sense that I must be exceptional to have been allowed in that space.

A lot of my Black friends would talk about the feeling of putting on an act when they got to school. At first it was the act of transforming from your home self to your school self, but then after a few years, it became the act of—

Going home.

Yes. Did you have that experience?

So, in elementary school, I got moved to this mostly Italian American public school in the North Bronx. That was my first time experiencing culture shock. I remember my cousins being like, “You listen to the white radio station now.” I did, I loved the top 40! I think [that experience] is where my obsession with performance began, because I started to notice the ways in which identity and culture were enacted through music, food, language, accent, clothes.

My mom wrote her doctorate in the early ’70s around using an ESL framework to teach Black kids to honor non-standard English. So [rather than] tell Black kids, “You speak bad English,” say to a child, “How you just said that is appropriate in certain spaces, but I want to teach you this other kind of English that’s going to be appropriate in other spaces as well.”

That’s how I was raised, with this idea that you can be both. I learned how to be bilingual.

Is that cultural bilingual-ness something you’re doing with your kids, especially given that your husband, Nnamdi, is Nigerian American?

Yeah, I think so. We have an eye toward them being all of who they are and knowing where they come from. I’m a kid from the Bronx and Nnamdi’s a kid from LA, and now we live and walk in these very lofty spaces. We’re trying to figure out how to make our kids comfortable on every side of the track they might find themselves on.

So that, to use a word from UnPrisoned, your kids don’t have to have their own “Nigrescence” [an awakening of one’s Black identity].

That’s right. I don’t want them to have to go through that painful unpacking of, “Is this who I am?” No. I want them to be much more fluid.

Ashish clothing, Hermès scarf, Alexis Bittar cuff, Van Cleef & Arpels ring, CHANEL Fine Jewelry ring, talent’s own wedding band, Manolo Blahnik shoes

How did your time at Spence affect how you’ve made educational decisions for them?

It was a hard decision for my mother [to send me to Spence], because she was a public school teacher, and then ran a graduate program at City University of New York, training exceptional teachers to do brilliant work in the public schools. So when she took me out of public school, I think she felt like she was betraying her education community.

It was less hard for me, particularly living somewhere like LA where the public schools are so segregated economically — which is always tied to race. I wasn’t as fraught about it, but I did really want to make sure that their school made inclusion a real priority. And if there’s an issue, I’m on campus, they’ll see me. We have to be really involved and connected to other Black families and families of color.

And I imagine it affords some privacy. You’re very good at keeping your kids and family out of the spotlight. Did you know immediately when you were pregnant that would be the decision?

Yeah. BN — Before Nnamdi — I was in a very public relationship and engagement, like I was on the cover of a bridal magazine. When that relationship ended, I thought, Going forward, I need to have a different kind of boundary, so that my relationships can belong to me. So even in the years of dating after that, I was very private, which was good, because those were my wild years.

When I met my husband, he was also very private. It was a shared value. We started dating right before Scandal, and he had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. We both wanted to protect our relationship. By the time people started talking trash, we were happily married and pregnant. He was massaging my feet while we were laughing about some story on the internet about him partying at the Super Bowl without me. We’d built so much trust that those attacks didn’t put a dent in what we’d created together.

Dries Van Noten clothing, Lili Claspe earrings, Lizzie Fortunato bracelet (right hand), CHANEL Fine Jewelry bracelet (left hand), Roberto Cavalli shoes

How do you think about privacy regarding your kids?

I want them to make decisions about [that] when their brains are fully developed. I’m not making it for them. They didn’t choose to be born into the public eye.

In your memoir, you mentioned that seeing Anna Deavere Smith’s play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 while in high school was an inspiration for you. What art do you notice inspiring your kids? Has that started to happen yet?

They have no choice but to love everything Disney, because I’m their mother.

Yes, you write about your love of Disney. I was going to ask if you’d label yourself a Disney adult.

I think other people would label me a Disney adult, but I know how far down the spectrum you can go. I think I’m an entry-drug Disney adult.

But what else is inspiring my kids? This summer my younger daughter saw her first concert, Taylor Swift. She’s a Swiftie. She was freaking out about the announcement of [The Tortured Poets Department]. I’ve become more of a Swiftie because my daughters love her. So we went to see Taylor Swift, and I became more of a fan in their presence.

Then I took her to see Beyoncé, who my older daughter loves.

That was a can’t-miss tour.

I watched my younger daughter actively fall in love with Beyoncé at the concert, and now Cowboy Carter is her album. She’s like, “Mom, you really have to learn all the lyrics to ‘Tyrant.’” So that’s been really fun.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Top Image Credits: Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello dress, Van Cleef & Arpels necklaces

Photographs by Micaiah Carter

Styling by Tiffany Reid

Set Designer: Tyson Coelho

Hair: Takisha Sturdivant-Drew

Makeup: Allan Avendaño

Manicure: Diem Truong

Talent Bookings: Special Projects

Video: Samuel Miron

Senior Producer, Video Creative: Devin O’Neill

Photo Director: Alex Pollack

Editor in Chief: Charlotte Owen

SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid

SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert