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Kerry Washington talks ‘Little Fires Everywhere’

Updated March 14, 2020 - 3:37 pm

Kerry Washington is a boss. Case in point: her answer when she weighs producing her own work versus starring in blockbuster films.

“I don’t know why we can’t be in charge of blockbusters,” Washington, 43, says of a woman’s role in Hollywood. “Why are they mutually exclusive questions?”

Washington has partnered with another A-lister — Reese Witherspoon — to produce and star in the series “Little Fires Everywhere,” debuting Wednesday on Hulu. It’s the screen adaptation of Celeste Ng’s best-seller about the intertwined fates of the picture-perfect Richardson family, including Witherspoon as Elena Richardson, and an enigmatic mother, Mia Warren (Washington), and her daughter, Pearl, who upend their lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio, in the late 1990s.

Review-Journal: What is your idea of the perfect Sunday?

Kerry Washington: Sunday is about being with the people you love. … It’s nice to have a rest day. When it comes to doing things, we like to spend a lot of time outdoors together.

What was the appeal of “Little Fires Everywhere?”

I think from the beginning, the book really delves into class, sociopolitical differences and cultural differences. And I think adding race into that is a lot to unpack. It’s wonderful because all of these issues are present, but they’re embodied into these really interesting women.

You’ve also produced the series through your company Simpson Street. Does that name have a special meaning?

It’s named after the block my mom lived on as a kid. She was one of seven kids. We used to hear these legendary stories about what happened on Simpson Street. One of the first films I produced was “Confirmation.” My mom and two of her sisters were at the premiere. I didn’t tell them the name of my company. I’ll never forget that when the screen flashed Simpson Street, the whole row — my two aunts, my mom and their husbands — were so excited.

You’re from the Bronx, where your mom was a professor and your dad a real estate broker. How did you decide to become an actress?

(Laughs): Me and J-Lo from the Bronx. I’m just Kerry from the block. … I always loved performing. I acted with a teen group and went to the Spence School in Manhattan. Acting was just a natural outlet and I loved stepping into the shoes of another person.

Spence was a prestigious school. But you weren’t the richest girl in terms of money.

When I was growing up in the Bronx, I still thought we were rich because we had a dishwasher and a microwave. And we had two cars. But at Spence, kids had helipads on top of roofs so they could go to the Hamptons. I was like, “What’s a helipad?” At about 10 or 11, I started to realize that the place where I went to school eight hours a day was an entirely different universe from the place I went home to at night. I remember having to navigate a lot of complex feelings.

How did you deal with early career rejection?

It was mostly about faith. About a belief that my life was going to be a life of goodness. And what was meant to be was meant to be. I always trusted my path. Surrender has been the No. 1 key for sanity.

You’ve played memorable supporting characters in “Ray” and “The Last King of Scotland.” What is the key to making each role unforgettable?

I do try to take supporting characters and remember that they’re not just an accessory to the main character. They’re also telling their unique story. That’s particularly important to me as a woman of color. We often want those smaller characters to be accessories. I have to be the protagonist in the story I’m telling to make it real. I always treat my work as if I’m No. 1 on the call sheet. It’s true in life, too.

How do you make yourself No. 1 on the call sheet of your life?

As women, we can buy into the idea that we’re less important. We get caught up in other people’s stories. If I’m stepping into my fullest power and living up to my full potential, then I’m serving the other people in my life, too.

When you auditioned for “Scandal,” did you think you nailed it?

I thought this part was written for me. The problem was there were 20 other actresses who felt the exact same way. I knew after the audition I could leave with no regrets. I left it all on the court. And what if it didn’t happen? Rejection is God’s protection, but in this case, the part was mine. I do think that if Olivia Pope had come into my life any sooner, I wouldn’t have been able to be her. She required a certain level of confidence. She had to be self-assured. Also, she required a really substantial toolbox as an actor.

“Scandal” broke new ground.

There was a responsibility for me that I took quite seriously. When “Scandal” first aired, there hadn’t been a black woman as the lead of a network drama in almost 40 years. There is this line I love: If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. I could see it. I’m so grateful to the audiences. If people hadn’t tuned in, it would have been another 40 years before a woman of color was asked to lead a network drama. People showed up and created the phenomenon.

Do characters find you? Or do you find them?

I feel like every character comes into my life when there is something I need to explore about myself. Maybe my subconscious needs that character to sort through something. The biggest gift for me with each role is how I’m able to grow personally. I feel when I have the courage to meet the role and “go there,” it’s a level of truth that I’m working through in myself. I’m offering audiences the hope of witnessing truth and discovering something about themselves.

You’re married to Nnamdi Asomugha, a Nigerian American actor, producer and former football cornerback who played for the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers. And you’re a mom to Isabella, 5, and Caleb, 3. Do you have that working mom guilt?

Of course! But my kids don’t gain anything by me resisting or hiding my passion. They learn to be more courageous and creative when their parents are courageous and creative.

What is an important lesson you want to teach your children?

Remember the little wins. I try to not wait for the big things to celebrate. I want to celebrate along the way. I don’t want to discount all the wins because the finish line didn’t look like what I thought it would look like.

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