Everything is happening for Kerry Washington these days. First off, she’s starring in the show America’s obsessed with. Bill Clinton is a fan. Lena Dunhamlive-tweets the broadcast. Even Oprah messages her while the show is on. (If you don’t watch Scandal, I can’t do justice to Shonda Rhimes’ killer concept, but Kerry plays Olivia Pope, a hyper-competent D.C. crisis-management expert who advises the president while simultaneously having an affair with him. She’s both totally in charge and completely hopeless. It’s awesome.) As the first African American female lead in a network drama in almost 40 years, Kerry’s role on Scandal is historic, and it’s earned her an Emmy nomination—all at a moment when her real life is moving at warp speed too. She just got married (to San Francisco 49ers cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, a guy her fans didn’t even know she was dating), she serves the Obama administration (as a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities), and—big surprise—she was just named to Vanity Fair‘s International Best-Dressed List. If I woke up tomorrow morning and saw that Kerry had become the first person to land on Mars, I’d think, Well, duh. (You just know Jason Wu would custom-design that space suit.)
Kerry and I first met six years ago at a benefit our mutual friend Eve Ensler organized to help women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and bonded when she directed a short film for Glamour‘s 2009 Women of the Year awards. Since then I’ve seen her dressed up at fashion shows and dressed down at football games, but everywhere, she has a kind of…gravitas. Kerry grew up in the Bronx, going to the same Boys & Girls Club as Jennifer Lopez, and once said her career goal was to be the next Jane Alexander, legendary former head of the National Endowment for the Arts, because of the key role arts programs played in her childhood. (Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, BTW, is a cousin.) And now, at 36—after wowing us in movies like The Last King of Scotland, Ray, and Django Unchained—she’s killing it in a TV role that seems made just for her.
Kerry also knows how to rock a good speech. Earlier this year I sat at my desk and watched online as she stood at a lectern (in Tod’s riding boots, if you must know) and accepted an honorary doctorate at George Washington University, her alma mater. “You and you alone are the only person who can… [write] the story that you were meant to tell,” she told students. “We are the lead characters in our own lives.” Hell, yeah! Tell us more, Dr. Washington.
Cindi Leive: You’re so close to your parents. Were they OK with your career choice?
Kerry Washington: When I said that this is what I wanted to do, my mother literally cried. She didn’t want me to experience all that rejection. They both would have preferred me to have been a lawyer.… [After college] I gave myself a year to make it in acting and was living in my parents’ house teaching beginner’s yoga when I got my first part, in Our Song. Then I got Save the Last Dance.… Now they’re really behind me. And I’m always working. My cousins call me the longshoreman of actors.
CL: [Laughs.] I want to ask about fashion too. At what point did it start to be fun, or is it still kind of something you do because it’s part of the job?
KW: It started out as, like, Good-Student Kerry. OK, I’m going to admit this: There were a couple of actresses whom I felt were having the upper hand careerwise—because they knew how to work that red carpet. I was like, “I’m missing a really important tool. If I am the CEO of the Kerry Washington Corporation, my marketing department is really lax.” So I sort of developed a new character: Red-Carpet Kerry.
CL: I love that.
KW: And I researched her like any other character. I actually called Tracee Ellis Ross [the actress and Diana Ross’s daughter], who’s a good friend, and literally asked, “How do you pronounce Hermès?” Red-Carpet Kerry needed to know.
CL: The longshoreman kicked in.
KW: Exactly. The professor’s daughter kicked in. I was doing library hours on fashion. And then it happened—I was in love.
CL: And the fashion on Scandal is a whole other story. All that white! Did that come from you?
KW: From me and the costume designer Lyn Paolo. And the pants—that Olivia wears pants—that was mine, because I really wanted her to wear the pants in that relationship.
CL: I’ve heard that people have been walking into Prada and asking for the Olivia Pope purse.
KW: And Movado for the Olivia Pope watch. My mother was like, “I think I want an Olivia Pope watch for Mother’s Day.”
CL: Your mom is shopping off Scandal? I think your parents are officially OK with your job. So what’s in the Prada bag?
KW: [Laughs.] Usually folders, pens, the phone on the show, and often a bottle of water to add a nice weight to the bag. And some panties in one episode!
CL: I love the whole idea of “gladiators” [Olivia’s term for her employees and, now, what fans of the show call themselves.] So who are your gladiators?
KW: My closest girlfriends from college, and I’m really close to the girls on the show. It’s a sisterhood.… That’s the big thing that really differentiates me from Olivia: She compartmentalizes her relationships. I really try to let my friends into all of my life. They know that Red-Carpet Kerry is a version of Kerry, and they know that DNC Speaker Kerry is me.
CL: OK, so relationships. In interview after interview, you always use the same phrase: “I don’t talk about my personal life.” I’m curious about the discipline that it requires to be so tight-lipped.
KW: I learned through experience that it doesn’t work for me to talk about my personal life. I’ve had earlier times in my career when I did talk about it. I was on the cover of a bridal magazine [InStyle Weddings, in 2005, when Washington was engaged to actor David Moscow]. But I couldn’t just turn around and say, “I only want to talk about the good stuff, but not the bad stuff.” So I just thought, OK, no more.
CL: You even managed to get married in June without anyone knowing.
KW: Absolutely! I’m walking around in the world with my ring. And when people say congratulations, I say thank you. But I’m going to continue to not talk about it and just let it unfold.
CL: It must have been satisfying to pull off a wedding with no press around.
KW: [Laughs.] I don’t want to sound smug about it…but the point is to do what’s best for me. 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.__
__To read the full interview and see all the photos from our cover shoot, download the digital edition now or pick a copy on newsstands September 10.