Conversation with Kerry Washington
Kerry Washington, starred in the critically acclaimed film The Last King of Scotland and won the Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture award for Ray at the NAACP Image Awards in 2005. Washington serves on the board of directors for The Creative Coalition, a group dedicated to raising awareness of First Amendment rights and supporting the arts ineducation. She also is a member of the V-Counsel, a group of advisors to V-Day, the global movement to end violence against women and girls.
INTERVIEW WITH MARIANNE SCHNALL (9/16/07)
The following interview took place at the Women, Power & Peace Conference
Marianne Schnall: You work with two organizations I have long known about and been involved with – I go way back with Eve and V-Day, and I also have worked with The Creative Coalition – I interviewed Alec Baldwin years ago when he was in Washington supporting funding for the arts, and I also interviewed Christopher Reeve when he was President of that organization.
Kerry Washington: I just agreed to be – myself and Tim Daly are the ambassadors to the DNC and the RNC for next year. Because, you know, The Creative Coalition is bi-partisan, so we’re going to be going to both conventions. And we’re trying to develop... You know, I was at a spa a couple weeks ago, and this woman said, “So how do they pick the Vice President? Is it just like who comes in second?” And I was like – this is an adult. And even when I listen here today – in order to take America back, in the way that Betty Williams was talking about, to take the U.S. back – we have to understand how the process works. It’s like we can’t even undo the process, unless we really understand the dynamics of how it works. And so for me, I’m excited about really learning about how the conventions work from the inside, and trying to communicate that. And we’re trying to put together like an “un-spin room” – either through MTV or VH-1, maybe BET or Nickelodeon, to try and do this communication about what’s actually happening in real people terms.
MS: What do you come away with from this conference? Did the messages get out? What do you think was the most important thing that has been accomplished here?
KW: For me, I always think it’s important for communities to join forces. And I think one of the most incredible things that happened this weekend at Omega is bringing together leaders from all over the country, all over the world, because – you know, you hear everybody talk about the importance of being a part of a network, a part of knowing that there are women out there who are thinking like you, and moving like you, and organizing like you, and who understand what you’re going through. And to have it here at Omega, you know, the home of the Ram Dass Library, is so perfect, because Ram Dass talks about the illusion of aloneness. And I think that’s what we all sometimes fall into, as women, as people of color, as educators, as organizers – this illusion that we’re trying to do this all alone, or we’ll never make a difference – the coming together in these spaces is what allows us to keep moving forward. I feel like we’ve all come here to kind of plug in, reenergize. And because of my age...
MS: How old are you?
KW: I’m thirty. I have all these electronic metaphors that are coming to me – like we’re all coming to “blue tube” and “download” and “beam” and “synch”. I feel like, with some people, that are in my life on a regular basis, like Jane and Eve – we’re coming to like synch – like synch our Blackberrys with our laptop and make sure that we all have the same information - and everybody’s sharing what they have access to. And then with other people I’ve never met before, it’s like this incredible blue tube experience, we’re like beaming each other our separate worlds, and realizing the similarities and the differences. It’s just fantastic.
MS: Was there anything that surprised you?
KW: You know, it’s been exciting for me – I’ll call it the dialogue about Hillary. Because I think that what’s most important – and this is one of the reasons why it’s so important for me to be participating in this year’s conventions in the way that I am with The Creative Coalition – I think what’s most important is the dialogue. That we’ve sadly fallen into a state of apathy with the political process in this country. And I may not agree with the way the electoral college works, I may not agree with the way the conventions work, but I need to understand them to be able to participate in that dialogue of change.
And I think when it comes to Hillary – for me, you know it’s so funny – I feel like some people came here and felt there should be an assumption that because we’re women, we should vote for Hillary. Well, me as an African American woman, I go, well, where does that put me? Because there’s a whole other section of society that thinks that because I’m black, I just should be voting for Obama. So for me, the dialogue is so important. And that’s sort of the gift for me in this election of being a black woman is, I can’t just vote for somebody because – it’s not Geraldine Ferraro years, I can’t just vote for Hillary because she’s a woman, and I can’t just vote for Obama because he’s black, because I’m both of those things. So now, what are you bringing to the table? And that’s to me how we really should be approaching this, is – yes, who you are as members of a disenfranchised community is important to your politics, but in what way? And how are you really going to use your human experience to inform your political process? And being a black woman - although at first I felt sort of an unfair complicatedness in it - I thought – well, no, this is good! Because I really have to step back and look at these human beings. And I’m totally undecided still!!! [laughs] It’s so early, you know?
MS: In addition to the Hillary thread, while I knew that we were sort of trying to define this new paradigm of power, I didn’t expect the debate on “is power good or bad” – such as in that little volley between Pat Mitchell and Jody Williams. Did you come into a different sense of power from the conversations that happened here today, in terms of “women, power and peace”, those type of connections?
KW: You know, I’m struck a lot by the levels of power, the ripple effect of power, because you can look at some of things that Carol Gilligan talks about in terms of the eating disorders and the depression and the suicide – that is the self-inflicted violence, and then there’s this patriarchal, emotional political, physical violence. And it’s a chicken-egg situation – they inform each other, they manifest each other, they perpetuate each other, and they’re both important. I love that part of being here is, not just - well, no, we have to start with taking democracy out of patriarchy and having it stand alone, and we can’t just start with you have to feel good about yourself – it’s both. Like we have to heal the violence within ourselves as we heal the violence in the world. We have to be aware of the violence that we’re inflicting on our little girls, as the same time as we are being aware of the violence that we are perpetuating as a nation – that all of these things are important. And I like that kind of thorough exploration of violence and what it means – our psychic violence, our physical violence, our political violence. And the violence that we perpetuate against each other as women.
And I loved the moment when Julia Butterfly Hill talked about the cups [Julia took to the stage saying, “I’ve been crying all morning because I am seeing trees in everybody’s hands” over the waste of all the disposable cups, asking us to reuse or use non-disposable cups, reminding us that “every mindfulness practice is a step towards the vision of what we are talking about this weekend.”] and that idea of violence. It’s so wonderful.
MS: Why do you think these issues are not being discussed in the media? Why does it always seem we are being reported at, rather than encouraged into this type of dialogue, and made to feel we are powerless about all that is happening in the world?
KW: Well, there is a vested interest in the people who are attached to that patriarchal structure to make us think that it is a given. That we can’t change it, that we shouldn’t change it, that it’s the way things are supposed to be. But there’s a vested interest, economically, politically, emotionally, for a lot of people, to silence us. And to make us silence ourselves. And so I don’t even think that it’s all the time done on purpose, I think that there are certain people, let’s call them the “haves”, who like what they have, and they don’t want to talk about change. They don’t want to go any deeper. They don’t want to dig deeper. They don’t want to acknowledge the evolutionary, new paradigm of power. [laughs] Like "Well, that means I have less! Why would I want to talk about that?" [laughs] I imagine that that’s kind of the perception.
MS: Both you and Jane Fonda are here, as actresses who have both used your visibility to create exposure for causes you care about. When I interviewed Jane, she was saying that as actresses - in addition to, as you spoke about in the panel, what type of roles you take, which is also very important – I asked her if there is a connection between being an actress and being an activist, and she was saying that acting was an profession of empathy, opening up to a range of human emotion…
KW: Not only human emotion, but human experience. For me to play...You know, here I am I’m this girl born in the seventies in the Bronx. Where do I have to take myself in order to be a black woman, gospel singer living in the fifties married to a cheating husband? What do I have to understand about women at the time, about society? I mean, when I approach my work, I approach my work as a psychologist, as a sociologist as a cultural anthropologist, as a linguist – because all of those things are what build us to be who we are, right? So, in order to do that, my work in social science, as an actor, allows me to have compassion and understanding for people other than myself. You know?
MS: It seems to be an increasing trend of artists and entertainers - especially actors - getting informed and speaking out on activist causes. That's interesting to think that's why that's happening.
KW: Sometimes it’s through the work, and approaching the humanity of a character. Because any good acting teacher will tell you, you have to love your character, even if your character’s a murderer. You can’t hate your own character – you know, you can be self-hating as a character, but you have to let the character live within you, so sometimes the work takes you there. But sometimes, like with Angelina Jolie – it wasn’t the compassion of playing the role in "Tomb Raider" – but literally being somewhere else. So, as actors, we have these jobs where we literally have to get up, and move our lives, and we have to kind of let go of what we think we are. And it’s not that it was being Tomb Raider that grew her spirit, but it was living in Cambodia that grew her spirit. So there’s also just that physical reality of like, I’ve lived in New Orleans, because I shot “Ray” there. So, when Katrina, when the storm happened, now when the flood happens, it has a different resonance. Because I’ve lived in other places. And you compare that to the kid on my block who grew up in the Bronx and has never had the opportunity to go anywhere else – how much are they able to connect of the universality of pain? They’re not experiencing it.
I mean, that’s part of the reason why I think what we do as actors is so important too, because you can literally go places that you don’t have access to. I remember the first time I saw “Boyz N the Hood”, I had never been to L.A. I had never been to Los Angeles – I didn’t think that my life really had anything with gang culture in Los Angeles, and I watched “Boyz N the Hood” and I was like – that’s me! That’s my life. And suddenly I felt, at a time in the hip-hop culture where it was East versus West, I went – wait a second, we’re having the same exact experiences, you know?
MS: Not all actors and actresses become activists – you in particular have been very involved to work with so many causes. Where does your passion come from?
KW: I think part of it was that I understood really early on... I guess for me, theater and the arts in general, had such a huge impact on me, that I innately understood the power of performance. And so I’ve always wanted to be aware of that power, and respect that power. Like I have this vision of myself of eventually – like I’m like sixty-five, seventy, of running the NEA [National Endowment of the Arts] – I mean I’d love to be the next Jane Alexander. And that for me is because of knowing what these messages are.
I think the other thing is – you know, my Mom is an activist. I mean, my mother is an educator so she’s always been aware. And then when I was twelve, I made a switch from a public school in the Bronx to a private school in Manhattan, to Spence, and that was a whole new level of activism that was thrown upon me – not necessarily by choice, but just because if I was going to be understood in this community in any way, that small group of women of color in my school, we kind of banded together to survive and educate and share. And for me, it’s almost a necessity, it’s like people say, “Oh, it’s so great that you’re now moving into producing,” - because I’m pitching these television shows, I know that they’re politically on point, and I know that they’re complicated and human and great. But I also know that for me it’s just survival. It’s like how many bad scripts am I going to read? [laughs] You know? How many bad scripts am I going to read before I go, Kerry, you graduated Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa, put the pen to the paper. I have to take control of this situation, for myself. At first it was, well, I’d rather wait tables than do work I’m not proud of. And then it was believing in my work to the next level and saying, why don’t I have one of those campaigns? And Jane and I have talked about that, you know, working with L’Oreal, and being the face of Movado, because I interviewed them a lot, to make sure these are places that I felt like I could stand behind. And so now doing that, so that again, I'm not perpetuating images of women that I don’t agree with, or that perpetuates a sort of ignorance and emptiness. And now producing is that next level for me, of empowering myself to say no to projects that I don’t want to lend my voice to as an actor.
MS: You participated in Carol Gilligan's panel on "Listening to Girls and Boys". What message do you think most needs to be instilled in young girls?
KW: Don’t doubt. That’s what kept coming to me. Don’t doubt what you know. Really to connect with what we know. Because that’s what started happening to me around ten or eleven. Coming from all these different directions I started to go – oh, maybe I’m not right. Maybe I can’t. Maybe I shouldn’t. You know, that thing starts to happen. And then you forget that you know! And then – when the voice that knows to speak, you start to silence it with the eating disorders and the drug abuse and the promiscuity. Because you go, “I can’t know. Because I’ve survived by not knowing now.”
Because the other thing is – for me, when I really connect with what I know, then I can be honest also about what I don’t know. I mean what I know is not to say, “I know what I know and I know everything,” it’s to say, “There are certain things I know, there are others I don’t know. There are other areas that I know the gray really well” - but just to like connect to me. To not be afraid to connect to me. And to not be afraid to let that evolve. But even that – it’s just staying continually connected and to not doubt myself. To not doubt what I know. And what I don’t know and what I want to know, and what I wish I didn’t know – but just to stay connected.
MS: I did an interview yesterday with Betty Williams, and I just think it’s so important that even these Nobel Laureates, that they keep stressing that they’re not perfect human beings, that's they're ordinary women. Betty talked about her struggles with her own anger, and so did Jody Williams yesterday – they seem almost uncomfortable with being this like high and mighty “Nobel Laureate thing”. That’s something that seems so important to get out there – that’s it’s OK not to be perfect, or to not have all the answers, to not know.
KW: And it’s empowering! Because again, we don’t have to do any one thing. We don’t have to be anything. We’re allowed to have our full experiences as human beings. So, I don’t know who I want to vote for. And I’m allowed to have a voice in that.
MS: There are so many misconceptions about feminism, and at Feminist.com we’re always trying to redefine it and help people see the connections of feminism to their lives and to addressing the problems in the world today. Do you consider yourself a feminist? And what would be a definition of feminism that you could sign on to?
KW: I do consider myself a feminist. I mean, I love that definition, that it’s the whole belief that women are human beings and deserve equal rights, equal access. I think of the original Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the women’s bill of rights that they wrote. It was with all the same language but just adding, “…and women.” That men and women. [laughs] I love feminism – being a feminist is a great thing to be. And it’s not always easy, because it’s not the hegemonic ideology – it’s not. It takes remembering.
MS: I’m always amazed when women say they’re not a feminist.
KW: Why? Why? What have we made so scary about supporting rights for women? What is that? I don’t get it.
MS: As I mentioned, I go way back with Eve and V-Day, so I have to ask you since I know you’re very involved with them now. What attracted you to that movement and to working with Eve?
KW: What really, really attracted me to working with Eve was the theater. I mean, I remember seeing her work and seeing the work of Anna Daveare Smith and saying, “Oh, they get it.” They get what I feel like I’m discovering about myself. I saw an idea of what I wanted to create in the world reflected through their work. So I loved “The Vagina Monologues” and I just kind of followed her, in the media and the website, and tried to stay really aware of the things that Eve was doing. And so today, to be a board member just feels like a profound, profound honor.
MS: When you look out at the world, do you feel hopeful? Are you optimistic?
KW: I am. I am optimistic. I think you can’t look at a conference like this and not see that it’s a step forward from where we were a hundred years ago. Is it as fast as I would like it to be? Not always. [laughs] But it’s a big deal that this year that we’re debating a black man or a white woman for President. That’s amazing! That’s really amazing.
MS: How do you create balance in your life? It sounds like you are doing so many different things.
KW: I have a really good therapist. [laughs] That’s really important. I try to keep those appointments. I try to stay connected to my family. And I try to put myself first, which is not always something that we talk about, you know? For me, I’ve had to do that. If I don’t kind of put my own physical and emotional health first, then I’m not really useful. To any movement, to any work of art, to any creative endeavor. It can be even as little as with the food, you know, sometimes I think, well, I won’t eat. And then I’m in the meeting with the headache and not really listening and cranky because I forgot to put myself first. And I have to be aware. Not selfish and self-absorbed and self-obsessed, but I have to be self-aware of what my needs are. And be willing to take care of my own needs, which is in itself feminist. You know? Because we come from a history of women relying on men to take care of us. Like they provide the food, they provide the shelter, they provide the wages – and so I try to think of these things of feeding myself and clothing myself in ways that I feel good about – and those things are ways that I am being a feminist in the world. Because I am taking care of a woman.
MS: What would be your vision for humanity’s future?
KW: I don’t know. I was asked that question in terms of V-Day and I just said “the end of violence” because that fits so specifically with V-Day – that is the vision for V-Day.
MS: Or rather than vision, what would your prayer be, what would you most like to see in the world?
KW: I love the Buddhist prayer “May all beings everywhere be happy and free.” You know? And the second line is, “And may my practice of yoga contribute to that happiness and that freedom.” And for me, by saying "yoga", it’s not the poses alone, because I really don’t practice my yoga as much anymore, but may my practices in life, may my behaviors contribute to that happiness and that freedom. So I think that’s it – may all beings everywhere be happy and free. And as the Earth being the ultimate being, and then all of us living beings on it. And even this movement, as a being.
MS: Last question - the global component of this conference, seeing those women from the conflict zones. How important was hearing from those women?
KW: Amazing. So great. Because, you know, when you do a play like “Necessary Targets” [she had performed the night before in Eve Ensler’s play about women Bosnian refugees, along with Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn and other actresses] you think, I know that women everywhere will identify with this because pain is universal in a psychological way, but then to spend the whole day, to hear, about these things, that were happening in Bosnia in the play, happening in Burma, in the Congo, in Afghanistan – literally the same kind of violent atrocities – you go, this is so important. It’s so important that we look each other in the eye and we go, what’s happening is not OK, and we are not alone in trying to shift it. We are not alone in our pain, and we are not alone in our transforming our pain into power. And to see it on a global level, truly, it reminds us how much work there still is to do, and it reminds us we’re all doing it. And we can support each other in doing it.
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Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer. She is also the founder and Executive Director of Feminist.com and cofounder of EcoMall.com, a website promoting environmentally-friendly living. Marianne has worked for many media outlets and publications. Her interviews with well-known individuals appear at Feminist.com as well as in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, In Style, The Huffington Post, the Women's Media Center, and many others.
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Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice came out in November 2010. Through her writings, interviews, and websites, Marianne strives to raise awareness and inspire activism around important issues and causes. For more information, visit www.marianneschnall.com and www.daringtobeourselves.com.