Kerry Washington: Notes on a scandal

By Emma Rawson

The TV-lead debut of Kerry Washington explores a seedier side of US politics, writes Emma Rawson

Kerry Washington's high-powered fixer is a long way from her Django Unchained role as a slave.
Kerry Washington's high-powered fixer is a long way from her Django Unchained role as a slave.

In an age where a sex tape, drug conviction or 72-day marriage can make a star a household name, it's a funny twist of fate that Kerry Washington is the star of Scandal. The Emmy nominated actress doesn't owe her success to courting controversy, but to hard work and talent. Roles such as Idi Amin's wife in The Last King of Scotland and slave Broomhilda in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained have earned her critical acclaim, but it's her latest small-screen role that's really got her noticed. Washington plays Olivia Pope, crisis manager, PR guru and scandal "fixer" for the rich, famous and politically powerful in the series from Grey's Anatomy producer Shonda Rhimes.

The show is based on the work of lawyer Judy Smith, who acted as press secretary to US President George Bush snr before leaving the White House to start her own crisis management firm, where she represented the likes of Wesley Snipes, Kobe Bryant and Monica Lewinsky through public disgraces.

Bill Clinton calls himself a fan of the show (it's unclear whether Hilary tunes in) and although the show parallels Judy's career and echoes Clinton's term as president, Washington states that Olivia's secret affair with the show's President Fitzgerald Grant is not based on any real-life events.

"From the beginning I've said the professional life is inspired by Judy, but not the personal. Judy never slept with George Bush snr," jokes the 36-year-old, who consults Smith about her storylines.

"Judy's on my speed dial and if I get something wrong, I get in a whole lot of trouble from her.

"She's a really valuable asset for me and the writers because I get the chance to call Judy and say, 'What is it like to get a call in the middle of the night to identify a dead body? What is it really like when you go into the upmost secretive chambers of a hospital because the president's life has been threatened?"

Pope is a role that Washington, whose nickname is K-Dub, was born to play. Not only does the Democrat supporter have a keen interest in politics, visiting the White House several times to support Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, but she shares her PR guru character's ability to dodge the media.

She avoids playing the Hollywood celebrity game and has kept her personal life out of the US tabloids, to the extent that many did not know she had been seeing NFL player Nnamdi Asomugha for more than a year until the newlyweds filed a marriage licence in June.

In person, she also shares Olivia's commanding take-no-prisoners presence.

Although the show is about to screen in New Zealand, in the US they're already up to season three and Scandal fandom has reached fever pitch.

When TimeOut meets her on set in Los Angeles, she remains perfectly poised when swarmed by a gaggle of giddy US television critics. Despite storylines that centre around the sometimes baffling world of US politics, Washington says the show will also appeal to Kiwi fans.

"I meet fans of the show in every country, and people showed up at the European premieres of Django with photos of Olivia Pope for me to sign. They were bigger Scandal fans than they were Tarantino fans.

"There's a lot to appreciate about the show, no matter who you are. I say the show is a combination of Grey's Anatomy, The West Wing and Damages because it's about power struggles but also politics and romances," she adds.

"I find myself in shock and awe reading the scripts each week. I found myself bursting into tears after one episode and called up Shonda and said, 'Does it have to be like this, does this have to happen?"'

Judy Smith, the real-life Olivia Pope, agrees with Washington about the show's universal appeal.

"I think with the politics aside, your viewers will fall in love with the characters and they will get into all the behind-the-scenes details of the White House politics," she says.

"A lot of women tell me they feel inspired or motivated by my character and they love seeing a woman on TV who is so complex."

The 54-year-old says she's not bothered by the embellished parts of her on-screen character - even the show's insinuation about her having an affair with the 43rd US President, and election fixing. Smith, who says that her clients' biggest mistake is usually "not calling her sooner", says the show is a truthful representation of the relentless nature of her job.

"It's a 24/7 job. Every Christmas I do an office poll to see if we are going to get from December 26 to December 31 without a crisis, but this is the second year that I've lost that bet. I try to be positive but people keep getting into trouble," she says.

Almost as hardworking as Smith, Washington filmed back-to-back projects last year. She made Django Unchained in the break between season one and two of Scandal.

The transition between the two roles was one of her greatest challenges as an actress and made her reflect on the progress of African-American women.

"It's kind of amazing, as an African-American woman, that I get to tell stories about all these types of different experiences for women," says Washington.

"It also forced me to think that in many ways, Olivia is the answer to Broomhilda's prayers.

"I don't think Broomhilda could even imagine a world where a woman isn't property, but instead owns her own property and business, or a woman who isn't waiting to be rescued, and makes her living from rescuing other people. There's a beautiful poetry and symmetry to that."

Who: Kerry Washington
What: Scandal
Where and When: The first episodes of Scandal are available via TVNZ on demand. The show starts screening on One on Tuesday, September 10 and Wednesday, Sept 11, 9.30pm

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