Kerry Washington On ‘The Prom’ and What ‘Scandal’ Taught Her About Power

The superstar talks about getting real with her young children about the election, learning from previous roles, and giving Meryl Streep some grief.

by Donna Freydkin
Originally Published: 

Before Kerry Washington and her husband, actor Nnamdi Asomugha, headed to Arizona and Michigan to rally voters, in the days leading up to the election, she sat down for a heartfelt talk with her kids. Isabelle, 6, and Caleb, 4, were plenty old enough to understand that when scientists were begging people to stay put amid surging COVID-19 rates, maybe going to another state wasn’t the best idea and felt more than a little bit hypocritical.

“We had to explain to them why we were getting on a plane in the middle of a pandemic when we’ve said it’s not safe to travel. We got on a plane to go and encourage other people to vote. Those were big conversations in our home,” says Washington.

Washington, for the uninitiated, doesn’t sugarcoat anything. She politely declines to discuss anything tangentially related to her personal life, her marriage, or her kids but does so without ever making you feel bad for asking. It’s not how she was raised.

And despite the pandemic, it’s been a helluva year for the actress and producer. She began the year playing a wary outsider in Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere and capped it off as an outsider-averse mom trying to stop a gay kid from attending the school dance in the Netflix spectacular The Prom, premiering Friday. In her spare time, she campaigned on behalf of Biden/Harris and posted gently uplifting yoga videos from her yard, in an effort to boost a collective sense of wellbeing in a world that seemed to have gone off the rails. Oh, and she took home her first Emmy for producing the variety special Live in Front of a Studio Audience: All in the Family and Good Times, watched by 10.4 million viewers. And she became an investor in the women-owned jewelry brand Aurate.

Washington shares her parenting philosophy, how she worked up the nerve to sing in The Prom, and the perks of being mean to costar Meryl Streep.

Before we talk about the Prom, thank you for heading out during the pandemic and rallying people to vote. You put yourself at risk for a greater cause and I truly respect that.

I’m so proud of our country and I know we have a lot of work to do and we’re going to do it, but I mean, the fact that so many people came out in a pandemic and with voter suppression and with redistricting, and that we came out in the numbers we did against all odds. It makes me really hopeful.

Were your kids aware of the importance of this election?

Well, I have a 14-year-old bonus baby, so she’s obviously much more aware. I have a six-year-old and a four-year-old. They’re all aware to varying degrees.

When it was announced that Saturday, we were screaming and yelling and the kids were like, what, what, what? And, you know, we said, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won, and we can have ice cream for breakfast. And that’s all they heard — the second half of that statement. We can have ice cream. We did make them watch those speeches though. That night we were like, ‘Everybody sit, we’re gonna sit. You had your ice cream. Now you got to sit and watch these speeches.’

It felt so inclusive, which brings us to your Netflix movie. Which is also all about acceptance and inclusion.

I think that the message of the film primarily is that everybody deserves to be loved unconditionally. We all deserve to experience that sense of deep belonging, so that we can take risks and go out in the world and, and be whoever we want to be, because we know that in some corner of the world, we are truly, truly loved unconditionally. And if you don’t initially find that love and acceptance in your own family, then you go out and you find a community where you can get it because you don’t have to conform to get love. You should be who you are. And look for people who will love you, no matter who you are and who you love.

And hey, if you can give a nobody like Meryl Streep a leg up, all the better.

James Corden always says, you know, this is my second musical that I’ve had to carry Meryl Streep through it, which is my favorite thing. She is somebody who is obviously the greatest actor, one of the greatest actors of our time. When Ryan called me for the film, he said, I have this idea. I want you for this part. She’s a villain. But also a lot of your scenes are with Meryl and you get to be mean to Meryl. And I was like, I’m in.

When you embrace your daughter in the movie, it felt like you were channeling every protective mother on the planet.

There’s so much that I was bringing up of my own journey and, my relationship with my mom into that scene. But also in a way, I was bringing my work in the past year because when I think about the journey of my character in American Son and in Little Fires Everywhere — these are mothers who have really struggled to accept and love their kids unconditionally. And they find themselves in a moment where they realize that they haven’t really given their children what their children need. And so for me in the Prom, I got to close that circle. I got to give my daughter what she really needs. And it really did feel like completing a circle.

I had tea with your mom and you in New York, back in the day, and she is a wonderful lady. But you know that. How did your upbringing influence how you’re raising your own kids?

I think like all of us, I really try to reflect on how I was parented and I try to keep what I like and leave the rest. I had some really, really great parenting. I mean, my mom is a retired professor of early elementary education. So I had an expert raising me as a young child. So there’s a lot about how I was parented that I’m truly, truly grateful for and that I try to emulate. And then there are things that I try to do differently. And I think that’s what we’re supposed to do. Each generation should be iterating and evolving to try to figure out how to do it better or do it differently. You just keep playing and knowing that you’re going to fail — nobody is a perfect parent. You do the best you can and you keep it moving.

This has been a pretty major year for you. Do you feel like you’ve found your own voice and know how to speak up?

I feel like I’m constantly still finding my voice and you know, funny enough, I really, it, I love to sing and I sang all through high school and college. I’m not an amazing singer. It’s just something I really love to do. Um, and so it, it was really fun to get to do that in the Prom. That’s like a literal translation of finding my voice and sort of allowing my voice to be out in the world. That’s been a really fun part of 2020 for me. But I think I’m always sort of working on having the courage to bring my full voice to the table and into the room.

Scandal did help me understand that my voice was valuable and that it was my, in my years on Scandal working with Shonda (Rhimes) that really inspired me to start producing and directing.

No reunion in the works?

Not that I know of — nothing in the plans at the moment.

You know who needs his own show? Your dad. Your Instagram dad jokes bits are priceless.

My dad is so funny, you know, he’s just so funny and he loves dad jokes and, and he has books and books of dad jokes. And now, because it’s become a bit of an internet sensation, he now has more books and books of dad jokes because people send them to him. And so we just have endless resources — like when it was time to like find some Thanksgiving ones, we had tons of opportunities to look for them.

Wait, those pictures in the background, are those by your kids?

Yes. This is all my kids, which is funny because when I do interviews on TV and they see it, they get to see their work out in the world.

I know you’re a big reader. Do you get advice from Reese Witherspoon, who co-starred with you in Little Fires and has her own book club?

I follow her on social media, so I get all her tips. She doesn’t need book tips from me, but I get book tips from her.

As for the holidays, what are your plans?

We’re not traveling because it’s not safe to travel. I just want to implore everyone, please. Our healthcare officials are begging us to not travel right now. So if you can avoid it, please do. So we’re staying home. We’re going to be, you know, celebrating the holidays just with people in our pod. I’m sure we’ll have some of our same traditions, like Christmas jammies and gingerbread houses and decorating the tree. And we’ll probably find some, some new traditions because it’ll be different.

The Prom hits Netflix on December 11, 2020.

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