Kerry Washington is tackling her first role since wrapping Scandal, and she’s applying a few learned lessons from playing the iconic Olivia Pope. Washington’s role on Netflix’s American Son is an opportunity for the actress to address issues of racial identity in a whole new way. But, as Washington reveals, this isn’t the first time she’s felt her race played a major role in how she approached a project.
“There are various moments in my career and in my life where I’ve felt like ‘the face of the race,’” Washington tells Variety. “The whole beginning of Scandal, every headline was ‘This hasn’t happened in 40 years.’ And so there was a deep understanding that if Scandal didn’t work, it might be another 40 years before we had a [network drama] with a black woman as the lead.”
That pressure of upholding (and doing justice to) a racial identity is something Washington understands all too well.
“I felt that responsibility — a helpless responsibility, because there was nothing I could do to make people turn on their televisions. I could make sure that we were doing the work and work that I was proud of, but the numbers of eyeballs that watched it, I didn’t have any control over that,” Washington tells Variety.
“In the success of Scandal, you then have Viola [Davis] and you have Taraji [P. Henson],” Washington said. “And now we have an understanding that one person cannot hold the responsibility of being ‘the face of the race’ because we are not a monolith. We are diverse and inclusive within our own. And so you have less pressure on each of us to be the face of anything, because together we are beginning to reflect and be the embodiment of the multitudes of beauty that black womanhood is.”
American Son (which is based on a play of the same name and follows Washington’s Kendra Ellis-Connor as she attempts to find her missing son) is racially-charged in a more obvious way than Washington’s previous work.
“I understood her so clearly,” she said of playing Kendra. “I’ve been that black woman who’s having big feelings in an appropriate moment and being stereotyped to be something other. And I wanted to bring her to our canon. I wanted to embody her [because] — even though I know her and I’ve been her — I hadn’t seen her.”