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'She Wrote Her Own Rules': Kerry Washington's 'Little Fires' Role Reminds Her Of Mom

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we have interviews with two Emmy nominees. The winners will be announced at the Primetime Emmy Awards September 20. Our first interview is with Kerry Washington. She's nominated for four Emmys. Two are for "Little Fires Everywhere" for outstanding lead actress in a limited series or movie and for outstanding limited series. She produced the series with Reese Witherspoon, who also stars in it. It's adapted from the bestselling novel by Celeste Ng. Washington also starred in the hit ABC series "Scandal" as a political fixer who has her own crisis management firm and is having an affair with the president of the United States. Kerry also played Anita Hill in the HBO movie "Confirmation" and played a slave named Hildi in Quentin Tarantino's film "Django Unchained." Along with Reese Witherspoon, Washington is a founding member of Time's Up, a movement of women working for gender equality and opposing sexual harassment. She also served on President Obama's council on the arts and humanities and worked on both of his campaigns. She hosted one night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention. We recorded our interview early last April.

Let's start with a clip from "Little Fires Everywhere," featuring Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon. To keep things straight about who's playing who, I'm going to use the actresses' names instead of the characters' names. So here we go. Reese Witherspoon is a part-time journalist who lives with her husband and their four children in a wealthy section of Shaker Heights, Cleveland. One day, she sees a stranger - Kerry Washington - asleep in a car with a teenage girl. Assuming that this is a homeless woman and her daughter, Witherspoon calls the police. Soon after, Washington responds to an ad for an apartment for rent. It turns out the woman renting it is Witherspoon. Feeling guilty about calling the police on Washington, Witherspoon rents the place to Washington and eventually offers her a job as her house manager. But when Witherspoon calls one of Washington's references, Washington's previous landlord, he says he's never heard of Washington. In this scene, it's evening and Witherspoon is at her home, and Washington is still working there. Reese Witherspoon plays Elena. Kerry Washington plays Mia.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE")

REESE WITHERSPOON: (As Elena) You really didn't have to say this late.

KERRY WASHINGTON: (As Mia) I need to talk to you. I saw your fax machine - the criminal record check.

WITHERSPOON: (As Elena) Oh, OK. Well, I feel terrible. But you were coming to work in the house, and I always trust my instinct.

WASHINGTON: (As Mia) I did lie. I had to break my last lease because I couldn't find a month-to-month apartment. So I put down a fake reference. And when you called me on it, I made my boss at Lucky Palace call you. I'm sorry. I've never been arrested. I'm not a criminal. But a lot of landlords, when they see a single Black mom, they don't want to rent to me. But you did because you're different. And I should have seen that and just been honest. So I understand if you're not comfortable having me work here anymore. I do.

WITHERSPOON: (As Elena) Why don't we have a glass of wine?

WASHINGTON: (As Mia) OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Kerry Washington, welcome to FRESH AIR. How are you? How is your family?

WASHINGTON: Oh, thank you for asking. It's a real honor to be chatting with you from my bedroom. But...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I'm at my kitchen table.

WASHINGTON: ...(Laughter) But we're OK. We're all OK as of now. And teaching at home, homeschooling, it's just a new world. And I know how blessed I am to have a home and to be able to be at home safely with my family right now in this world where we're all navigating exposure. It's a new balancing act, for sure, for a lot of working parents.

GROSS: Well, let me ask you about your new series, "Little Fires Everywhere," on Hulu. You know, in the novel that it's adapted from, the race or ethnicity of your character isn't mentioned. So when you and Reese Witherspoon decided to produce and star in this, how did race change the story and the subtext of this story?

WASHINGTON: It wasn't my idea to make me a Black. I didn't cast myself in the role. It was Reese Witherspoon's idea - and Lauren Neustadter, her producing partner. They had the idea to call me up and send me the book and ask me if I wanted to do it. And I thought it was an amazing idea. Of course, when I read it, I was reading it through the lens of Mia being Black because I'm Black. I think the novel is so much about identity and how the roles and the context of our identity contributes to how we live and relate to others in the world. So we knew that adding this layer of race would add to that complexity in an exciting way.

And then when I met Celeste Ng, the writer, for the first time, she actually admitted to me that she had always thought of Mia as a woman of color and that she had been drawn to the idea of writing Mia as a Black woman. But she didn't feel like she had the authoritative voice to do that in the right way. And so she was kind of vague about her race in the novel. So it was exciting that we were even in step with Celeste in diving into the places where she wanted to grow out the book in ways that already lived in her.

GROSS: The story is set in the '90s. And Reese Witherspoon's character lives in a privileged bubble and prides herself on being colorblind, which she isn't really. But how has the idea of colorblind changed? Like, how does colorblind sound to you today?

WASHINGTON: I think we all - many of us thought about being colorblind in the '90s, maybe less so people of color (laughter). Because it was, like, admirable that you could see beyond someone's race and to see them as just a human being. But when I hear it now, I think, you know, part of who I am as a human being is that I'm a woman, I'm from New York, I'm an Aquarius, and I'm Black. I'm also African American. Those are all distinct qualities that contribute to what I have to offer in a room.

GROSS: Your character is very observant but reveals very little about herself. And I assume that's out of self-protection. When she doesn't trust somebody, she's very careful on how she talks with them. She's very careful to not reveal much. And language becomes inexpressive and more of a barrier than a way of really communicating. You've said that in some ways you drew on your mother for that because when people asked your mother where she was from, your mother could say New York City or the Bronx or the South Bronx (laughter) depending on who the person was and how your mother wanted to be perceived. Can you talk about that a little bit?

WASHINGTON: Sure. I think there's so much of my mom in Mia. There is so much of my mother in Mia. And at some point, in the preproduction process, actually, Reese and I, we were looking at some costume boards that Lyn Paolo had put together for the teenagers, and we were saying like, oh, I had those shoes and I had that shirt. And it dawned on us rather late in the process, I have to admit - it dawned on us that we were playing our mothers because we were both teenagers in the '90s. And when I had that realization, it was like a door opened for how I could bring this character to life. And I realized that I really was being invited to step into my mother's shoes in a lot of ways. And one of the things I witnessed growing up was that my mom was very aware as a Black woman, as an academic, as the daughter of immigrants, she was aware of the assumptions that people would make about her, and she would play with those assumptions. She would - not in an aggressive way.

But she liked to watch people try to figure her out, and she liked to not fit into a box. My mom is not somebody who has ever really fit into anybody else's box, even in terms of, like, her - the performance of racial identity or her hobbies or interests or how she parented me. A lot like Mia, she wrote her own rules when she was raising me. I remember, like, a lot of her peers would - were shocked that she never hit me. I was never spanked. I think I was grounded once. There was - there were just, like, different - there were different approaches to life.

My mom didn't always feel the need to always make a situation comfortable for somebody else. If her answer was that she was from the South Bronx and that made the other moms who were living on Park Avenue - 'cause I went to a private school in New York - if that made - if that answer made them uncomfortable, she let it make them uncomfortable, I think, because as a teacher, she also knew that that was a learning opportunity for them.

If she walked into the school in a fur coat and spoke the Queen's English and came across as the academic that she was and then the response to where am I from is the South Bronx, that other mother was going to learn something about her own assumptions and prejudices and biases, and my mom let her have that learning opportunity.

GROSS: How did she talk to you?

WASHINGTON: Well, my mom is an educator. So I think, again, like, you know, there were lots of teaching moments that she let me have. Or there were, like, tricks. I think I was much older than I should have been before I learned that trunks didn't make a loud noise when they closed 'cause there were always lots of kids around - cousins and friends piling in and out of cars - and so my mom would say, everybody close your ears; it's going to make a loud noise when I close the trunk. And later on, I learned, like, oh, that's just so that nobody's hand got slammed in the trunk, right?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WASHINGTON: Like, she told us to cover our ears so that all hands would be accounted for. So, you know, there were ways that she was teaching and taking care of us that weren't always completely transparent. But my mother is an extremely warm person. She's a reserved person. She doesn't - she's not very emotionally expressive. I think in some way, it's like - she used to joke that she worked very hard in life to learn how to not have feelings. And then I came along, and I'm just like - I was, like, a walking feeling, just like an id with legs walking around as a child.

But, again, my mother's warmth - even though she may not have been herself emotionally expressive and able to, like, meet me where I was, she quickly realized that she had to find an outlet for me. And so I was thrown into children's theater companies, where I could be emotionally expressive and have those big feelings in a place where it could be embraced.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kerry Washington. She's nominated for two Emmys for producing and acting in the Hulu series "Little Fires Everywhere." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Kerry Washington. She stars with Reese Witherspoon in the Hulu series "Little Fires Everywhere." Washington and Witherspoon also produced the series. It's nominated for an Emmy for outstanding limited series, and Washington is nominated for outstanding lead actress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You said that at some point, you realized you were playing your mother in "Little Fires Everywhere" 'cause it's set in the '90s, when you were a teenager, the same age as the children in the story. And in the story, your teenage daughter - who resents you for moving all the time from one place to another - now she has to enroll in a new school again. And because it's a kind of upper-class school where she's - and she's the newcomer and she's African American, there's a lot of assumptions being made about her.

You went to a private high school in New York that, you know, was a pretty elite school. Did you experience that kind of thing? Do you relate to what your character's daughter is going through in the series?

WASHINGTON: Yeah, there was so much that I related to in Lexi. You know, we were filming this scene - and this is both in filming and editing, we were having this conversation. When Lexi first walks into the Richardson household and she is taking in this kind of picture-perfect Shaker home with the mom who's baking cookies and the chandelier in the entry way, there was the belief among some members of our producing team that this was, like, a cheerful, happy moment where the music should be upbeat, where she was being exposed to, like, a magical wonderland of perfection that she'd never witnessed before.

And I was really grateful to be part of the producing team at so many moments of the show, but that's one that will stick with me for a long time because what I got to share with my fellow producers was - I remember distinctly the moment that I was standing in an elevator in an apartment building. And where I come from, you know, in the building that I grew up in in the Bronx, when the elevator door opens, there's, like, 20 apartments. And like most apartment buildings, you walk off the elevator and you find your apartment. And I remember what it felt like to stand on an elevator and the first time those elevator doors opened and that was the apartment - that the entire floor of the building belonged to one family.

And I remember it because it was such a complicated feeling for me. I did feel awed and mystified and impressed, but I also felt betrayed and confused and angry because I didn't know anyone who lived this way. I had never seen anybody who lived this way. And nobody that I knew, who looked like me, lived this way. And so it was as if there was a different society - mostly white people, wealthy white people - who were allowed to live a different quality of life that I didn't even know existed. I didn't even know to aim for it because I didn't even know it was possible.

And so that ignited in me a real complexity of emotions, and I remember hiding those emotions from the friends I was with because if I had expressed any of that, I would have identified myself as other in that moment. And so those feelings I wanted to capture for Lexi in that moment.

GROSS: So you grew up in the Bronx, and you went to this private school in Manhattan. Compare what the neighborhoods were like or what the culture of the school was like compared to your neighborhood.

WASHINGTON: The neighborhood I grew up in in the Bronx was a working, middle-class neighborhood. But we were definitely like - we were perceived as a more well-off family because we had two cars. We had a dishwasher in our apartment. My parents bought a cabin in upstate New York when I was in elementary school. Before that, we used to rent homes out in Long Island in the summer. So we were like a really - in my neighborhood, in my context, we were rich. And then I went to Spence, and I was, you know, in...

GROSS: That's the school. That's the name of the school. Yeah.

WASHINGTON: Yeah. Yeah, I went to Spence, which is a fancy school in the Upper East Side. It's where Gwyneth Paltrow went as well. And, suddenly, I was in math class with girls who had helipads on their Hampton's estates or where elevator doors open into their apartments or where they were flying first class to go on family vacations or flying private. And so it was a real culture change for me.

And I think in some ways, it was when I started to realize that we express identity through lots of different cultural symbols - right? - that, like, how we walk and how we dress and how we talk, these are all identifiers of who we are. And so I think it was, you know, that early exposure to code shifting, I think, was the beginning of my interest in acting in some way. And not that I was acting my way through junior high school and high school, but I did start to realize that you could shift perception of who you are by taking on different characteristics in the world.

GROSS: So can you think of an example of code switching when you were living in the Bronx and going to high school on the Upper East Side in Manhattan in a private school?

WASHINGTON: Yeah. I mean, I think even today, if I'm on - and this was really pronounced in high school. But even today, if I'm on the phone with my cousins from the Bronx (laughter) and I get off the phone, you can immediately tell that I was talking to them because the - you know, I take on more of that sound and rhythm of just, you know, that girl from the Bronx, who's just - no, that's what I mean. That's what I told her. I told her to go to the store, and she didn't go, and she should have gone, right?

So there's a different way that, if I'm hanging with family, then this kind of media talk that I'm talking with you - which I think I'm trying in this interview to bring my, like, most purest, not code switching into anything, 'cause that's what I try to do in these sort of situations. But I know also that if this was an interview with BET, as opposed to NPR, that there would be a different tone to how I was talking. And that was really pronounced in high school.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. I'm not surprised to hear that the tone would be different. I mean, I hear code switching all the time, and I think we all do it to one degree or another.

WASHINGTON: For sure.

GROSS: Yeah.

WASHINGTON: And one of my favorite Terry Gross moments ever (laughter)...

GROSS: Yes?

WASHINGTON: ...That we talk about a lot with friends because it's just so great is - you know, there's this thing in the Black community where you just say, at the end of a sentence, you know what I'm saying? And we say it a lot. Like, so that that's where I went, you know what I'm saying? And you had an interview with Lizzo, where she said that at the end of a sentence, and you said, I do know what you're saying.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WASHINGTON: And it was my most favorite Terry Gross moment of all time (laughter).

GROSS: Did I sound very clueless when I said that?

WASHINGTON: No, it was fantastic 'cause it was, like - no, it was very real. It was very real. I thought, we should say that to each other more often.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WASHINGTON: We're constantly saying, do you know what I'm saying? And nobody gets affirmed that we are hearing each other (laughter).

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded last April with Kerry Washington. She's nominated for four Emmys - two for her work on "Little Fires Everywhere" in the category of limited series or movie, one for acting and one for the series, on which she's an executive producer. We'll talk more after a break.

And we'll hear from Ramy Youssef, who's nominated for two Emmys for his semi-autobiographical comedy series "Ramy." Later, rock critic Ken Tucker will review three songs he finds simply beautiful. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded last April with Kerry Washington. She's nominated for four Emmys, two for the Hulu series "Little Fires Everywhere." It also stars Reese Witherspoon, who produced the series with Kerry Washington. Washington also starred in the hit ABC series "Scandal" as a political fixer who has her own crisis management firm and is having an affair with the president of the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You and Reese Witherspoon are both founding members of Time's Up, which is the organization responding to the #MeToo movement working on gender equality, working against sexual harassment. And you played Anita Hill in the HBO movie "Confirmation." You were probably a teenager during the Clarence Thomas hearings, so I don't know how closely you followed what was happening. But playing her, what were one or two of the things that you found just, like, most disturbing about how she was treated and how the hearings were handled?

WASHINGTON: Well, I remember really distinctly when the hearings happened because it was one of the first times that I really saw my parents disagree on a social or political issue. Like, usually my parents were really in agreement around issues having to do with money or politics or Black identity. But because of intersectionality, this was a moment where I watched my mom and dad process this experience very differently as a Black woman and a Black man. And it was disturbing to me, and I'll never forget it. It really made me question who was in the right.

And I think Anita Hill is such a hero. And I wanted to be able to explore for both characters, for both Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, what was at stake for them and what it cost them. Clarence Thomas, I think, is often perceived as the winner in that situation because he got to have his seat on the Supreme Court, but Anita Hill transformed society. She changed the shape of Congress and gave us language for sexual harassment, really transformed our cultural practices in this country.

GROSS: What did you learn about your parents hearing them disagree about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill? And I'm assuming your father defended Clarence Thomas and that your mother was on Anita Hill's side.

WASHINGTON: Yeah. I think my dad - and I really - when I look back, I understand my Dad was devastated that this Black man who was going to, you know, sit on the highest court in the land was being raked through the mud. And he thought that Anita Hill should have had more loyalty to the Black community, that this was bad for Black people as a whole. I must say that my dad is now not of that opinion, that my dad has grown in his feminist ideology through the years. I would be remiss to not say that. But he was a product of his time and felt the way a lot of Black men did at the time, and my mom believed Anita Hill. And so I think it was one of the first moments that I realized the unique challenges of being a Black woman.

GROSS: My impression watching Anita Hill during the hearings is that she was trying so hard not to show any emotion, to just kind of give the facts, answer the questions and remain as firm but as emotionally neutral as possible. Did you feel that way, too, and did you try to play her that way?

WASHINGTON: Yeah. I mean, I could probably recite the hearings to you now. I watched them so much. And I tried to approach playing her with the influence of Anna Deavere Smith. Like, I really tried to watch the video and listen to the audio and capture the cadence and the rhythm of Anita Hill. And I tried to figure out what I could learn about her personality from the placement of the way that she was speaking to those senators and even in her everyday life. But it's so very different from how I speak, and that difference is reflective of who she is. So it was really fun to kind of work in that way and wrap my head around her, using her voice and her posture and her walk in sort of an outside-in approach to the character.

GROSS: She had very good posture.

WASHINGTON: She actually - she did have very good posture, but she also has a little - I won't call it a slump because she's far too graceful and elegant to call it a slump. But she protects her heart when she sits, and so there's a slight curvature to her shoulders in the way that she protects her heart and doesn't let people have access to her innermost heartfelt feelings and identity. And in her...

GROSS: Wait. Wait. Stop a second. I love the way you've turned her body, her posture into a metaphor.

WASHINGTON: Well, it is. I mean, you really - you know, you know you can study Alexander Technique, or you know how people move in the world says a lot about who they are. I used to go to rehearsal for "Scandal" in sweatpants and a sweatshirt, but I could not do the scene unless I had the shoes - high-heel shoes on, four-inch heels because Olivia Pope had a walk. And she had a posture, and she had a stance.

And I couldn't rehearse a scene in flip-flops or sneakers. Even when I was nine months pregnant playing Olivia Pope, I was in four-inch heels, sometimes wedges. But I still had to have that heel because that extra height and that extra lean forward and that extra tightness in the belly and the core that a heel requires - that's part of the steeliness of who Olivia Pope is. So I always say I don't know who a character is until I know what shoes they're wearing, until I figure out the walk, until I figure out how they stand.

GROSS: Thank you so much for this interview, and I wish you and your family and everyone you care about good health during this crisis.

WASHINGTON: Likewise. Likewise. Thank you.

GROSS: My interview with Kerry Washington was recorded last April. She's nominated for four Emmys, two for the Hulu limited series "Little Fires Everywhere." Coming up, comic, writer and actor Ramy Youssef. He's nominated for two Emmys for the second season of his semi-autobiographical comedy series "Ramy." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AWREEOH SONG, "CAN'T BRING ME DOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.