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October 2004
Ray: An Interview with Kerry Washington

Ray: An Interview with Kerry Washington

By Wilson Morales

Kerry Washington first came unto the scene when she did a small independent film called "Our Song". It's a film that still captures folks' attention. Since then she's moved up the ladder to land to some big and supporting roles. In 2002, she received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Actress for Lift. With roles in Save The Last Dance, Bad Company, The Human Stain, and Against The Ropes, Washington has certainly made her mark working along with some of today's biggest stars. Coming up next year will have Kerry co-starring with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, as well as having a role in The Fantastic Four, directed by Tim Story (Barbershop, Taxi). In her upcoming film and perhaps her biggest role to date, considering she's playing a real life character, Washington plays Della Bea Robinson in RAY. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Washington talked playing Mrs. Ray Charles, discussing the role with Della Bea Robinson, and working with Jamie Foxx.

How does the responsibility of portraying a real life character factor in your acting?

Kerry Washington: It's a good question. It's sort of two-sided. In some ways it was incredibly helpful to meet the real Della cause when I play a character, I make a little list such as if my character were an animal, what animal would I be or what's my character's favorite book or what's my character's favorite food. In this case I got to actually go to the source and ask her, which was delightfully silly of course for her to think, if I were an animal what would I be. But I got to actually have real concrete answers from someone rather than to come up with that. The problem was that I really fell in love with Ms. Robinson. She's just a phenomenal woman and so I got nervous that my respect for her would get in the way of me creating a character that had real vulnerability and humanity that I would be drawn to play her as a hero which is often the problem with bio pics which is why this one is so good cause it doesn't do that. What I did was that on the very first day of shooting, I spoke with her that morning. The humming bird scene was our very first day of shooting, and I spoke to her that morning when we were at the restaurant, and then I said, "I'll talk to you in a few months" cause I knew I couldn't talk to her while we were shooting. It would have held me back. So I let her sort of build the base and I just played on it.

Did you talk to her about how she feels about the movie?

KW: She loves it. There were 2 people I was nervous seeing the film, one was Ms. Robinson and the other was my boyfriend, and they both loved it. I'm very pleased.

What were some of her fears about her being portrayed and about the movie overall?

KW: It was such a pleasure to play her cause she had never done an interview with anyone. When Jimmy White the writer interviewed her for this film that was the first time she had done an interview. She refused to do press. She was very private; so the fact that she let me interview her and spend time with her and portray her life, I knew it was very intimate and special for her.

What did you talk about with her?

KW: We talked about everything. She was very forthcoming. We talked about her past. We talked her life. We talked about her dislikes and likes. We talked about her relationship with Ray, and her kids. We talked about her relationship in the black community in her time. She was very much in my opinion the black Jackie O. of Hollywood. She had a very similar life to Jackie. She held a very similar position. She was married to a man that everyone in this world loved. She had to share this man with other women. She had to maintain a family while he was often on the road and in other countries. She held her family together and raised beautiful children and also in a fashionable sense she was the hostess with the mostess in her time. She always talked about Ike and Tina's kids coming over to her house. She very much was that black Jackie O. of that time. I tried to bring that into the wardrobe a little bit.

Did she touch on that Ray was a lover? You mentioned that she had to share Ray with other women. That must have been a very sensitive area for her, for the whole world to see. Did she speak about this to you and if so, do you remember what she said?

KW: It's very delicate for me because out of respect for her I don't feel comfortable quoting her because she's very private and doesn't do a lot of interviews. What I can say is that in building the character, I often had to ask myself, "How does someone do this?" and it's not that strange. People always say, "It's such an amazing thing what she did?" We all know people now in 2004 who are dealing with very same situation whether it's the wives of athletes or others. It just happens. But I think we do things for love. We make choices in life about what our priorities are; in terms of our children and our comfort. We just do the best we can.

Ray Robinson Jr. is a minister in Georgia. Did you get a chance to meet him at all?

KW: Ray Jr. is actually not a preacher. It's his brother. Ray Robinson Jr. was actually one of the producers and I did meet him and his daughters and his granddaughters. So we definitely had a lot of interaction with the family.

So you did get to meet the other family members?

KW: Actually Ray was the only son that I met.

What kind of the challenges did you go through to step back in time, especially for a black person, because the era of this time was in the 60s? Were there things as a woman of 2004 that you had to put in the back of your brain to play a woman of the 1940s?

KW: That's such an interesting question. I didn't do much in the 40s. Most of my scenes were set in the 50s and 60s. I think whenever we play a role there are parts of ourselves that we have to put in the back. When I play a character I ask myself, "What is it that I know about this that I can relate to this and I try to take that little piece of me and expand it into a whole person?" So it's fascinating. It's not like we dealt with Jim Crow laws or ways Ms. Robinson was mistreated because of her race. Honestly, my favorite thing about doing a period piece is that the moment you put on the clothes, it's in the character, and that happens often, like in Spike Lee's movie, She Hate Me, the clothes were so high maintenance I was like, "This woman is so different from me". As a woman, just the underwear is different. You sit differently because the bra is different and the clothes don't fit right unless you have the right period bra on. Rather than think consciously about having to leave something behind, I just tried to give myself to the period. But I think in a lot of ways, she was a very modern woman. She maintained a household, ran the business of her home, and she was married to a very public figure. She had so much dignity.

What about the portraits in the home? Did you pose for them and keep them after the film was over?

KW: Aren't those great? We posed for photographs and the paintings were based off the photos. I thought about purchasing them because I thought they would be collector's pieces, but I couldn't really imagine what I would do with it.

At what point in the film did you realize that you and Jamie had chemistry?

KW: I'll be honest with you. There aren't many men that I don't have chemistry with. (She laughs). You can quote me on that. I realized in the audition. For me, chemistry is really just about generosity of spirit. When people come to give and there's reciprocity, and that's people sense as chemistry; and Jamie is a very, very generous actor, and a very generous person. So when two artists come and they are both giving, there's magic there. I think the same is true for the whole film. I don't think there's a weak link in the whole film because everyone who was there was not there for a paycheck. People were there because they really wanted to be; and so that spirit of giving, you can really feel in the film. Everyone's on their "A" game.

How did it feel like to watch the film and learn things about Ray that didn't involve your character?

KW: I was such a huge fan of the script that not too much surprised me about the film cause I felt really clear about the story. I think what was most challenging and Regina King and I talked about this a little bit was watching his scenes with her because I felt a little bit like I was watching the other woman and I was concerned for Ms. Robinson because I knew those would be the hardest part for her. If this is even harder for me to watch, I can imagine how hard this is going to be for her to watch. But she did okay. I think that was the thing that surprised me the most cause I knew the storyline and I saw Regina in New Orleans and I love Regina and I was excited that we were both doing the film; but particularly those moments where she talks about me; when she talks about my character and she mentions, "Your precious Della". A year and a half later, that still hit me personally, and that surprised me a lot; and it's also a testament to what an incredible actor she is.

A cast is only good as the director. What was it like working with the director on this film?

KW: Taylor's wonderful. Taylor Hackford is an incredible director. I really love working with directors that challenge me and push me and what's so good about him is that when he looks at a person, he doesn't see who they are, he sees their potential. He sees what they are capable of and he knows how to make you dig down to reach your potential so that he has it. He's really great.

What did he pull from you that you didn't know you had?

KW: That's a really good question. I'm not sure.

It seems that the Sidney Lumet film, Strip Search, parallels some of your off screen interests, or the creative coalition. Could you talk a little bit about that role, and is important for you to do projects that say something?

KW: Yes, it's very important for me to do projects that make a statement in some way. What draws me to a project is its ability to remind people of their humanity whether that's through tears or through laughter, whatever it is, and I try to gravitate towards political work. I was really excited about the Spike Lee work because it allowed me to talk about some issues that were really important to me like same sex marriage and corporate crime, but like this week, I'm doing interviews on this film, but I'm also performing in a play every night. That's part of the Naked Angels issue project. They pick an issue and last year's issue was fear and this year is domestically and so we are doing a series of one acts around the theme of democracy. It's really important to me to use my voice in ways that are constructive for the world.

On the other side, there are those who feel that actors should act and not get on the pedestal and talk about their politics. How do you feel about?

KW: I think that we as Americans have a right to behave in any way we choose. That's what the 1st Amendment is all about in terms of expressing our ideology and our beliefs, and I shouldn't be limited to say or not say something because of my occupation. I think that someone who is an NRA member, right wing advocate has as much a right to say things that they want to be and we can't control who listens to us and who doesn't because of their occupation. It's like saying, "Because I'm a teacher or a garbage collector, I'm not allowed to say certain things. Being an actor is my job. I don't speak as an actor, I speak as an American. I just happen to be an actor.

Having to play a character in the Jim Crow/ Civil Rights era, what did you learn about that particular time in our history that maybe you hadn't known before or what did you feel that you didn't know you had to feel or deal with?

KW: Again, it's so interesting because Ms. Robinson's storyline in the film is really based in the home so there's not that much that it's changed within the home, historically speaking. I guess the one social context that I brought in to play was when he turns to her and says, "This is my home, and I hope you are here when I get back", that year, how many options did she have as a woman, in terms of bringing income and being able to take care of a child being a single mother. Being a single mother then was really different than being a single mother now. The career opportunities for women were different then than they are now. But again, Ms. Robinson was always a woman who worked. Before she met Ray, she had many jobs. I think it's interesting that I didn't deal a lot with the social ramifications of being a woman of color because most of her story was in the home. The culture of it was the culture of the family as opposed to society at large.

Was there anything about that particular era that, after seeing the film, you were surprised about?

KW: I wish I could say yes, but I did not go to a conservatory school. I went and got a liberal arts degree because it's important to me as an actor, I'd be a thinking person who knows a lot about history and society, so I studied sociology and psychology and history and dramatic lit because I wanted to. If my job is talk about the human experience I want to be able to put that human experience within its larger societal framework and context, so it's not as if I learned history through the film. When I read the script, I was appreciative of the history it was going to share with the people who saw it.

Speaking of democracy, we are voting next month to nominate a president. What can you say about this year's election?

KW: Well, I think this is the year of Kerry-Washington.

What's your favorite Ray Charles performance?

KW: When I was a little girl, my dad and I, every Christmas we would sing "Baby, it's cold outside". So I have really neat memories of that song. That was the first real Ray Charles song for me.

Having played a character that lived with a blind man, does that give a new perspective what blind people go through?

KW: Absolutely. I was so impressed when I would talk to Ms. Robinson about his ability to do for himself. It was really fascinating. He was completely capable of taking care of himself. He always stayed at the Hilton whenever he traveled and lots of people think it's because he loved the Hilton, but it's really because Hilton rooms are always set up the same way no matter where you go in the world. He could walk into a Hilton room in Saigon and know exactly where the table was and know exactly where couch was, and know exactly where the bed was. People often thought he wasn't really blind. He would walk into his hotel room and throw his keys on the table and people would wonder how he did that.

Did you get a chance to meet Ray Charles?

KW: I did not have the opportunity to meet him.

Did he get the opportunity to hear a good amount of this film?

KW: Yeah, he did. He would have told you that he saw it and he did. He pretty much saw the whole film before he passed.

What kind of super powers do you have in "The Fantastic Four"?

KW: Interesting enough, I do not play a superhero. For fans of the comic book, I play Alicia, and she is the blind girl that is in love with The Thing. In the comic book during the 70s and 80s, she's sort of intuitive and always knows they're in trouble, but she's just this noticeably this wonderfully, heartwarming kind person who adores this deformed rock like man.

Did you audition for the role?

KW: Of course. I had to fight for the role actually because in the comic book she's not African American. She has always been blonde haired and blue eyed. And the studio was really willing to go with us on this one. I'm really excited to be doing it. And I signed for sequels and all of that, so it's pretty exciting.

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