Kerry Washington Talks Race, Sexual Harassment & Her New HBO Film, Confirmation

Image: Via HBO.
Over four seasons of Scandal, we've gotten pretty used to seeing Kerry Washington as the fixer-in-chief of our nation's capitol. This month, she heads back to the District of Columbia in a different role — one that has roots in recent history and takes us back to a pivotal moment in the conversation about sexual harassment and race in America.

In HBO's Confirmation (which premieres April 16), Washington plays Anita Hill, the law professor who testified that she endured sexual harassment while working for Clarence Thomas. During his Supreme Court nomination hearings, Hill traveled from her teaching post in Oklahoma to D.C., where she detailed the alleged sexual overtures that Judge Thomas made toward her during her years as his assistant. The hearings captivated the nation — and though Clarence Thomas went on to be confirmed, Hill's testimony forever changed attitudes toward workplace equality and gender politics.

We spoke with Washington — who also exec-produced the film — about why Anita Hill's story is more important than ever and what the actress hopes Confirmation will remind Americans heading to the polls later this year.

Did you speak to Anita Hill before shooting Confirmation?
"In the beginning, when we were gathering research. That was tricky, because I was really trying to approach those meetings as a producer, so we were talking to a lot of people from different points of view, gathering information and perspective. And then there came a point where I had to shift and try to engage with her as an actor in order to play her. I had different stages of getting to know her."

How did talking with her help you shape your approach to the role?
"A lot of the people in this film are these iconic characters in American culture by now — Joe Biden, Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill — and people tend to think of them less as human beings and more as caricatures of particular perspectives or movements. I just really wanted to round out my understanding, to round out our understanding of all of these people as human beings, and not just caricature and iconic symbols."

You were a teenager when Clarence Thomas was being vetted and the hearings took place. What do you remember from that time?
"I was about 13 or 14 — I wasn't an older, more thoughtful teen writing a college paper about it. So my understanding was mostly shaped, at the time, by my parents. They were both really struggling, because usually in my house everybody was on the same page with ideology, whether it was a woman's right to choose or affirmative action.

"But this was one of those moments where my parents had a different opinion about what might be happening. My dad, as an African-American man, had a certain sense of understanding of the dynamics of racial discrimination. My mom, as a woman, while she understood the dynamics of racial discrimination, was also engaging with what was unfolding as a woman, from a perspective of gender. It was one of the first moments where I kind of realized that my understanding of myself, when I fold in race and gender, may be more complex than I knew it to be at the time."
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Image: Via HBO.
Confirmation isn't a documentary, but it's not one-sided, either. Even so, the film is receiving from flack from the right, accusing it of having an agenda. Do you have thoughts on that?
"It doesn't surprise me. I think whenever you work in the world of historical drama, that's going to happen because you only tell stories that are filled with conflict. Because that's what the story is.

"I will say we have done our homework. Our writers did an amazing job of researching and fact-checking and double-checking and just scouring for information. And we were really lucky to be working with HBO — not only are they great at protecting the film itself, but they also believe in protecting the facts and making sure that they're telling a story without maligning people, without telling lies. So it doesn't surprise me that this feedback is coming out, but it's also coming from people who haven't seen the film."

One of the things you say as Anita in the film is that — when it comes to sexual harassment — the victim tends to become the villain. Do you think that rings true today?
"Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Women, and people in general, report sexual harassment in the workplace much more often than they did in the past. One of the things that is so powerful about the end of the movie is understanding how much has changed because of the hearings and people's understanding of harassment, being willing to identify it, and call it out, and try to eradicate it from the workplace. But I do think we still have a lot of work to do, in terms of creating a society where it is completely safe to speak out on injustice. I think sometimes we vilify people who speak out, still. It's much better than it was. But we still have work to do."

We still have a lot of work to do, in terms of creating a society where it is completely safe to speak out on injustice.

Kerry Washington

There's another line that caught my attention, when Charles Ogletree tells Anita that she's being dismissed precisely because she's a Black woman. Do you recall what you were thinking during that scene?
"As an actor, I can't tell you exactly what I was thinking, because I was thinking as the character, so I don't remember exactly. But I think it speaks to the importance of addressing intersectionality. I remember talking recently to an African-American friend of mine about #OscarsSoWhite. We were discussing the dynamics of that, and I said, 'You know, last year the Oscars were better for Black people, supposedly, because we had 12 Years a Slave nominated for Best Picture and won Best Picture.'

"At the same time, there was not a single film nominated for Best Picture that was about a woman. Not a single one. And now, this year, women are so excited because there were two films nominated for Best Picture that had women as their central characters — but not a single film about people of color. So that, again, speaks to intersectionality — that there can be a lot of reasons why you're not invited to the table, and sometimes it's more than one. It's complicated. It's really complicated."

Anita seems torn about whether or not she's done good by coming forward with her story. What do you think really resulted from her testimony?
"I think this was a moment of reckoning for the country, to be willing to have an honest conversation about gender and about race and about power dynamics. To have this very complicated conversation unfold on national television, in sort of the first moment in our history where everybody engaged in a 24-hour news cycle — something that we do now all the time, and nobody did back then — that was really one of the game changers, that we're continuing to have that conversation.

"There has been immense change, but there's still much more change needed. I think that is one of the biggest impacts of the hearings — it really transformed how we can talk about gender and how we talk about race and how we talk about power. It really challenged us as a country to have those conversations, to dig deeper."
Between Scandal and Confirmation, you've been spending a lot of time on TV in the beltway. Any chance you want to get more political in real life?
"I will never run for office, if that's what you're asking, ever ever ever — and I don't say 'never' often, but I will tell you, absolutely, I will never do that. The thing I always find myself reminding people is that I worked for the real White House way before I worked for a fake White House on television. So, I'm somebody who's been engaged in this world for a long time." [Editor's note: Washington was appointed to the President’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities in 2008.]

What do you hope a young viewer — particularly one who didn't experience the Clarence Thomas hearings the first time around — will get out of Confirmation?
"One of the things I think is so important about the film are those moments where all these people are talking — whether it's Anita Hill or Clarence Thomas or Joe Biden — but people are talking and you hear the phones start ringing. That is so important, because that is the American people. That is the American people calling their representatives, saying, 'Your job is to represent me, and I have an opinion about this. I have a thought about this, I'm going to share it with you.' I think we're still lucky to live in a representational democracy where it's our congressperson's job to represent us. We put them in office to be our voice, and sometimes we have to remind them.

"We have to remind them by showing up to the voting polls and letting them know who we want there. We have to continually remind them, like now, when we have another seat that we're trying to fill on the Supreme Court. We have to remind our representatives that their job is to do what we want them to do — that their job is to make decisions based on what we want."

Confirmation premieres on HBO this Saturday, April 16, at 8 p.m. EST.
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