When we meet for lunch in West Hollywood, Kerry Washington is somewhat incognito in a Dodgers cap and a jean jacket with the word “Mama” embroidered on a pocket. It is a testament to her stylistic skills that a mere 24 hours earlier she had jaws agape at the Golden Globes in a daring Altuzarra ensemble — a bejeweled harness worn under a black blazer and a thigh-high slit skirt that exposed a racy amount of skin. “It was both really sexual and sensual but also extremely empowered and boundaried,” Washington says of the look. “My favorite compliment was when this woman came up to me and said that she loved it because it was ‘so sexy’ but it also implied that ‘you can look but you can’t touch.’”
The knockout attire won the approval of her pals too, even if it made some of them a little nervous. “Isla Fisher was at a table with J.Lo, and Isla was like, ‘I’m so stressed out. I just feel like Kerry’s jacket is going to fly open, and it’s going to be a disaster,’” Washington says, laughing. “Jennifer Lopez, who is the queen of Topstick, just turned to her and said, ‘She’s fine!’ Jennifer and I are from the same neighborhood in the Bronx, so she’s always looked out for me.”
VIDEO: Kerry Washington's Lesson on Confidence
As Washington, 43, evolves from actor to producer to director (she recently went behind the camera for an episode of Issa Rae’s Insecure), these types of female bonds are increasingly important to her; they are significant not only personally but also professionally. “One of the biggest gifts of my life came out of Time’s Up,” she says, citing how the birth of the movement was a turning point. Previously, actresses existed in isolation from one another. “We were told, ‘That one is difficult, and that one is crazy, and that one is unreliable.’ We’d been told these untruths because oftentimes you are the only woman in the room. Those labels would get filtered to us about each other.”
Washington enthusiastically begins listing some of her latest projects: There is the film 24-7, directed by and co-starring Eva Longoria, and another movie being written and directed by Rashida Jones. “We are really pouring into each other,” Washington says of Hollywood’s current synergistic state. “We became a sisterhood in the industry across different roles and, in particular, with fellow actresses. We are so invested now, and we understand each other.”
When the opportunity arose to work with Reese Witherspoon on the upcoming Hulu miniseries Little Fires Everywhere, based on Celeste Ng’s best-selling book, Washington pounced. Playing an artist named Mia Warren, Washington becomes the onscreen nemesis of Witherspoon’s uptight Elena Richardson, but in real life the co-stars and executive producers were in lockstep. United in their mission to establish a safe and inclusive work environment, they banded together to hire a diverse group of directors and female writers. “And one man,” Washington says, winking.
Working with men, she notes, is not off the table by any means. “I’m doing a project with two co-producers who are Black men, and it’s a different kind of safety. In a room full of women, I still have to translate my Blackness, in a way,” she says. “In these rooms there is another kind of safety that comes from speaking to the same cultural, racial identity.”
Washington established her production company, Simpson Street, in 2016, in part because she felt she had a responsibility to create more opportunities for people of color. She was coming off a successful seven-season run as Olivia Pope on the hit drama Scandal, and the experience made her thirsty for more control of her projects. “Being No. 1 on the call sheet for a show as historic as Scandal, where the stakes were so high and meant possible opportunities for other actresses of color, that felt like a real test,” she says.
She reached out to Witherspoon for advice on how to navigate the terrain. “I knew that Reese had several production companies through the years and had learned a lot during the various stages of their development. I said to her, ‘You’re killing it now, but tell me all the mistakes you made so I don’t have to reinvent the wheel.’” Witherspoon obliged and then revealed something surprising: “She said, ‘Not a single other actress has called me to have this conversation.’”
When discussing how the industry tends to treat female-led films like Hustlers and Girls Trip as outliers, Washington shakes her head. “We have some amazing films like Girls Trip happen with a cast of all Black women. It’s a huge, juggernaut success. Then there’s this thing like, ‘Maybe we should make another film about women’s friendships?’ And you want to be like, ‘Did you see Fried Green Tomatoes?’” she says, laughing. “You just want to catch people up and not have them think these [films] are miraculous, exceptional experiences.”
Washington didn’t get into the business to change it, although that is where her career has taken her. She initially attended children’s-theater classes as an after-school activity and kept going until she had professional gigs (and an agent) by junior high. “I have really great parents, and my mom wanted to keep me entertained and distracted from whatever was going on in the Bronx in the ’80s,” she says. But Washington never imagined herself as a movie star, in part because she didn’t see herself as someone who could be the centerpiece of a story. Her Bronx buddy J.Lo, on the other hand? Yes. Washington would finish her homework early on Sunday nights to watch Lopez dance on In Living Color. And she looked up to women who had multifaceted careers, like Barbra Streisand, Rita Moreno, Diahann Carroll, and Cicely Tyson.
It wasn’t until she starred on Scandal that Washington realized she had the mojo to be more than just a character actor. “I would disappear into these different roles, and, you know, nobody was connecting that the woman from Save the Last Dance was the same woman from Ray who was the same person from The Last King of Scotland. They are totally different humans, and that was great for me. I got to really keep my life and not have it disrupted in a big way. That changed with the one-two punch of Scandal and Django Unchained.”
By this time, in 2012, stardom had come for Washington. She recalls walking down 23rd Street in Manhattan and hearing a guy call out her name from a bus stop. She hugged him, assuming they knew each other from college before realizing he was just a fan. “It is an interesting and vulnerable dynamic,” she says. “But this is not, like, a cry-me-a-river. [Fame] has also come with extraordinary privileges and benefits beyond what I can articulate.”
Still, she’s all about establishing boundaries, especially in her personal life. She’s been married to actor and former NFL star Nnamdi Asomugha since 2013, and the couple have three children. Washington describes herself as “really, really vigilant” early on when it came to making sure her kids were out of the public eye. “These are their lives. But it’s not about pulling a Rapunzel and hiding them away in a castle from the world — we don’t want to do that,” she says. “I think any parent would want to keep kids from a situation that causes them to feel scared. I don’t want them to be exploited, particularly in this social-media world.”
When she needs a break, Washington looks for activities that will ground her, like Pilates and yoga. Swimming is also big at her house. “My husband teased me that if I did the [DNA test] 23andMe, it would come back 11 percent mermaid. My kids are the same way. They’re just fish.”
Meanwhile, the woman who didn’t think she could be at the center of anything is suddenly at the center of everything. And her power is reaching outside Hollywood too. Since 2013, she has been an ambassador and creative consultant for Neutrogena and participates in the company’s marketing meetings. She even developed her own line of makeup for the brand. “That, for me, is so much more fulfilling than just being a face,” she says. As evidenced by the aforementioned Altuzarra number, Washington has also developed a certain swagger in her style. At director Tyler Perry’s Hollywood Walk of Fame tribute last October, she accessorized her black tulle Mary Katrantzou dress with a hairpin that read “Boss.”
The label suits her — and she is finally at the point where she knows it. “I want to do things that really come from my own sense of curiosity and desire and joy and service.” And when she looks at her slate of projects, she is acting in less than half of them — producing is her main focus now. “It comes naturally to me,” she says, laughing. “Because it’s really hard for me to mind my own business.”
Photos: Sebastian Faena/LENS. Styled by Law Roach/The Only Agency. Hair: Takisha Sturdivant-Drew/Paul Mitchell/Forward Artists. Makeup: Allan Avendaño/Neutrogena/SWA Agency. Manicure: Kim Truong/OPI/Startouch Agency. Production: Kelsey Stevens Productions.
For more stories like this, pick up the February issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Feb 14.