Kerry Washington, star of Django Unchained, and Obama’s favourite actress, tells Nick Curtis about life in London and the brutality involved in making a film about her slave ancestors
Kerry Washington only had one day in London when she flew in for last week’s premiere of Django Unchained, and she eschewed the typical actress’s round of restaurants and upmarket clubs. “I saw my first football match last night, Chelsea against Swansea, it was so fun,” enthuses the 35-year-old Brooklyn-born actress, looking fresh and slender in Louboutin heels and a tangerine Derek Lam dress, her glossy hair ironed poker-straight.
“I love London. I have friends and family here. Whenever I come over I try and get some food at Brick Lane — I lived in Kerala after graduating from college, and the best Indian food outside India is here. I always try to see some theatre. And even though personally I am not a good shopper, it always seems like a good idea to check out the shops.”
This time, Washington had to head straight back to LA for the launch of the second season of the ABC series Scandal, from the creators of Grey’s Anatomy. If you haven’t caught the show, which is screened here in the small hours by Channel 4, Washington plays Olivia Pope, an executive troubleshooter with a professional relationship and an unresolved sexual history with the US president.
She also makes history in it. “It’s the first network show to have a black woman in the lead for, like, 40 years,” she says. The launch of season two enabled her to escape the storm that Django Unchained caused in London.
Quentin Tarantino’s splashy revenge saga is set in the antebellum Deep South two years before the American Civil War, and sees Jamie Foxx’s titular slave team up with Christoph Waltz’s bounty hunter Schultz to win his freedom and rescue his wife Broomhild (Washington) from a savage plantation.
It has been criticised for pairing an unusually brutal depiction of racial bondage — slaves hunted and killed by dogs, men forced to take part in lethal “mandingo fights”, women raped — with Tarantino’s typically jokey, talky, ultraviolent take on the messiest kind of spaghetti western.
Spike Lee tweeted that Tarantino had appropriated a grimly pivotal part of black history for the purposes of trashy entertainment. Jamie Foxx was branded a hypocrite for calling on politicians to restrict access to firearms in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shootings, while promoting a film that glories in gun violence. For his part, Tarantino threw a massive strop with Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 News, shouting “I am shutting your butt down” and refusing to answer questions about screen violence.
So Django is difficult, not least for Washington herself, who has to be both a beautiful symbol of redemption and a luridly abused sexual chattel. Was she inspired by the idea of Django or nervous about its controversial impact?
“Both,” she says. “ I felt this was a very important film that had to be made. It was unique to set a love story in a time in American history when two people were legally not allowed to marry because they were not considered full human beings according to our constitution.
“Also, slavery has often been romanticised on film, as if all slave owners were kind. I knew from being a fan of Quentin’s that he is not intimidated by brutality, evil and violence. I knew it was important to do this story with a director who would go there, who would not shy away from the awful truth of how terrible this sin against humanity was. But I wasn’t sure I was the right woman to do it. I knew that emotionally and psychologically it would cost me a great deal. And it was ten times harder than I thought it would be.”
Two scenes were exceptionally hard. First, Broomhild is whipped and branded on the face after she and Django are caught running away from their original owner. Later, she is dragged, naked and broken, from an airless metal “hot box” in the sun where she’s been locked by the vicious man she was subsequently sold to, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie.
“Those two scenes obviously did weigh heavily on me,” says Washington, “but the thing that was most difficult was waking up every day for nine months and asking myself what it would be like to live in a world where your own country tells you that you are three-fifths a human being. That you are property. And to be treated so inhumanely day after day, and to be in fear constantly.”
The awareness of this was enhanced because Tarantino shot on a genuine plantation, Evergreen, in Louisiana. “There was a haunting reality to being on the ground where blood was spilled,” says Washington. As her co-star Samuel L Jackson pointed out, at the first crack of the whip in Broomhild’s tribulation scene, all the birds and bees fell silent. “It was like nature was holding its breath,” she says. “Like, oh God, please don’t bring this back. And on the night we shot the last scene, a member of the camera crew went walking in the cornfields and found a child’s shackle.”
There were nights when “Jamie and I were texting each other at four in the morning, unable to sleep”, and Washington pays tribute to the support he gave her: they played husband and wife before, in Taylor Hackford’s Ray Charles biopic, Ray. One of the few times she visibly bristles is when I ask if she researched the subject of slavery. “Well, sure,” she says. “I mean, I am FAIRLY well educated, so there was a lot of re-reading of the slave narratives I had read in college, and Beloved, which I read in high school.
“My mother comes from a mixed-race background but from Jamaica, so she is partly English and Scottish and native American, but also descended from African slaves in the Caribbean. My dad’s family is four or five generations Brooklyn-based, but before that from South Carolina, and we are not sure which members of his family were slaves and which were free blacks.”
Pointedly, she reminds me that slavery is not a uniquely American issue: lots of the countries she’s visiting to promote Django are culpable too.
Does she think Spike Lee — for whom she worked on the lacklustre She Hate Me — made a valid point about the appropriation of black culture? “I think that’s a question for Quentin rather than me, but I am really proud to be part of a film where the hero is African American,” she reiterates smoothly. “I think it’s cool that Django and [Steven Spielberg’s] Lincoln are in the world at the same time. It’s only when we allow our stories to be inclusive that we can really begin to tell the truth about who we are as human beings. I think all different sorts of storytellers should be able to tell the stories they want to tell.”
She’s less keen to talk about gun violence, but says she supports the move to get automatic weapons off America’s streets, and suggests that the gunplay in Django arguably has more historical and psychological justification than many modern shoot-’em-ups.
She’s pretty sure Django couldn’t have been made 10 years ago and says the realities of slavery it depicts might have been intolerable to audiences if they were not the backdrop to a piece of a typically Tarantino-esque entertainment.
On the wider racial politics of the entertainment industry, she says that things are better for black actresses of her generation, who built on the pioneering work of Josephine Baker, Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll but there is “still progress to be made”.
Does she discern an “Obama effect” in freer attitudes to race, and the US’s fraught history? “I would be nervous to prescribe it as correlation or causation,” she says, ever the professor’s daughter. Hilariously, the National Enquirer recently published a report that Michelle Obama had barred Washington from meeting her husband because she was “too flirty” with him.
Washington does not talk about her private life — she dated actor David Moscow for several years and is now thought to be with Efraim Grimberg, head of the luxury watch firm Movado, for which she is a brand ambassador — but categorically denies any presidential dalliance.
“I sit on Obama’s president’s committee for the arts and education,” she says, “and Michelle is the official co-chair, so it is not even logical. It was so obviously familiar from the plot of my show — it sounded like Olivia Pope, not Kerry Washington. When I read it I thought, ‘Wow, people are really into Scandal’.”
Django Unchained is out on Friday.