Life Is Hot for Kerry Washington

She's gone gay on film twice, stumped for Obama, and held her own with Bill Maher. Now Kerry Washington tackles her toughest role to date: as a transsexual, heroin-addicted prostitute in Life Is Hot in Cracktown .

BY Ross von Metzke

June 26 2009 12:00 AM ET

KERRY WASHINGTON MICHAEL WEBBER Life is Hot in Cracktown X390 (LIGHTNING MEDIA) | ADVOCATE.COM

It's very clear you've done a ton of research -- you speak very eloquently about the topic. Was this a crash-course education for you in trans issues, or were you familiar with the topic before? It's interesting -- when I was in high school, I was really, really lucky to be able to join this theater company in New York City ... and it still exists, actually, it's called Nitestar. It's affiliated with St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital. The company started really at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. We used to write these very open-ended scenes about safer-sex issues, drug abuse, homosexuality, living with HIV, loosing your virginity -- the full range of issues for teenagers to be working with around sexuality and safer sex. The company became the national model for this kind of theater in education work through the Centers for Disease Control. We used to go to different schools and community centers and perform these open-ended scenes and the audience would interact with these characters at the end of the show. First of all, I got the best training as an actor in those years because you have to know your character so thoroughly to be able to improvise with an audience of 300 after a performance.

But I also became a peer educator -- separate from the theater work, I used to work in the community and at the hospital. So I worked very closely with a lot of people in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community. It wasn't as if this was a community completely unknown to me, but the specifics of the transgender experience ... that was very new. I worked with a brilliant and beautiful woman by the name of Valerie Spencer who guided me through a lot of this and who was just fundamental to my ability to play this role. There's also a great book that I read called Transparent, which is also a book about raising a transgender adolescent, that was really, really vital for me. I'm sort of a person who thrives with research.

Are you the one who lays out all of your paperwork on the floor and starts taking notes? I do [ laughs ]. And also, Buddy was great in allowing for Valerie to be a part of that process in terms of keeping things authentic. It was a very, very collaborative experience.

Tell me a little about the voice -- because clearly, hearing you on the phone right now and then watching the film, it's significantly lower. I remember after seeing Transamerica and talking to Felicity Huffman, she said once she found her voice, she couldn't get out of it because she didn't know if she could find it again. Right, right, right.

Did that happen with you? I found that it changed a lot, actually, which -- and you'll see in the film it changes a bit ... just in some of the work that I did, you'll find that can happen to somebody who uses substances to that level ... there are different levels of awareness. The thing that I would say was similar to that for me, actually, was the walk [ laughs ]. It's funny -- I feel like I learned so much about what it is to be a woman playing this character, because I think I take being a woman for granted, so I don't think about walking in full appreciation and celebration of my femininity. I just don't. But if I was born without the biological confirmation of what I know I am, I would be much more committed to celebrating my gender in my walk. There were all these ways of standing and walking and being that were more womanly than I had ever experienced in my life. It was great -- it was really amazing to just be a lady, because I'm sort of the result of this post feminist world where so much of what I do and think and feel is at least attempted to be done on a gender-neutral basis.

I didn't realize until I started doing some research -- you campaigned really hard for Obama. You spent a lot of time on the trail. What was that experience like for you? It had to be somewhat surreal. It was pretty incredible. I guess I was really lucky, because I have this sort of hybrid personal history in that I grew up in the Bronx and then I went to Spence [an exclusive private school] in New York, so they realized very early on that they could send me to a tea for the ladies' society and they could send me to the historically black university and so, once I got on the road, that was it [ laughs ]. Soccer clubs in the suburbs to black churches. I was covering every demographic possible. I was really excited to do it.

I went to parts of the country I've never been to before. I literally had never been to Tennessee, had never been to Arkansas, had never been to Texas, and so here I am, going to these places -- and going deep into communities and meeting all different kinds of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. It was just amazing and really, in a way, restored my faith in America.

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