Kerry Washington plays high-powered problem-solver Olivia Pope on the hit ABC drama Scandal, now in its third season. But after tackling edgy queer roles in the films She Hate Me, The Dead Girl, and Life Is Hot in Cracktown, the Emmy-nominated actress doesn’t need crisis management to confirm that Olivia has come out of the closet.
The Advocate: What do LGBT viewers love most about Olivia, her attitude or her outfits?
Kerry Washington: It’s all about her walk in the outfits. [Laughs] I think they probably appreciate that Olivia is an underdog who’s risen to power. She’s a woman and a person of color, so she’s not who you’d expect to be the most powerful person in the room, and yet she is. She’s overcome a lot of limitations that society places on us, and she collects others who have been victimized or rejected by society. She looks out for the disempowered.
In the pilot, Olivia empathizes with a closeted gay war hero because of her own secret affair with Fitz, the president of the United States.
That was one of the things I loved most about the pilot. As actors, we can allow somebody a window into a world they don’t normally have access to, break down those walls, and then point out the similarities. Olivia identifies with that soldier because she, too, is in the closet. What basically happened at the end of last season is that she was outed against her will.
Isn’t it better to have the truth in the open?
When it comes to sexuality, yes, but I’m not sure Olivia would agree… [Laughs] The truth is always the better way to go. Unfortunately, Olivia and Fitz are always being pulled between the truth of their hearts and the truth of the world that they live in, which is something the gay community can identify with.
What does the support of the LGBT audience mean to you?
For our show in particular, because it represents such diversity on so many levels, sexual orientation included, it means a lot. I always want to be a part of work that speaks to people across the lines that divide us. When fans came up to me, I used to play this game where I'd guess which of my movies they wanted to talk about. It was a totally horrible game based on outward appearances and assumptions about identity. Like, if it was an older black woman, I knew she wanted to talk about Ray. If it was a guy in his 20s, it was Fantastic Four. And if it was a lesbian, it was She Hate Me. But because it has such an amazing following that crosses age, race, gender, and sexual orientation, Scandal has changed the game completely.
What was your introduction to the LGBT community?
I had a dance teacher named Larry Maldonado at the Boys and Girls Club in the Bronx. He was actually Jennifer Lopez’s mentor. He was such an important, pivotal force in my childhood, and at some point I became aware of his sexuality — or that his partners were men. I grew up in a progressive household. Both my parents had gay friends — some who were out and some who still aren’t out — so I didn’t grow up without exposure to gay people, and that was a definitely a gift. At 13 I started working with NiteStar, a theater education program in New York City that came together at the very beginning of the AIDS epidemic. We wrote and performed a show about adolescent issues and sexuality, and as a peer educator I worked closely with people in the LGBT community and alongside LGBT performers.