Melissa Walsh

Kerry Washington

Gale Group | Kerry Washington

Kerry Washington Black Biography:

Kerry Washington actor

Personal Information

Born in the Bronx, NY, in 1977.

Education: George Washington University, BA, 1998.

Career

Actor, 2000-. Substitute teacher, New York City, 2001.

Life's Work

In interviews, actor Kerry Washington has revealed her ambition to perform in a variety of genres, from comedy to historical films, from action movies to stage musicals. Not only does she strive to appear before more audiences as an actor, singer, and dancer, she hopes to find success behind the scenes as a screenwriter. Washington is serious about her art, continually studying her craft and eager to perform in all genres. "I want longevity in my career," she told Essence in 2002, "so I keep the focus on my craft." An article in Film Comment lauded Washington's propensity for showmanship and dexterity, citing the young actor as having a knack for "playing characters who each in a different way attempt to balance the demands of friends, family, and children."

Born with the "Acting Bug"

Kerry Washington was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1977. As a child, she experienced the thrill of the stage while dancing with the New York Negro Ballet. Her grandmother called her Sarah Bernhardt (after the acting legend), because theater was central to her dreams even as a young child. "I think I was born with the acting bug. I was always 'dramatic' as a child," Washington offered in a 2001 interview with theGirl's World Web site. She began acting as the youngest performer in a troupe that gave performances in schools to stress positive self-esteem and safe sex. Washington credited this experience, along with her involvement with the local Bronx Boys and Girls Club, for "cultivating my singing, acting and dancing skills." As a teen, she landed several acting jobs, including an appearance on NBC's popular television series Law & Order in 2001.

Also as a teen, Washington took the Bronx's Number 6 train into Manhattan each day to attend high school at the elite Spence School, which she attended on scholarship. The daughter of a college professor mother and real-estate broker father, Washington was raised in perhaps the wealthiest household on her block in the Bronx; yet at Spence she experienced "a real culture shock" being immersed in "real wealth," she told Carla Meyer of the San Francisco Chronicle. The school is also alma mater to many of New York's wealthiest residents, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Soon-Ye Previn. Washington too grew a star quality at Spence. "People have said I'm like a cross between Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow," Washington told Meyer.

Since childhood, Washington has been a fan of performers who can "do it all," such as Barbara Streisand and Rita Moreno, she told Film Comment in 2001. Washington too has sought to build a long, multi-faceted performing career. She earnestly began her trek to performing prowess by earning a bachelor's degree in the performing arts at George Washington University in 1998.

Debuted on Screen in 'Our Song'

Washington made her screen debut in 2000, starring in the independent film Our Song playing 15-year old Lanisha, a half-black, half-Cuban girl living in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood. "My character is very good at making herself fit in," Washington was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle. "In the same way, I was trying to negotiate being a Spence girl and growing up in the Bronx, and trying to feel like I belonged in both of those places." In the same article, Our Song writer and director Jim McKay said that he immediately recognized Washington's talent. "Kerry blended well with the other actors," he said, "even though she is really trained, and would be just as comfortable doing Shakespeare." Our Song qualified as a finalist for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. Washington too was cited for a winning performance. In his review of Our Song, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott called Washington "simply, a miracle." Film critic Michael Atkinson also praised Washington's breakout performance, writing in Interview, "Certainly, no other young African-American actress is quite as believable, as touchable." The 22- year old also explained how she developed her young character. "I worked on her walk, how she stands, how she looks people in the eye," she said. "While working it out I had lunch with a cousin of mine who's 16. Listening to her, I thought, 'You couldn't pay me to be a teenager again.' Then I realized--I was being paid."

Washington told Girl's World that she tapped into her "culture shock" experience at Spence to transition herself to the emotional journey Lanisha undertakes. "[Lanisha] is exploring love, she is trying to make responsible and independent decisions--these were things that I can definitely relate to...." She added, "I think Our Song helped me to learn that the most important elements to bring to my work are integrity, generosity, and truth."

Our Song appeared in theaters between the showing of Washington's second film, Save the Last Dance, and her third, Lift, both released in 2001. She played a teen again in Save the Last Dance. This time she was a teen mom, Chenille--a character Washington called her "most real" in her Girl's World interview. At 24-years old, Washington got her first taste of big-budget studio filmmaking. "On Our Song there were days I was on the set not to act," Washington explained to Interview, "but to watch for cops because we didn't have a permit to shoot on the subway. On the other hand, one morning on Save the Last Dance, I found a new DVD player in my trailer, with a stack of DVDs."

In another highly lauded independent film, Lift, which won honors at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, Washington played Niecy, a 24-year old professional shoplifter with big ambition and a troubled relationship with her mother. "Having grown up in the Bronx and gone to the Spence School," Washington admitted in Film Comment, "I really understand Niecy's need to negotiate all kinds of socio-economic environments and her ability to do so with grace and fluidity." Film reviewers agreed that Washington was right for the role, including Phil Rosenthal of the Chicago Sun Times, who wrote, "Kerry Washington absolutely steals the film as the thief whose world unravels...."

Balanced Hollywood with Simple Living

After filming Save the Last Dance, Washington worked as a substitute teacher in Harlem. "Being recognized as Chenille and trying to be somebody's math teacher was a challenge," Washington remarked to Entertainment Weekly. She also appeared in NYPD Blue and on several episodes of 100 Centre Street and landed roles in the films 3D, Take the A Train, and as Chris Rock's girlfriend, Julie, in Bad Company. She gained recognition in Hollywood for her performance in the 2003 drama, The Human Stain. Also in 2003, Washington was noticed for her work in Against the Ropes: The Jackie Kallen Story. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote, "It is always a pleasure to see Kerry Washington, even in the underwritten role of Jackie's sidekick and Luther's love interest." In 2004, Washington appeared in the biodrama Ray, the story of musician Ray Charles.

Like many successful screen actors, Washington maintains residences in New York and Los Angeles. She prefers to fly the no-frills JetBlue Airways, where "we are all one people on [the] plane." "My favorite thing to do in L.A.," she told Organic Style's Jamie Diamond in 2004, "is to feed the fish in our courtyard. They swim up to the corner of the pond and are so happy to see me." Washington defined her personal goals in Organic Style as going "my own way, to be my own person, to make and follow my own rules." She begins each day by writing a journal entry, and regularly works on developing screenplays, hoping to wow Hollywood with her writer's vision as well as her actor's intuition.

Washington told Diamond that as a statement in simple living she wears her mother's simple diamond-studded earrings on a daily basis. "They're simple and elegant and understated--like my mom," she said. "Now that I'm working in movies, I guess I should wear fancier, big diamonds, but I love wearing these in the loud, in-your-face lifestyle of Los Angeles."

Works

Selected works

Films

Our Song, 2000.

3D, 2000.

Save the Last Dance, 2001.

Lift, 2001.

Take the Train, 2002.

Bad Company, 2002.

The United States of Leland, 2003.

The Human Stain, 2003.

Sin, 2003.

Against the Ropes: The Jackie Kallen Story, 2004.

She Hate Me, 2004.

Ray (also known as Unchain My Heart: The Ray Charles Story), 2004. Sexual Life, 2004.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith, 2004.

Television

Magical Makeover, 1994.

Other

Washington has also appeared in episodes of NYPD Blue (2001), 100 Centre Street (2001), Law & Order (2001), The Guardian (2001), and Wonderfalls (2004).

Further Reading

Periodicals

Chicago Sun Times, June 26, 2002, p. 51.

Ebony, Sept. 2002, p. 174.

Entertainment Weekly, June 27/July 4, 2003, 2003, p. 50. Esquire, Dec. 2003, p. 171.

Essence, Dec. 2002, p. 110.

Film Comment, March/April 2001, p. 6.

Interview, June 2001, p. 56.

New York Times, March 23, 2001, E5; February 20, 2004, E24. Organic Style, March 2004, p. 32.

San Francisco Chronicle, August 8, 2001, D1.

On-line

"We're Hangin' with 'Save the Last Dance's" Chenille: Kerry Washington," A Girl's World, www.agirlsworld.com/rachel/hangin-with/Kerrywashington.html (May 27, 2004).

– Melissa Walsh