At first blush, Kerry Washington might seem a strange choice to play Anita Hill, the woman who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his 1991 confirmation hearing.
Washington is probably best known for playing Scandal's Olivia Pope, a bulldozer of a woman who pushes obstacles out of her way and occasionally romances the president of the United States. Hill, meanwhile, had to be convinced to take the stand, only growing into her role. Both women stand up for what they believe is right, but Olivia is a force of nature. Hill is filled with quiet insistence.
Yet Washington finds something in Hill — who has long since become a national symbol, one that holds different meanings for different people — that she rarely gets to express as Olivia. Her Anita Hill is tremulous and uncertain, reluctant to step into the spotlight. But when she does, it's with a slow-building fury that's intent on seeing wrongs made right. It's some of the best work of Washington's career.
Confirmation, the HBO film that revisits the tumultuous hearings and the effect they had on America (Wendell Pierce of The Wire plays Thomas), is an ambitious attempt not just to tell the story of these two people, but also to explain how the proceedings gradually slid out of control on a national stage while, behind the scenes, senators frantically try to cut deals to either confirm Thomas to the Court or deny his bid.
As walls begin to crumble around her, Hill remains at the center of the storm, calmly but forcefully asking for someone to listen to her. And throughout it all, Washington is the film's increasingly strong center, a woman who didn't seek out the spotlight but found herself flourishing in it all the same.
I recently chatted with Washington about her role in the film, her memories of the original hearings, and what she thinks of this off-the-wall presidential election cycle.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
On the weight of history: "When this happened, I could feel my parents being a bit at odds with each other"
Lots and lots of people watched the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings on TV and saw Anita Hill's statements there. How do you, as an actress, compete with something people remember from reality?
It's funny actually. Wendell [Pierce] and I were talking about this. This [confirmation] is one of the first moments in our history where people engaged in a 24-hour news cycle. It's funny that also the O.J. [Simpson miniseries] is unfolding this year as well. I love that show. In this brief span, suddenly we became consumers of news around the clock in a way we hadn't been before.
We actually have [that footage]. We have it to watch. An actress who really inspires me, and has my whole career, is Anna Deavere Smith. I tried to work a little bit in the way that she does, use some of her methodology in terms of watching the real, raw material, and trying to really study [Hill's] cadence and how she talks, listening to the pauses, listening to the breaths, and being aware of some behavioral stuff.
Smith [a theater actress who's probably best known to TV viewers for her role on Nurse Jackie] goes back and looks at primary sources in preparing her work. What have you learned from her that you've applied to your career?
She's taught me that it's not just the words. It's the things people don't say. It's the pauses.
Particularly coming off a show like Scandal where the pace is so important, and we're always talking so fast about so much, Anita has such a completely different rhythm. She is so thoughtful and measured in how she approaches language and communication. Leaning into studying that was helpful to me in developing the character.
How much did you follow Thomas's confirmation when it happened?
I was 13 or 14, so I remember it mostly though the eyes of my parents. It was one of the first moments that I became aware of the complexity of my identity formation.
In my house we were all pretty much on the same page [about issues]. I grew up in a house where my parents were on the same page, whether it was affirmative action or a woman's right to choose.
But when this happened, I could feel my parents being a bit at odds with each other, because my dad really identified with the racial dynamics and the racial complexity at play. While my mother really understood that, she also felt aware of the gender politics. It was one of the first times that I thought, "Wow, as a person of color and a woman, sometimes stuff can get complicated."
Between this and the O.J. Simpson miniseries, there's this real interest in revisiting the events of 20 to 25 years ago. What about that period is interesting to you as fodder for dramatic retellings of those events?
We started having more complicated conversations on a national level. It's not as if there weren't people who were dealing with ideas of identity intersectionality [before then]. You know, Sojourner Truth said, "Ain't I a woman," in the 1800s, so it was already happening.
But on a national stage [we said], "Okay, as a country, we're going to talk about gender identity, and we're going to talk about racial identity, and we're going to talk about the dynamics of power, because we're forced to and we're going to deal with it in this complicated nuanced way."
It was the same thing with the O.J. case. We were talking about race, and power, and gender, and access. Part of what's so fascinating about it is we're still trying to have these conversations in more and more refined ways. We're still trying to create the changes that a lot of these conversations have inspired us to create.
On the politics of change: "Being able to exist in a society that's both inclusive and respectful — I don't think there's anything wrong with that"
Sexual harassment is a topic that hasn't gone away since the hearings, and it's something we hear about with some frequency connected to the entertainment industry. What do you think we can learn, both as a country and within the industry, by looking back at these events?
One of the great ironic moments of making the film was when we paused at our first department head meeting. We were all sitting around a table, the producers and the heads of all departments, and we were going through the schedule and talking about locations. But before we could do any of that, we all had to do our sexual harassment training. To do it on this movie was like, "Wow, we know why we're doing this training."
That harassment training is not just about sexual harassment anymore. It's about harassment based on being "other," about not abusing power — whether by making somebody feel less than because of gender, because of sexual orientation, because of religion, because of political beliefs. Having that increased awareness and increased sensitivity in the workplace, and in society, I think, is really important.
There's been a bit of a backlash in people calling it political correctness, but being able to exist in a society that is both inclusive and respectful — I don't think there's anything wrong with that.
A lot of the conversation around the current presidential election has been centered on how certain candidates have treated women. How have you been looking at that through the lens of working on Confirmation?
One of the things I hope people take away from the film is the power of participation. What really strikes me in the movie is you see Anita Hill talking, or Joe Biden talking, or Clarence Thomas talking, and then the phones start to ring [in the background]. I always think that's such an important part of the film, because that's when change starts to happen. American people are calling in to the offices of their representatives to say, "You work for me. I feel a certain way about this."
I think this is a really important time for us to remember that we live in a representational democracy where these people work for us, even to the point where sometimes I think it's our job to remind them that they work for us, and that it's important that they do their jobs.
For me, that reminder to have your voice be heard, whether it's showing up to vote or communicating with your representatives, is really vital. It's the only way this country works.
Do you fear we've gotten away from telling those in power what we think?
No, I just think we have to stay vigilant. We can't stop.
When those first three words were written, "We the people," it didn't include everybody. Included in the idea of people was not women, was not people of color, was not people under 21. Even though you could fight in a war at 18 you couldn't vote.
It's through our voices being heard, and us showing up and demanding the rights that we deserve as people that those three words, "We the people," have become more and more honest to include more of us. We have to stay on top of it.
On making Confirmation: "I felt like we had in common this loss of anonymity"
Most American films and TV shows are built around characters who are at least somewhat sure of their course of action, and your character on Scandal certainly fits that bill. Anita Hill doesn't, really. She's a little more reticent to tell her story at first. What was it like to step into the shoes of someone who's more reserved?
There was a lot about her that I really identified with. One of the very first things that I felt like we had in common was this loss of anonymity, or loss of one's private life due to the circumstances of your life.
She lost her privacy for much more heroic reasons. I lost my privacy because I'm famous, quote unquote. She chose to come forward because she thought it was the right thing to do for her country.
One of the things that drew me to the character was that on Scandal, for five years now, I've played somebody who, for the most part, is always the most powerful person in the room. Except for maybe her dad, she is at the pinnacle of access and power, particularly in Washington.
I thought, "What would it be like to play somebody in that same environment, in that same context, who's on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of access and power?" I felt like it was an important challenge for me to face at this point.
You were involved on this film as a producer as well, and one thing that's notable about it is the way it blends Anita Hill's story, Clarence Thomas's story, and the story of the senators wheeling and dealing behind the scenes. What was important to you about finding that balance?
We didn't want to paint a simplistic picture of good guys and bad guys. That's not how life works. Susannah Grant, our writer, did such a brilliant job, because we all did so much research. We were swimming in research, and you go, "What story do we tell?"
We wanted to make sure that we were taking these figures who have, in some ways, become iconic symbols — Joe Biden, Justice Thomas, Anita Hill — and make sure that we are telling a story about them as complicated, three-dimensional human beings in a complicated situation.
You mentioned earlier the pushback against so-called political correctness, and it seems like we're in an era when, thanks to the internet, it's easier than ever to ridicule someone for their beliefs or who they are. How far do you think we've come since 1991?
I think we've come some distance. That's why the statistics [about the rise in reports of sexual harassment] at the end of the film are so important.
This really did start, not only a conversation, but it initiated a moment in history where just the optics alone of seeing that Senate judiciary committee be all older, white men, made people go, "Uh-uh. They're supposed to represent the United States of America. We better run for office. We better show up. We better organize." The fact that more women and more people of color started running for congressional seats is important, I think.
But we still have a lot of work to do. Big changes happen, and then there's pushback. You have to be willing to stay vigilant, so that we are a country of inclusivity. We haven't always been a country of inclusivity, but our strength as a country has always come from our willingness to be more inclusive. Yet we actually have a long history of not being inclusive and having to fight that resistance.
When Justice Thomas recently spoke from the bench for the first time in 10 years, did you secretly think, "This is really great promotion for our film"?
[Laughs] No. Somebody said to me when we did another interview, "Boy, it's so exciting what's happening with the Court," and I said, "Yes, but I don't think any of us would feel comfortable saying that the passing of a justice is an exciting moment."
You want to be deferential to someone's legacy, and the immense loss that family must be experiencing. It's fascinating that all of this is unfolding, and that we are having the opportunity to examine the process again.
You're clearly very interested in politics, and you also play lots of roles in the political realm. How has your onscreen political life informed your real one, and vice versa?
It's hard to say. I always joke with people that I worked for the real White House before I worked for the fake one on TV. [Washington has been involved in Democratic Party politics in the past.] None of this is new for me, but I continue to be interested in the idea of how personal politics are.
I said a long time ago in a speech at the DNC that people often feel like they're too busy to think about politics, or politics doesn't have anything to do with them. It's just a bunch of guys in a building, making decisions that have nothing to do with them.
I always say, "You may not care about politics, but politics cares about you." Politics makes decisions about your everyday life, from what you wear to where you live to how you vote, to how you drive, to how you breathe. We have to stay involved.
Confirmation debuts Saturday, April 16, at 8 pm Eastern on HBO.