After the film adaptation of her Broadway play American Son dropped on Netflix in late 2019, producer, star and, now, Emmy nominee Kerry Washington urged fans to engage with her in a dialogue about what they’d just witnessed: a heart-wrenching tale of a biracial couple whose son, Jamal, is killed by the police. What followed was a series of powerful exchanges with Black viewers, who were grateful to see their stories reflected, and non-Black viewers, who were grateful for the opportunity to try to understand a different perspective. When Little Fires Everywhere debuted on Hulu in March, the feedback was similarly powerful. “To be able to hold a mirror up to society where some get to see themselves and some get to experience the other is really a tremendous gift,” says Washington, who opens up about the power, responsibility and heartache of playing American Son’s Kendra and Little Fires’ Mia. You have two projects that, in very different ways, explore themes of unconscious biases, racial justice and raising children in privileged worlds. In what ways did you influence these two characters, and in what ways did they influence you? I’ve often been able to meet characters in my life at a point when there’s something from them that I need to be learning, and when there’s something for me that I’m needing to express through them. And with both of these characters, I felt so drawn to them because they’ve felt like versions of Black motherhood that I hadn’t quite seen before. And yet very different versions. Yes.
With American Son, a lot of the pull was that she really felt like the un-Olivia Pope [Washington’s Scandal character] to me. I had spent seven years living in some ways this romantic fantasy of what interracial love could look like between two really powerful people with a great deal of agency, cultural understanding and mutual respect. He literally invents a war to rescue this Black woman — talk about Black Lives Matter. So there was that version, and I think that version was really important, but it felt like American Son was an opportunity to explore what the challenges to an interracial relationship could be in this day and age, with two people who love each other very much but don’t have the same kind of cultural respect and understanding, and with a Black woman who doesn’t have the same kind of agency. And when there’s a child involved, because inherent in parenting a Black child is a level of fear and vulnerability that Olivia Pope never had to grapple with because she made the choice to not parent a Black child. So the pull was to explore the other side of the coin of what Scandal wasn’t — it was attractive to me as an actor but also to my unconscious to explore the shadow part of the fairy tale that I’d been living. And what did Mia teach you? Some of it, quite honestly, is deeply personal. But there was a point in preproduction where Reese [Witherspoon] and I were looking at the different [teenager] costumes and reminiscing, like, “Oh, I had those shoes.” And, “Oh my God, I used to wear my hair that way.” We were those teenagers in the ’90s, and therefore we had both taken on the task of exploring who our mothers were in this show about motherhood. We were choosing to step into our mothers’ shoes. And for me, it was really both my parents’ shoes, and to consider their hearts and their journeys and their secrets and their sacrifices and what their sacrifices cost them — so, it was a profound experience. How does your role as a mother impact the choices you make and the way you experience them? When I was doing American Son, every day I’d commit to dropping into the absolute worst nightmare of every parent, regardless of race: to wake up at 3 a.m. and not know where your teenager is. Of course, it’s exponentially more complicated when there are systems in place that are invested in institutional racism and target your child. So, I’d drop into this nightmare for a little under two hours and then it would be done, and after the play I was so happy that I had made it through. And it’s funny because people would come to my dressing room after and they’d be destroyed. I remember Michelle Obama sitting in my dressing room like, “What just happened?” And I’d be like, “But it’s done! Let’s go for drinks. Let’s take selfies.” I was so happy. That’s amazing. And one of the things it helped me do was, outside of the theater, I was so deeply rooted in the joys of motherhood — bringing up this Black girl magic and this Black boy joy, and living so fully and letting the pendulum swing all the way to the other side, which I don’t think we do as parents. We can get so caught up in making the breakfast and packing the bag. But I was so rooted in the gift of them when I wasn’t in the nightmare of Jamal’s journey, and that was really powerful for me. How did Mia impact you as a parent? By the end, Mia learns to say sorry for the things that she does, but she never apologizes for who she is, and that’s really powerful, too.