Tanya Hamilton is a first-time film director, but it’s hard to beat the cast she lined up for her debut, Night Catches Us. Anthony Mackie, who won long-overdue recognition for his role in The Hurt Locker, plays a self-exiled Black Panther making an unwelcome return to his former Philadelphia neighborhood, and Kerry Washington is a onetime comrade who chooses to fight the system from the inside. Since making her film debut in Jim McKay’s Our Song back in 2000, Washington has amassed an impressive body of work both within the system and without, ranging from Ray Charles’ long-suffering wife in Ray to a graphic designer whose interracial marriage draws the ire of a neighboring cop in Lakeview Terrace. In addition to Night Catches Us, Washington also plays a pivotal role in Tyler Perry’s adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf as the well-meaning but overmatched social worker who ties the story’s disparate strands together. Washington talked to The A.V. Club just after Night Catches Us premièred at Sundance, and again in the fall, about stealing her mom’s mannerisms, why every actress of color should have a For Colored Girls monologue in her back pocket, and why she tries to avoid stereotypes, good and bad.
The A.V. Club: Your character is based on someone Tanya Hamilton knew well, and her importance in the story grew as Hamilton spent 10 years working on the script. How much did you talk about the way the character evolved?
Kerry Washington: To be honest with you, she and I didn’t have a whole lot of time, because I came to the project pretty late. I knew about the project a few years ago, and there was another actress she cast, who I loved, who I’m really fond of and have a great deal of respect for. So although I really loved the project, and was sad it wasn’t me, it wasn’t something I considered to be on my radar. It was really funny. I was wanting to do one more film project before going into the rehearsals for [the David Mamet play Race], and I heard through the grapevine that this other actress wasn’t going to be able to do it. So I actually reached out to Anthony Mackie and said, “Is that real? Are you looking for your Patty?” And he was like “Yeah!” This was very short notice. I think the next week, I was in Philadelphia doing fittings for wigs, and wardrobe fittings, and a week and a half later, we were shooting.
AVC: And it was not a long shoot.
KW: It was not. It was really fun, because it took me back to my earlier filmmaking, that kind of guerilla-filmmaking style of working, which I think is amazing. And particularly a film like this, that’s so much about community and the definition of community—we were really part of the community, in a different kind of way. Sometimes you’re on a film set, and you get a sense, with police barriers and big movie trailers, that you’re holding the community at arm’s length. This was not that kind of movie. We were hanging out with people on the street. My dog was always in some neighbor’s arms. A lot of the crew was local. So this was a different kind of film in that way, which was fun.
AVC: How different is it shooting a whirlwind indie like Night Catches Us from making, say, Fantastic Four? Is it even the same job?
KW: It is the same job, because your job is to get the work done no matter what the environment is. Sometimes those varying factors have to do with the personalities of the different directors. Sometimes it has to do with the size of your trailer, or lack thereof. Sometimes it has to do with the weather, sometimes it has to do with the fact that it’s 4 a.m. Your job is to tell the story, and to make the unbelievable believable regardless of what’s going on around you—to give yourself to the given truth of the material despite what else is happening. But the challenges are different. Making the unbelievable believable is different on a set with Fantastic Four, where it’s like, “Wind machines! Because the airship is coming in and you’re pretending to be afraid!” This is a different kind of thing, like, “I know I don’t have a trailer, but I need a bedroom or something to be emotionally prepared for this scene. Can we find me some kind of private space?” [Laughs.] So it’s that kind of thing.
AVC: You came to the film on such short notice, you obviously didn’t have much time to prepare. Do you end up drawing on yourself more in those circumstances than you otherwise might?
KW: Oh, that’s interesting. A couple of things were really wonderful. One is that the story is about two people who haven’t been in each other’s lives for several years, but who when they were in each other’s lives, really loved and respected each other enormously, and had great chemistry. And Anthony and I kind of have that [relationship], having done the Spike Lee movie [She Hate Me] together. When you do a Spike Lee movie with somebody, it’s like you’re in the trenches together. Particularly that film, it was like, “What in the world are we doing?” So fun, and so bonding, and I really respect his talent and his way. He’s this Julliard-trained, brilliant actor. The way he works and the way he lives his life, I have enormous respect for him. We hadn’t actually had the opportunity to work together, or really hang out that much since the last movie.
Since then, he had had a baby. He had this wonderful woman in his life. So we had these different stories and lives. There was this sense of “I know you, but I don’t really know you, and I like you, but I don’t really know you, and we have a history, but we’re not sure what that is.” There was this neat, fun, professional history—not personal history at all—but there was this wonderful kind of professional history that we could bring to the table, of “Who are you now?” So that was great, and it was better not to rehearse, because we could do that.
And then the other funny thing—I wasn’t sure she was going to notice, but my mom saw the movie for the second time in New York at the Urban World Film Festival, and she said, “Are you doing me?” And I said “Yes.” There was something about this character that really reminded me of my mom. My mom has always been one of these upstanding figures in the community, who is kind of a mother to a lot of people, guardian to a lot of people, caretaker and senior advisor to a lot of people in the community. So there are a couple of scenes where anyone who knows my mother, they go, like, “Oh my God!” Particularly there’s this one scene where I’m just ad-libbing with the kids, to make sure they eat their fruit before they eat the sweets, and my mother said that in that scene, it hit her that that’s what I was doing. Then she started seeing it in the rest of the movie. I had that sense when I first read it, and I think part of the natural inclination for me to do that was, I was born the year the movie takes place, so I was thinking a lot about my mother. I kept calling her and saying “How in the world did you wear polyester all summer long? Because I am dying right now! I am dying in this Philadelphia summer in this polyester dress!”
AVC: 1976 is also the year Tanya Hamilton’s family emigrated from Jamaica to America.
KW: Oh, how funny. So it’s her birth as an American, and I think she sees a lot of herself in Jamara [Griffin]’s character as well. That is really interesting.
AVC: The movie is set in 1976, when radical, militant African-American activism has burned itself out and a Democrat is in the White House for the first time in eight years, and people don’t know how to adjust the dialogue to fit this new situation. By coincidence, it’s landed at a similar time in this nation’s history. Was that something you talked about, or that played into it for you?
KW: I was really struck with the Jimmy Carter piece in the film; I thought that was really interesting. But we didn’t really talk a lot about it. To be honest with you, we mostly talked about Patty in non-political terms. We talked about her as a woman. Growing up in New York, in the community I grew up in, I have friends who are the kids of radicals. I wouldn’t say I grew up around a lot of radicals, but my mother is a retired professor, so I grew up around a lot of political intellectuals. Which is different. As a child, I would be at the dinner table discussing affirmative action and abortion rights—as a child. So that’s not new to me, and the idea of connecting everything that happens in the world to some sort of sociopolitical framework was kind of what I was born into.
So I have lots of friends whose parents were connected with various movements, and I grew up around those people. So I don’t think about this part of history in an abstract way, but I think most people, when they think about the Black Panther Party, they think in very abstract, caricatured terms. They think about black fists in the air, but they don’t think about the actual people, and the families, and the relationships.
So that’s what interested me, was meeting these two people 10 years after the peak of the Black Panther Party movement, and how were they making sense of their lives 10 years later? You have one person who’s sort of on the run, not necessarily underground, but definitely not able to settle in one place. And then one person who, for all intents and purposes, is working within the system. She’s a local civil-rights attorney. I found that interesting, these two people who have to find a way to fit their ideology into whatever lives they’re going to have 10 years later.
AVC: In practical terms, Patty has reconciled with the idea that she has to work within the system, but emotionally, it’s far from a settled issue for her. Her radical past is just under the surface; there are bullet holes under her kitchen wallpaper from where her husband was shot by the police.
KW: Yeah, even the photo of my dead husband that’s hanging on the wall. I think about Mackie’s character and my character, and both of us have a real issue dealing with the present. I guess we both have a big issue dealing with the past: He’s constantly running from it, I can’t let go of it, but neither of us have made peace with it. And that’s where film finds us: two people who are having a really hard time making peace with the past.
AVC: She can’t let go of the past, but she also can’t talk about it. It’s like this invisible third party in any conversation, this other factor that’s always there.
KW: I’m very lucky. My mother has a doctorate in education, and she has always been a very informed parent, a very educated parent on parenting, but I think a lot of the film is about what happens when you live with somebody who won’t let you just have secrets anymore. This child requires a level of honesty. I guess in the process of individuating, you have to honor that children are thinking people. Which is, I think, an interesting part of parenting. You hope that you encourage it and that you’re proud of it, and that your child becomes their own person and that they’re thinking for themselves, but it can also be problematic and uncomfortable.
AVC: The old pamphlet from Patty’s Panther days symbolizes the fact that the Panthers’ militant rhetoric is just lying around waiting to be picked up, and by kids who don’t understand its original context. It’s like unexploded ordnance left over from a war.
KW: I’m doing this play right now, the new David Mamet play. It’s called Race, and it’s very interesting how people really leave the theater filled with the desire to talk about the play and the issues and the characters, and how they’re all navigating their personal views around race. So yeah, I definitely think it’s a conversation we’re not done having.
AVC: In the Panthers’ time, it was commonplace to talk about revolution. For a lot of people, the question wasn’t if it would happen, but when. The Panthers, for the most part, weren’t really fomenting armed revolt, but they used that language because it was available to them.
KW: It’s one of the things I love about the film. I think it’s very easy—I don’t know about particularly now—but in every moment of our history as people in this country, even globally, it’s very easy to separate the rhetoric from the people, to kind of believe that the rhetoric is the substance, and I love that the film gives you a human framework for all of this. It’s about the people behind the caricature, the people behind the stereotype, which I feel is what so much of my work ends up being about, often. Maybe it’s just because women of color have to destructuralize or invalidate so many different kinds of stereotypes that I feel like, whenever I’m lending myself to the real humanity of a character, it’s in the face… It’s kind of rejecting that idea. I think even today it would be very easy to decide that somebody is a certain way or a certain something because they are a member of the Tea Party, or because they are an anarchist, or because they are even a member of the Democratic National Committee. For me, what’s fascinating about what I do is that you get to build more layers and truth to somebody other than just a check on a box.
AVC: Ideally, that’s a broad description of an actor’s job.
KW: You hope, absolutely. There are maybe examples in comedy when you are really playing the archetype, but even then, you’re taking the extremes and building on them to still bring more layers to a shallow picture.
AVC: In I Think I Love My Wife, you’re playing the vamp.
KW: Right. But for me, my whole goal with that character was for people to go, “Oh wow, look at what Nikki’s going through. Look at why a person makes those choices. She’s beginning to feel old. She’s beginning to feel like she doesn’t have a lot of options. She’s a person that fundamentally has issues with being loved and loving herself.” She’s not just a home-wrecking whore. That might be what her actions are, but she, beneath that, is this complicated human being who’s struggling to be the best that she can, or to take care of herself in the best way she knows how.
AVC: You were talking about—
KW: I don’t mean to call her a whore. I don’t want to get in trouble. [Leans into mic.] “I retract ‘whore.’” [Laughs.]
AVC: You have this added responsibility as a woman of color, and you’re aware of not playing the stereotype in either direction: either embodying the negative or these unattainably virtuous characters.
KW: What’s funny is that I think I’ve kind of done both. I’ve been given the opportunity to play both [kinds of] women, and to give them more weight, and layers. Mrs. Ray Charles, Della Bea, she is totally the saint. She’s the “Do no wrong, please put down the drugs for the sake of your family, if not for the sake of your family, for the sake of the music of all mankind!” [Laughs.] You know, like, “Please, please, put down the needle, I am so good, I welcome your illegitimate children.” So I have done that, and then also, I Think I Love My Wife: “Just be with me for a night.” It’s been fun for me to take those stereotypes and challenge people to see more than the stereotype. Even for myself, part of the challenge is going “Why would someone do that?” Both “Why would someone do that, try to destroy someone’s marriage?” and also “Why would someone do that, stay with a man that you know is cheating on you, and killing himself?” Really, why? Your job as the actor is to figure it out, so that other people believe it’s true. Because if the audience doesn’t believe there’s a why, then it just feels fake to them.
AVC: Your character in Night Catches Us believed in a much more idealistic notion of broad social change, and has really been disillusioned by experience. She’s become a reformer, which is a dirty word to some activists.
KW: We were filming in such an interesting moment, in terms of the first summer of our current presidency, so it was really a fascinating time to be telling that story. Because so many people, I think, in a beautiful way, had in the way that Patty does, signed up to work within the system. People who never thought they would work within the system were suddenly participating in their democracy, not opposed to it or against it. So it was a neat idea to be exploring. Even for me, in the previous election, my political activity had been protesting outside the Republican National Convention in New York, and almost getting arrested doing it. For days on end, protesting and marching. This year, I had a suit on, and I was inside the convention, with a suit, as a surrogate with the campaign. It was such a wild turn of events for me.
AVC: Patty has similarities with your character in For Colored Girls, who’s a social worker who butts up against the limitations of working within the system.
KW: That’s so interesting, I’ve never thought about it. To me, that character is so emotionally based, and Patty is so cerebral, and she’s so cut off from her emotions, where to me, that character is just a walking heartbeat. She feels everything and everybody, and doesn’t know what to do about it. But Patty is constantly pushing down, pushing down, until she has to, and even in that moment, it’s like so controlled, which is so my mother. [Laughs.] But yeah, I do see what you mean in terms of the limitations of public service.
AVC: For Colored Girls takes the meat of Ntozake Shange’s play, which is made up of monologues, and puts them in the context of a Tyler Perry movie. You’ve still got cheating husbands and successful women who get too big for their britches, and so on.
KW: Yeah. I mean I really, I love my storyline with Hill [Harper], because we’re like the positive black couple. We’re the supportive, loving, warm couple in the story, which is so important. I thought it was really beautiful that this character Kelly, who he gave the task of connecting the stories, mostly as a function of what she does for a living, that she is the one who also has the most stable relationship. I thought that was really lovely. The play is very much about cheating men, and the difficulties of a relationship, and the difficulties of identity, so it’s interesting. I wonder if rather than… I haven’t seen the movie, but I wonder if rather than him taking this play and dropping it into the context of a Tyler Perry movie, if he was actually attracted to the material of the play and felt it was something he should take on, not only because he had the wherewithal with his own studio and could actually get the movie made, which is something nobody’s been able to do for, you know, 20 years, but also that it was material he felt he could work with. It’s a bunch of themes that speak to him.
AVC: Sure. It’s not as if he dropped George C. Wolfe’s play The Colored Museum into a Tyler Perry movie.
KW: [Whispers.] I love that play. I directed that play in college. And I’m now on the president’s committee for arts and humanities with George Wolfe. At our first official meeting, I was like, “I know that I’m supposed to be cool, but I just want you to know that I DIRECTED THE COLORED MUSEUM IN COLLEGE!”
AVC: Did you have a personal history with For Colored Girls before Tyler Perry approached you to do the film? It’s such a drama-school standby. You can pretty much count on some student using it for her first monologue.
KW: I feel like any single woman of color who’s been onstage has a Shakespeare monologue in her back pocket, and a monologue from For Colored Girls. [Laughs.] It’s just part of what you should have, as a woman of color. I’d never done a full production of it, but I’d worked on different pieces for acting classes, and I’d seen several productions of it, and I’d read it several times.
AVC: Was it just a given that you’d be involved in the movie when that came along?
KW: It was. I couldn’t imagine not doing it when I was asked, because to me, it was such a fundamentally… It changed the landscape of American theater when it came out. I mean, when it won the Obie, it transformed how people thought about theater made by people of color, it transformed how people thought about theater made by women, it transformed the idea of what theater on Broadway was, because it wasn’t a play, it was this thing called a “choreopoem.”
AVC: Was it on Broadway?
KW: Yeah. It went from off-Broadway to on. It’s this vastly important part of the canon of American literature, and dramatic literature, and literature of people of color, and feminist literature, and it has all of these important cross-sections. I’m on the Board of V-Day, Eve Ensler’s organization that came out of The Vagina Monologues, and you think, “Would there be a Vagina Monologues if there hadn’t been a For Colored Girls?” This play of women speaking honestly about their sexuality and how it relates to their identity on a stage. It’s such an important play, and before I ever saw it, I said to him, “I know you’re doing it. If I can, I want to be a part of it.”
AVC: It has to be a little intimidating to take on such a canonical work.
KW: That was nerve-racking for us. Because we all knew we were going to say these words where in some communities, it’s like doing a remake of The Sound Of Music. Women are going to know these pieces. So that was a little nerve-racking, but fun. [Laughs.]