As long-time fans of Kerry Washington, we were fairly excited to learn she would be starring in Tyler Perry’s adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls, in which she plays Kelly, a case worker who comes in and out of many lives of the other women in the film, played by the likes of Janet Jackson, Kimberly Elise, Thandie Newton, Whoopi Goldberg, Anika Noni Rose and Loretta Devine. It’s a far cry from Ms. Washington’s own experiences playing troubled women, but she helps to act almost as the lynchpin who helps pull all of the separate stories together. Granted, it’s not nearly as flashy a role as some of the others, but as we’ve seen many times, just her presence in scenes can help other actors do their best work.
ComingSoon.net spoke on the phone with Ms. Washington earlier this week.
ComingSoon.net: I had a lovely conversation with Thandie last week and I found out how Tyler contacted her. It was a long 18-month process with a lot of scripts. How about yourself? Was it a bit simpler than that? Kerry Washington: I had sort of heard a rumor that he had the material, that he was going to be doing the film, and I cornered him at an event in New York (laughs) and said, “What’s going on? What are you doing? Is it true? What’s happening?” At the time, he was really deep into a rewrite and didn’t really want to talk about it, and I said, “Okay, fine, but I would really like to be a part of it,” and then I got the call a few months later. He really wanted me to play the role of Kelly.
CS: I assume you were familiar with the play and Ntozake’s work beforehand. Washington: Yeah, I was. I have never done a full production of the play, but I was familiar with it just from different acting classes and preparing for auditions and I’d seen other people working on the material.
CS: Was Kelly not in the original play or she’s a new character Tyler created for the movie? Washington: None of us are characters in the original play except maybe Crystal. I guess some of the women are more closely based on poems than others, but none of the women in the play really have fully fleshed-out lives outside of the poems and most of them don’t have names.
CS: Right, most of them are named after colors, but while Kelly wasn’t in the play, the poem you perform was, right? Washington: That’s right.
CS: Kelly’s an interesting character because she sees all the stuff going on and becomes the eyes of the viewer, what did you think of playing that role which ties all the other stories together? Washington: Yeah, I loved that she was the through-line of these different women who all live in the same community, some of them in the same building or work in the same office, but haven’t really taken the time to get to know each other, and suddenly, because of the nature of her work, she becomes a witness of a lot of the journeys, which quite honestly was very fortunate for me at work every day, because I got to witness this incredible acting work unfolding in front of me constantly.
CS: Thandie was very gracious about being in this movie with you because she admitted that often you two might be competing for the same roles in movies over the years, and she loved the fact that Tyler brought all of these actresses together and you all could bond over this work. Washington: Yes, we’ve joked about it a lot, that I can’t tell you the number of times I got the phone call from my agent saying, “It’s down to you and Thandie” or “It’s down to you and Anika” (laughs) so to be in a position because of Tyler where there’s room for all of us at the table, it was a profound experience for many of us, because we got to work alongside each other and support each other and learn about each other’s processes and it was really kind of magical. There were other women where the experience was so rich, because they were honestly women who without their work, I don’t think I would have the career that I have today, because they’ve been such an inspiration and such role models. I mean, my parents had a VHS recording of Whoopi Goldberg’s one-woman play on Broadway. HBO bought the rights back when they were doing that sort of thing and showed it, and I wasn’t old enough when it was actually on Broadway, but we had the VHS and we also had a cassette tape, and I pretty much memorized that entire Broadway play. It transformed for me what acting could do, how it could really put you inside the mind and heart of another person and allow you to have compassion for somebody that you might not otherwise ever have access to. To be able to actually say that to Whoopi while sitting next to her in the hair and make-up trailer is an experience I’ll never forget.
CS: Her one-woman plays were amazing because it was as if she played all the characters in “For Colored Girls.” Washington: Yeah, and heartbreakingly. I mean, hilarious and heartbreaking.
CS: Over the years, you’ve played women with drug problems or that have been abused, similar to some of those in the movie. Kelly hasn’t been abused and is in a better situation than some of these other women. Were you able to help these other actresses get into the right place they needed to do their scenes? Washington: No, no, we all had such separate journeys. The support was very non-evasive. (laughs) We kind of created an environment in which they could have their process and work the way they work, but none of these women are women who needed any advice from me. I mean, this is not a cast full of women who don’t regularly throw down, you know?
CS: Not so much advice but as an actress who has played tough roles and known what you needed from other actresses, to be able to give that to them when they’re doing their scenes. Washington: I guess so, but I just wouldn’t take any responsibility for anybody’s performance in that way. We are all just constantly working off each other and when you really listen, you do everything you need to do to create the space for an actor to live in their own reality.
CS: I really loved “Mother and Child” and Rodrigo is one of those directors who can get amazing performance out of women and Tyler is as well, so what does he do to help that process? Washington: You mean in terms of how do you create a space where we can do that kind of work?
CS: I guess so, but does he just give you space or does he do something to help you get into that space for those scenes? Washington: I think he’s done a tremendous job, because each of the women works so differently. If you can imagine, Kimberly Elise, she had to be fully immersed in the life of Crystal, and we all gave her an enormous amount of space and tried to engage her as Kimberly as much as possible, because she had such a difficult reality that she was trying to build around her at all times. Whereas Whoopi was walking around literally saying to everybody, “Please don’t call me by my character name, please call me Whoopi the moment he says, ‘Cut'” because she felt like she needed to maintain a sense of sanity while diving deep into this woman. So Tyler was somehow able to find a way to take each of these women at their own place, with their own process, with their own technique, and still inspire these magnificent performances out of each of us, even though we work so differently and we are so different and the characters are so different. I think that’s because he’s an actor, and he’s an actor’s director, so we were really lucky in that regard.
CS: You talked about Whoopi trying not to stay in character but this must have been emotionally draining for pretty much everyone. As an actor, you must have methods of getting in and out but is it hard for a movie like this which is so emotional and not let it affect you afterwards? Washington: Kimberly Elise has a great story about how she actually got grey hairs in the process of shooting this movie, because the body just doesn’t know the difference. The body doesn’t know you’re pretending. I think that one of the greatest gifts that we got was that final scene of the movie, because the final scene of the movie was actually at the end of shooting, and so we did get to come together and have that communal hug in more ways than one at the end of this journey together. It was a little bit like a pilgrimage. We had started in New York but then we went down to Atlanta, and we were shooting in Tyler Perry’s studio, and there was talk about us shooting on a fake roof with a CGI skyline of New York in the background and we all kept going, “No, no, no! We worked so hard to be in so much truth this whole movie that we have to end in New York.” And so we did. After we finished shooting in Atlanta, we all took this pilgrimage back to this rooftop in New York to shoot that final scene, and I think it was a wonderful moment of closure for everybody.
CS: How much time did you spend getting that last scene? Was that a couple of days? Washington: No, the very last scene, everything on the rooftop, was one night. One very intense night, because we were avoiding rain, trying to get it before the sun came up, all of that.
CS: Do you think you’ll try to keep in touch with this cast since it was such a bonding experience? Washington: I think we will. I mean, different members of the cast to varying degrees, but yeah.
CS: You’ve worked with a lot of first-time directors, like I saw “Night Catches Us,” but you continue to be very trusting of first-time directors and doing independent films, and you bounce back and forth. Has that been something you’ve looked for in projects? Washington: It’s not that I look for first-time directors to work with, but I do like to work in independent film, so often, I’d say about half the time, you wind up. I get to work with the Jim McKays and the Rodrigo Garcias but also the Tanya Hamiltons. I think it is important that from the very beginning of my career, I was lucky enough to have my first two films be wildly different productions. My first song was “Our Song,” which was this tiny, tiny little independent film that went to Sundance and was nominated for one of those low-budget Independent Spirit awards, but my second film was “Save the Last Dance,” which was a huge studio film out of Paramount. I saw the merits of each right away, and knew that I wanted to throughout my career go back and forth, because they’re very rich in different ways.
CS: What are you working on next? Washington: Well, “Night Catches Us” comes out next month, in December, and then I have an ensemble piece called “The Details” with Tobey Maguire and Elizabeth Banks and Ray Liotta, and then I start work on a comedy… thank God! (laughs) This next week, I start a comedy with myself and David Alan Grier and S. Epetha Merkerson, yeah.
CS: I wanted to quickly ask you about “A Thousand Words,” a movie you did with Eddie Murphy and Brian Robbins, because it’s a project that has mysteriously disappeared. Washington: I know, well if you ever get any information about it, let me know. (laughs)
For Colored Girls opens on Friday, November 5, nationwide. You can read our interview with actress Thandie Newton here.