Sad Songs with Kerry Washington

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Photograph by Daniela Federici

It’s been quite a night of musical entertainment for the actress Kerry Washington.

An hour ago she was catching command performances at President Barack Obama’s Beverly Hilton fund-raiser. “Jennifer Hudson sang,” Washington says. “Earth, Wind & Fire performed, and there was this amazing ten-year-old kid who played the flamenco guitar. He was really adorable.” Washington, who had stumped for Obama across 13 states last year, even got her own shout-out from the president. “I was right there,” she says, “and he was like, ‘Hey, whassup?’”

Now she’s in the audience at the Hotel Cafe, a hole-in-the-wall Hollywood club, soaking up the stylings of British singer-songwriter Carina Round. “How is everybody tonight?” asks Round, flashing a sweet grin at the standing crowd of mellowing hipsters. In a black knee-length dress and Lulu bob, an aquamarine Danelectro guitar dangling from her right shoulder, Round promises, “I’m about to depress the living shit out of you.” Washington throws back her luxuriant hair and lets out the loudest laugh in the house.

Somehow everything is broken, Round sings in her soprano. Hours past and never replayed / I see the sickness of a love that / Though it breathes, can never be made. Round’s repertoire is all broken hearts and doomed desire, so inconsistent with the arch, cheery banter she slips in between numbers. While the rest of the audience remains as immovable as the brick walls and heavy damask drapes framing the stage—it’s not easy dancing to lyrics like “the hurt that the head forgets / the heart will always remember—the 32-year-old Washington sways her slim hips, her hands slithering skyward until they’re level with her closed eyes. Her mouth breaks into a rapturous smile, defining the cheekbones that have made her such an effective spokesperson for L’Oréal. Like the singer, she’s done up in stylish black, from her tailored waistcoat to the beads around her neck to her fingernail polish. 

If Washington seems to relate too easily to the lyrics, perhaps it’s because in her best movies she’s portrayed women whose lot is nonstop suffering. Yes, she did accept the inevitable role of the smoking-hot home wrecker in Chris Rock’s I Think I Love My Wife, but she is better known as Jamie Foxx’s wife in Ray, in which she weathered the soul singer’s heroin habit and infidelities, and as Forest Whitaker’s wife in The Last King of Scotland, where she fared even worse: Whitaker, as the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, orders her execution after he discovers her dalliance with his personal physician. Both actors won Academy Awards for the roles, and Washington has referred to herself as their “secret weapon.” In The Dead Girl, she plays a drug-addicted prostitute whose lesbian lover is murdered by a serial killer. In the newly released Life Is Hot in Cracktown, she is a pre-op transsexual turning tricks to pay for her operation. “I learned more about being a woman doing that film than any I’d done before,” Washington says. “What if I had been born a woman, but my physical body had betrayed that personal knowledge?”

Because she has gravitated toward tragedy, and because she’s capable of disappearing into roles as remote as an African dictator’s wife and a male hooker awaiting a sex change, Washington has lessened her chances of becoming a romantic box-office brand like Sandra Bullock or Reese Witherspoon. That’s fine with her. As she tells it, she wasn’t even set on making a living as an actor until she realized that there were professional actors out there, unionized and making a decent living, who weren’t household names.

“It just clicked for me,” Washington says. “I didn’t actually have to be Julia Roberts or a movie star. I could do what I loved to do and just be a worker among workers.” In the actress’s office hangs a framed photograph of herself and leftist historian Howard Zinn. She has played Sojourner Truth and a Hurricane Katrina survivor at staged readings of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. She’s also embraced the writings of UCLA professor Jared Diamond, who sought to explain European domination and oppression of the world’s peoples through disparities in geography and the distribution of natural resources. “I love Guns, Germs and Steel,” Washington says of Diamond’s most acclaimed work. “Love, love, love! I drove everyone in my family crazy because I bought them Guns, Germs and Steel for Christmas one year.”

Raised in a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx, Washington enrolled in seventh grade on a scholarship at Manhattan’s all-girls Spence School, where the tuition is about as high as Harvard’s and alumni include Gwyneth Paltrow. “Junior high without boys sounded really, really great,” she says. “I had a total crush on a boy in elementary school who didn’t like me back. So forget him. Forget them all.”

Washington’s Spence experience gave her a wide cultural comfort zone that the Obama presidential campaign recognized during the primaries. “I’d go from speaking at a historically black church to a ladies’ tea attended entirely by white women,” she says. Like Obama, she has straddled the racial and class divides with apparent ease. Still, Washington says, “I wouldn’t say I’m an ideal sufferer.” It’s been a couple of years since her breakup with fiancé David Moscow, best known as the boy who turns into Tom Hanks in 1988’s Big. She prefers not to talk about it or any other relationships she has had, saying that she was engaged and is now “disengaged” and leaving it at that.

For someone who has never been married, Washington has portrayed her share of wives. Next up she will be Eddie Murphy’s in A Thousand Words and after that a dumped spouse seeking to adopt a baby in Mother and Child, a melodrama directed by In Treatment creator Rodrigo Garcia and starring Annette Bening and Naomi Watts. Washington is also writing her first screenplay, an experience she calls “exciting and scary,” “painful,” and “really fucking hard. It’s a very lonely act, writing. You literally have to sit with yourself.”

From the Hotel Cafe stage, Round announces her last number of the evening, a ballad titled “Backseat” that is essential listening should you ever need motivation to jump off the roof of a nearby building. She sings: We were sleeping in for years / Letting go of our friends / Scaring our friends…. A musician friend who helps shape Washington’s playlist (already anchored by Beyoncé, Radiohead, and Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods) introduced her to the singer. “Backseat” is one of Washington’s favorite songs. “I cried when I first heard that song, like a typical actor.” She played it in her head when preparing for some of her more devastating scenes in Mother and Child. The song “keys into that sense of missed opportunity—of something that is not actually possible in this lifetime. It could be a romance. It could be a child. There’s nothing sadder than to know that feeling of oneness and then feel you can’t have that with somebody or something.”

At Round’s invitation, the audience joins in for the closing moments of the song. Washington’s face is a study in fragile beauty. Her dark eyes glisten with joy as she sings with the rest: It should be forever / God told me…./  We’re born into the wrong time.

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