15 Minutes With Kerry Washington

The ”Scandal” star dishes on her upcoming comedy series, how her career was influenced by new co-star Delroy Lindo and the power of bringing laughter and drama together

Kerry Washington is best known for her starring role in critically-acclaimed dramas such as Scandal and Little Fires Everywhere, but now the Hollywood icon leads her first comedy series, Hulu’s UnPrisoned. The upcoming series follows relationship therapist Paige, whose life is changed after her father is released from prison after 17 years and moves in with her and her teenage son.

Washington spoke to LAMag about her upcoming comedy series, how her career was influenced by co-star Delroy Lindo and the power of comedy-drama as social commentary.

LA Magazine: You’ve starred in comedies in the past but this is your first starring role in a comedy series. What made Unprisoned such a special project for you?

Washington: The show is inspired by our creator Tracy McMillan and her life and I just think she’s had an extraordinary life. We haven’t heard this story a lot, but [it’s] also incredibly common when you think about the fact that 80 million Americans are living with a criminal record..We’ve told lots of stories about what it’s like to go to prison or what it’s like in prison but to excavate the idea of what it’s like to be part of a family that has a returning citizen—how you learn to live together and love each other when somebody is being unprisoned and how you unprison each other together in your hearts and minds like that.

Did you find it a challenge to get the balance between drama and comedy or was it natural through a great script?

The script is brilliant. We have a phenomenal showrunner, Yvette Lee Bowser, who is a comic genius, she is a complete legend in television comedy. Then Tracy McMillan, whose life inspires the show, is also a brilliant writer and so funny. So a lot of that was on the page but Delroy [Lindo] and I are both very serious actors, theater trained, so a lot of what we did was try to be as human as possible.

 Why do you think that comedy dramas like Unprisoned are so effective as social commentaries?

Because people in real life are funny. I think in real life we find ourselves in situations that are kind of absurd. And so when we get to do this blend when we don’t force content to be all one thing or another when we say that human beings have both poignant moments and hilarious moments, and if we allow ourselves to explore all of that, we might be closer to the truth. 

This is a serious topic. Typically. shows that tackle these issues are hard-hitting documentaries, so it must have been interesting to play it as a comedy.

Part of what we want to do with the show is to challenge people’s stereotypes about who formerly incarcerated people are. When you talk to Tracy McMillan, she always says about her dad that people who met him always said “Boy, I would have never thought your dad was in prison. He’s so polite and so kind, he’s so charming and so smart.” And it’s like, of course, he is! Why do we assume that people who wind up in the criminal justice system aren’t all those things? So, I think we’ve tried to bring some of that levity and intelligence and love and laughter that is Edwin’s… and that was Tracy’s Dad. We’ve tried to bring that into the life of the show because part of why Paige is so charming and funny is because she is her father’s daughter.

As an executive producer, what did you want to make sure shone through? 

I really wanted to serve the story. I wanted to be of service to Tracy and get this version of her story out into the world and make it my own as an actor. I’m not playing Tracy, but I’m honoring the essence of her life’s journey, so I wanted to do everything I could as an EP to support our mission and vision. 

I also wanted to support our showrunner Yvette to really shine a spotlight on Delroy Lindo, who is such a G! He’s just an incredible actor and a legend and to be able to invite him to this party and to create space for him to continue to do what he does so brilliantly is incredible. All of our actors and artists just got together and said “Let’s all make this show together, let’s show up and do something excellent.” That’s what I love about producing is that I get to create space for people to soar.

I read that when you signed up for the show you only had one condition, to have Delroy Lindo play your father. Can you talk a little about how he has influenced your career?

I really felt like once we had Delroy then we had a show! I loved it on the page but he was the only actor I could think of to play this character. It’s because I’ve loved his work for decades from when I saw him play West Indian Archie in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, it had such a deep impact on me. And then right before we were about to cast this I saw him in Da 5 Bloods—but of course, I’ve followed him all throughout those decades. I was just like “You guys, it’s Delroy- he’s the one!” So we met with him and I was just so grateful that he said yes.

In Unprisoned you’re playing a family therapist who is juggling her own family relationships. Was this an introspective role in which you were given space to look at your own dynamics and relationships?

I think so, but it wasn’t in a sad introspective way. It’s such a fun show, it allowed for a playground for all of us to look within more and invite ourselves into more growth and evolution personally.

All episodes of Unprisoned will be released exclusively on Hulu in the U.S. on March 10.

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