I love actress Kerry Washington so much I wanna be like her when I grow up.
She has the deadly combination of beauty and brains. I especially enjoyed the verbal butt kicking she gave future GOP chair Michael Steele on Bill Maher's HBO show during the closing stages of the victorious Obama presidential campaign.
But seriously though, this sister is a talented actress who I hope I'll get to see walking off the stage with an Oscar in her hands one day.
In the meantime, she's been doing the interview circuit while promoting the Life Is Hot In Cracktown movie which opened June 26 and is in limited release right now.
In the various interviews I'll post snippets of here she's been talking about her character Marybeth, a pre-op transwoman. You can click on the links I have to read the full interviews.
BET.com with Clay Cane
From the BET.com interview:
[Laughs] What type of research did you do for the character?
I had an incredible woman named Valerie Spencer, who was my transgender authenticity consultant. [Laughs] She was a girl from the community and an incredible woman. I knew that I was going to need a lot of support on this. So, I worked with her and did a lot of reading, research and watched a lot of movies. I always work that way -- I feel my job in some ways is that of an anthropologist to immerse myself into the world of the character. I knew this world was so different than mine so I had Valerie on set everyday. I believe very strongly in a community of guidance. My job is to respect the community I am portraying.
You definitely look like a woman, but your character, Marybeth, looked like a transgender woman. So what look were you going for?
That's such an interesting question. One of the things I realized in approaching this role was that I actually figured out early on that I was going to learn a lot about being a woman -- period. Because, really, what a trans woman is, is somebody who is a woman but whose biology has betrayed them in someway. For me, I take for granted my identity as a woman. I take for granted my anatomy and physiology. I don't really think about those things. What if actually I was born with my body betraying me in some way? I would think about it differently. I go to the gym four times a week to get rid of my ass but what if instead I was paying thousands of dollars on the black market in hormone therapy to have an ass? [Laughs] I might walk differently, stand differently, dress differently -- I might think about celebrating my identity as a woman in a different way.
Were you concerned at all with getting any flack for playing a transsexual character?
I don’t really think my job as an actress is to be liked. I think my job as an actress is to tell stories about human beings; I felt like that is what was important. I went through similar things on "She Hate Me" -- people are going to say what they are going to say, but I think my work is about honoring humanity. For me, as an artist, I don’t think it's fair for me to say, "I’m going to tell honest stories about this segment of society and not this other segment." I respect other people's decisions to only tell certain stories and only portray certain characters. It might be different if I had kids, it might be different if I was just at a different point in my life, but right now I try not to shy away from things because it might not make people like me -- no matter what I do in life people are not going to like me for one reason or another. [Laughs]
There's a perception that Black people are more homophobic than White people. What's your reaction to that?
I think generalizations of any sort are dangerous. I'll say, if that is the case -- right now it's an American issue. We're dealing with Prop. 8 in California and it's scary, it's really scary. People don’t think about the fact that when Barack Obama's parents had him -- it was illegal for them to be married in several states in this country. So if we start making it okay that certain people can marry and other people can't, it's a slippery slope of civil rights. Who knows who is going to be allowed to marry or not marry next. I’m not interested in moving backward as a society. So whether it's more prevalent or not in the Black community, I think as a whole America is dealing with the issue of homophobia. We got to be really honest about whether we believe in civil rights for all people or not. As Black people we need to remember the moment that we say it's okay to disenfranchise one segment of society, we're opening the door to move backward on ourselves.
This character has sexuality about her, but she is in some rough circumstances. Did you feel sexy playing her?
Wow -- that is such an interesting question. It's always hard for me to watch my own work. Sometimes that's because I’m so in it that it's almost like when I see it, it's like somebody showing yourself video when you're drunk at a party. [Laughs] You're like, "I don't remember any of that!" I had a lot of that with Marybeth. I keep trying to wrap my head around it. It was kind of shocking for me to watch the movie because I was so immersed in it. Sometimes when I work, I do a movie like "Fantastic Four" for example, you are kind of more conscious of the result and what it all looks like. This was one of those movies where I was just in it. There's a lot about the process I don’t really remember. But, I do know when I was playing her I felt very connected to womaness, to what if my identity as a woman was something that was really important to me -- sensually, sexually, physically, emotionally. What if it was something that I could never take for granted any day of the week? I was really connected to women in energy in a different way. She is a woman who makes her living having sex so there is some of that, too. I was connected to my sexuality as commerce. It was complicated.
H interview with Randy Gambrill
Washington received some very specific guidance while essaying the part of Marybeth in Cracktown. “I actually worked with an amazing transwoman named Valerie Spencer. Valerie is a phenomenal, incredible woman. I spent so much time with her and she really brought me into the trans community, whether it was going to church or just having dinner or hanging out, and she was with me onset a lot. We got a lot of women from the community to be in the film so whether it was the party scene or the scene where I was on the corner working, a lot of those girls were women that had lent their time to me for the purposes of discovering this character. In terms of the worlds blending, that was just a blast to have them on the set.”
Washington is stunning in the movie, making no special concessions to playing the role with any sense of masculinity. In fact, she makes a beautiful transgendered woman. When I mention this to her, Washington relates how her good looks almost cost her the role. “It was interesting. I have this beautiful email that Buddy wrote me because originally he rejected me. It’s the most beautiful rejection letter I’ve ever received. But he sent me this letter saying, ‘I just don’t think I can do it because I think it’s gonna be really distracting to have this beautiful woman play Marybeth.’”
When I ask her how she changed Giovinazzo’s opinion she responds: “I really encouraged him. He and I both did some research. And the reality is a lot of these girls are gorgeous. That’s just the truth of it. Transwomen are women. There are many of them that you would never know… ever, ever, ever. In playing the role what I realized very quickly in spending time in the transgender community was that these transwomen had much to teach me about being a woman. Many of them are much more of a woman than I will ever be because I take my gender for granted. And I don’t own my female identity in the same way. The real challenge in playing this woman was to be even more of a woman. How do I really swing my hips? It was really fun to go, ‘I am just gonna unabashedly be a woman. What does that feel like?’ I wanted to honor the trans community by embodying the true womanhood of Marybeth because that’s who she is. She’s a woman. Turns out she is more woman than I am.”
When I balk at this suggestion Washington sets me straight.
“Really. Listen in some ways, yeah; I learned things about hair and make-up playing her. Playing Marybeth taught me how to walk in some really high heels. I have a new ability to walk in those platform pumps that I wasn’t going to get in my own life as a woman.”
When I ask Washington how the modern transgendered woman finds those incredible heels in men’s sizes, she giggles, “I think they have special connections with the shoe stores; when the shoes come in and who has first dibs on what. Again, I was like ‘My God, you guys are so much more of a girl than I am. I would never have a direct line to a shoe dealer. How fabulous.’”
From The Advocate Ross von Metzke interview
What drew you to playing Marybeth -- I have to say, that’s a challenging character, and one I think a lot of actors would likely run away from.
It’s one of those really funny, weird, I guess hopefully meant-to-be situations. I had an agent who fell in love with the project. She encouraged me to read it and I read it and was terrified. [Laughs] I sort of have a history of saying that I’m drawn to work that challenges me. I have, unfortunately, said that publicly a lot. So she sent me on this interview and I went to meet with Buddy [Giovinazzo, the director] feeling a bit nervous and ambivalent and not really sure what he wanted to do but knowing that I was really drawn to the writing. He was very honest with me and said that he wasn’t sure that I could do it. He really wanted for Marybeth to be a realistic trans woman and that he didn’t want to distract from the argument -- could this woman really be a trans woman? Having me play the role he thought might cost the film some of its authenticity, which clearly is the most important part of the film.
It’s very clear you’ve done a ton of research -- you speak very eloquently about the topic. Was this a crash-course education for you in trans issues, or were you familiar with the topic before?
It’s interesting -- when I was in high school, I was really, really lucky to be able to join this theater company in New York City ... and it still exists, actually, it’s called Nitestar. It’s affiliated with St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital. The company started really at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. We used to write these very open-ended scenes about safer-sex issues, drug abuse, homosexuality, living with HIV, loosing your virginity -- the full range of issues for teenagers to be working with around sexuality and safer sex. The company became the national model for this kind of theater in education work through the Centers for Disease Control. We used to go to different schools and community centers and perform these open-ended scenes and the audience would interact with these characters at the end of the show. First of all, I got the best training as an actor in those years because you have to know your character so thoroughly to be able to improvise with an audience of 300 after a performance.
But I also became a peer educator -- separate from the theater work, I used to work in the community and at the hospital. So I worked very closely with a lot of people in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community. It wasn’t as if this was a community completely unknown to me, but the specifics of the transgender experience ... that was very new. I worked with a brilliant and beautiful woman by the name of Valerie Spencer who guided me through a lot of this and who was just fundamental to my ability to play this role. There’s also a great book that I read called Transparent, which is also a book about raising a transgender adolescent, that was really, really vital for me. I’m sort of a person who thrives with research.
Are you the one who lays out all of your paperwork on the floor and starts taking notes?
I do [laughs]. And also, Buddy was great in allowing for Valerie to be a part of that process in terms of keeping things authentic. It was a very, very collaborative experience.
Tell me a little about the voice -- because clearly, hearing you on the phone right now and then watching the film, it’s significantly lower. I remember after seeing Transamerica and talking to Felicity Huffman, she said once she found her voice, she couldn’t get out of it because she didn’t know if she could find it again.
Right, right, right.
Did that happen with you?
I found that it changed a lot, actually, which -- and you’ll see in the film it changes a bit ... just in some of the work that I did, you’ll find that can happen to somebody who uses substances to that level ... there are different levels of awareness. The thing that I would say was similar to that for me, actually, was the walk [laughs]. It’s funny -- I feel like I learned so much about what it is to be a woman playing this character, because I think I take being a woman for granted, so I don’t think about walking in full appreciation and celebration of my femininity. I just don’t. But if I was born without the biological confirmation of what I know I am, I would be much more committed to celebrating my gender in my walk. There were all these ways of standing and walking and being that were more womanly than I had ever experienced in my life. It was great -- it was really amazing to just be a lady, because I’m sort of the result of this post feminist world where so much of what I do and think and feel is at least attempted to be done on a gender-neutral basis.
So he actually ended up writing me the most beautiful rejection letter I have ever received in my life. I forwarded it to my agent and thought, My God. If ever I have to hear no, this is the way to hear it. But it’s that thing -- when you can’t have it, then you really want it. I started doing a little research and started forcing him to do some research about trans women and really looking at these women. We both kind of realized that it’s more than realistic that I could play this role, because there are trans women in the community who are clearly women. What’s challenging about being a trans woman is that you’re born a woman yet there’s a section of one’s biology that betrays that truth. And so there are times when you meet and see trans women who have been graced with the ability to conquer that denial, where you’re just very aware of the truth of their identity as women. So we went for it.