SAN FRANCISCO - Kerry Washington might be the most famous actress whose name you don’t know.
She played the wife of Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland” and Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles in “Ray.” For those movie-goers who prefer popcorn to prestige, she also played blind artist Alicia Masters in the “Fantastic Four” films.
Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Patrick Wilson, Ron Glass
(Screen Gems; US theatrical: 19 Sep 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 5 Dec 2008 (General release); 2008)
Yet Washington, despite being one of the most stunning and talented young women in Hollywood - and a cosmetics spokeswoman to boot - lacks the name recognition of less-accomplished peers. That’s partly because she inhabits characters so fully - and partly because she’s more apt to appear at a Barack Obama rally or on “Politically Incorrect” than at a paparazzi photo op.
The daughter of a real estate broker and a college professor, Washington grew up in the Bronx and attended Manhattan’s elite Spence School before moving on to George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
She broke through in the film world in 2001 with memorable roles as teenage characters in the gritty “Our Song” and the glossy “Save the Last Dance.”
She has alternated between Hollywood and the independent world ever since, with the two schools occasionally intersecting, as they do in Neil LaBute’s “Lakeview Terrace,” which weaves in commentary on race relations within a Hollywood thriller framework.
In “Lakeview Terrace,” which opened Friday, Washington and Patrick Wilson (“Little Children”) play a couple from Berkeley who, upon moving to the Southern California suburbs, promptly are terrorized by their next-door neighbor (Samuel L. Jackson), a conservative LAPD police officer who apparently disapproves of interracial marriage. (The real reasons are more complex.)
Washington, 31, who was once engaged to actor David Moscow, is single again and “dating,” she said during an interview at a San Francisco hotel. An active supporter of the Obama campaign and a board member of Hollywood’s Creative Coalition, Washington is friendly, quick to laugh, and forthright and thoughtful on matters personal, cultural and political.
What attracted you to the role in “Lakeview Terrace”?
One thing was that I have never really seen this kind of African American woman onscreen before. She’s a very modern character in that she’s a crunchy-granola Berkeley graduate, progressive, environmentalist, open-minded, lives a really inclusive, multicultural lifestyle. ... I have so many girlfriends like that, and my life is like that, and I thought, “How great to have that woman onscreen.” Because we tend in Hollywood to put people in a box - sometimes, not always.
The other thing that really struck me when I read the script was this idea of the abuse of power. I just think it’s just so relevant that the people who are supposed to protect and serve us are actually the people who are causing us the most anxiety and pain.
I have a girlfriend who grew up in Vermont, and we used to laugh about the fact that when she was a kid and saw a police officer, it was an immediate sense of release and comfort. For me, growing up in the Bronx, you saw a cop, and it was like, “Uh oh.”
It could go one of two ways, and you never quite knew how it was going to go. ... That idea that the people you are supposed to trust might not always be that. ... I think it’s really relevant on a national scale. We have this president right now who we - I didn’t personally, but we as a country - entrusted with the responsibility as our commander-in-chief, and we wound up in a war for no good reason. ... I just think there’s been a gross misuse of power in that office. That issue for me is really fascinating and relevant.
What about assumptions made by characters in the film that seem solely based on race?
I think a big part of the what the film is about is that you think you understand something and you may not. (Characters) think they know each other because of race, (or) I think I know who my husband is, but he’s out in the car (secretly) smoking cigarettes. ... We think (Jackson’s character) is just this racist, conservative cop who is harassing us, and then we find out this deeper plot point.
Could you relate to the script in terms of your own romantic relationships? Have you ever received unwelcome commentary or reactions?
I have been in relationships with people of all different ethnicities and backgrounds. I have found that no matter who I have chosen to be with in life, somebody is going to have an issue with it. Maybe because I grew up in New York City, and I never dated someone who was exactly like me, who grew up the exact same way I did. Whether it was because of race or religion, or ethnicity or what they do for a living, or age, people have an opinion about it. When I was in college, I dated a guy who was black, but he was from Africa, and people had such an issue about that, on his side and on my side.
You seem to work almost constantly. Have there been occasions when doors in Hollywood were closed to you, as an African-American woman?
I am in one of the only unions in the United States where over 90 percent of the members are unemployed at any given time. So being an actor is not an easy thing, regardless of who you are. There are doors closed to you from Day One, no matter what you look like. ... . I think it’s more complicated by being a woman, and more complicated by being a person of color. I think having both of those assets - as I like to think of them - can be even more complicated. But I also feel like because of who I am,
I have been able to play Ray Charles’ wife and Kay Amin, things that are unique to the experience of people who look like me. So that’s a gift as well.
I feel like I have come along, but there is a lot of work to do. ... But I’m not going to point the finger at Hollywood and say, “Look at how horrible it is.” I think Hollywood is a microcosm of the United States. We don’t have a sense of equity in our nation. ... What I face as an actress is not that different from what my mother faced as a professor trying to get tenure, and being a black woman.
It seems as if you tend to vanish into the roles you play, and that you don’t have a screen “persona” you carry from role to role. Do you get recognized much?
It depends. I was just in South Carolina, and I got on a bus and these three girls are like, “Oh, my God, are you Kerry Washington?” (laughs). Some people will say, “How do I know you? Do you go to my church?” Other people are like, “I loved you in ...” But even when people recognize me, they don’t always know (it’s) the same person in all the movies I have done. ... I kind of think it’s the ultimate compliment.
Because you’re an actress as opposed to a celebrity ...
Yes. I pride myself on that. (But) things like becoming one of the spokespeople for L’Oreal started to shift that.
I now have this kind of “pretty face” identity which is so weird to me, because I have never thought of myself in those terms.
Why did you decide to become a spokeswoman?
A few reasons, one is they came to me, and I was incredibly flattered. ... It was a tough decision at first. I am really a political person, and I thought, “I don’t know how I feel about selling product, and I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that you have to wear makeup to feel good about yourself.”
But I remember being a young girl and seeing Vanessa Williams in a beauty campaign - she was the first black woman I had noticed, because I was just starting to look at magazines - and I remember that feeling of, “Oh, somebody thinks she is pretty enough to sell things to everybody. She is not just pretty to one person, she is being accepted by the world as a beautiful person.”
If just my presence in the campaign can help any young woman who feels outside of the norm of traditional beauty - whether she has freckles, or curly red hair, or is Asian, or Middle Eastern, or biracial - then I want to be a part of it.