Kerry Washington on her 4 Emmy nods and issues of race in her work
By Julia Jacobs
Kerry Washington’s most visible Emmy nomination Tuesday was for her lead role as Mia Warren, a roaming artist and headstrong mother of a teenage daughter in “Little Fires Everywhere.” But that acting nod was just one piece of a big morning for Washington all around, much of it as a producer.
“Fires,” of which Washington was an executive producer, also received a nomination for best limited series or movie. And two other nominated projects showed the growing reach of her new production company, Simpson Street.
“American Son,” a Netflix adaptation of the Broadway play, received a nomination for best TV movie. (Washington also plays a mother in the film who awaits news about her missing son at a South Florida police station.) “Live in Front of a Studio Audience,” which restaged Norman Lear sitcoms from the 1970s, was nominated for best variety special. Washington was an executive producer on both.
Washington took a moment Tuesday to discuss her four nominations, getting back to work during the pandemic and the way her nominated works contain messages that align with the national debate over racial justice.
Q: Three projects that you executive produced received Emmy nominations this year. How does that feel?
A: Crazy. Surreal. I have to say, the thing that has meant the most to me this morning, the thing that my heart really swells about, is Lynn Shelton’s nomination. I’m so grateful that the Academy has honored her in this way. It’s so immensely deserved. At a time when women’s voices in directing and producing are just so important, to really honor her, in her passing, for her extraordinary work on our show, is just so meaningful. I just keep getting so emotional thinking about it. (Shelton died at age 54 in May.)
Q: It’s striking to me that three out of your four nominations are for executive producer roles when I think the American television audience knows you primarily as an actress. What does that say about where you are in your career right now?
A: We really took a bet on ourselves by being such diverse producers. It’s exciting because I’m really drawn to doing different kinds of work, and I really love producing, so it’s exciting for the company to be acknowledged in this way.
Q: What was it like to have two roles on “Little Fires Everywhere” — to be the lead actress and also to be overseeing the project as an executive producer.
A: It’s really what I know. I entered the world of producing as an actor-producer. Our first project was “Confirmation” for HBO, and I was a producer and actor on that. It’s funny for me when I’m producing and not in it. It’s a funny feeling.
Q: In terms of planning new projects during the coronavirus pandemic, how far out can you plan given the uncertainty in the entertainment industry right now?
A: There’s filming happening. People are starting to really work on different protocols. We had almost finished “The Prom” with Ryan Murphy for Netflix when the shutdown happened, and so just recently we’ve been working to finish. There’s innovations happening. People are really trying to figure out how to get back to work safely. We’ll be part of that effort to figure out best practices and make sure we’re putting people’s health ahead of business but also looking for ways to return to business and for people to be able to support themselves.
Q: Have you been on a set yet?
A: I haven’t. I’ve only been doing remote from home filming stuff. But we’re figuring out how to move forward.
Q: Is the idea of being back on a set anxiety inducing, or are you ready?
A: Can both be true? All over the country you’re seeing people wanting to be in community and be at work and be living their lives. But the virus is really scary and has to be taken seriously.
Q: The debut of “Little Fires Everywhere” felt sandwiched between two major national moments. When it started, it was the pandemic; then after the series ended, it was the killing of George Floyd in police custody and the protests for racial justice that followed. Do you think the discussions happening around the country and in all sorts of institutions about racism and racial justice resonate with issues in the show?
A: I would say, in some ways, “American Son” deals with these issues in a much more direct manner. That material is really about the value of Black life in the face of police violence. It was really interesting to see the film surge back into people’s consciousness and conversation because of this real awakening around the movement for Black lives.
A lot of those themes — particularly unconscious bias and microaggressions and the ’90s modality of reaching for colorblindness — a lot of that is explored in “Little Fires” in ways that I think are really important. That was Lauren Neustadter and Reese Witherspoon — my dear, dear friend — they had the idea to cast me as Mia and to produce this project together. (Neustadter and Witherspoon were also executive producers.) They opened up a landscape. In the novel, Mia is racially ambiguous. But by making her African American in the ’90s, we were able to really bravely go into narrative territory that was exciting.
Q: The casting opened so many doors in the story that the book didn’t go into.
A: It’s funny you say that because that’s how I always describe the role of adapting. We work with a lot of writers on a lot of special material. I always say, when you develop literature it’s like you’re going into all the same rooms but by transforming it for a visual medium you get to open those drawers and dig inside.
Q: I was listening to “Code Switch” on NPR and they had a whole episode on this idea of a “Karen,” or, an entitled white woman, and they mentioned Reese Witherspoon’s character on “Little Fires” as the prototypical Karen. Would you agree?
A: I’m no Karen expert, but that sounds about right. But I think one of the things that is so extraordinary about the show is Reese’s performance. Just by labeling that social phenomenon as “Karen,” it requires a level of stereotyping that can be reductive, and what Reese did was really breathe so much humanity into that perspective, into that worldview, that we understood it, that we could unpack it. We could be invited into it and really examine it more. I think her performance is so beautiful because it required a level of nuance and a commitment to the humanity of her character that I think was artistically heroic.