In person, actress Kerry Washington is exuberant, intelligent, sophisticated but youthful and 100-percent drop-dead gorgeous. But if you'd seen one of the two movies she's been in this year, you wouldn't even recognize her.
In January's "Save the Last Dance," Washington, who is 25, plays a street-smart teenage mom who befriends Julia Stiles when the suburban white girl transfers to an inner city school, and she comes off like somebody you wouldn't want to mess with if she wasn't on your side.
In "Our Song," shot in 1999 but just opening this week, Washington plays Lanisha, a 15-year-old from the projects in Crown Heights Brooklyn, with such authentic teenage insecurity that you would never suspect for a moment that the actress was 22 at the time.
A low-income slice-of-life movie oozing with community atmosphere and honestly depicted friendships -- but eschewing the trappings of gang-banging morality tales -- "Our Song" simply but vividly portrays the dog days of summer for Lanisha and two of her girlfriends who play in the neighborhood's famous Jackie Robinson Steppers marching band.
The movie is carried by Washington, who seems so genuinely naive and on the shy side of her impending womanhood that meeting her comes as something of a shock. Smiling invitingly and dressed in a tiny, curve-enhancing pink T-shirt, a lighter pink cardigan and snug pants with an intricate floral relief pattern sewn into the bell-shaped cuffs, she couldn't pass for 15 today if her life depended on it. Yet she does display a girlish side in her unbridled enthusiasm and her natural inclination to, for example, tuck her legs under her as we sit down for a conversation in her San Francisco hotel room.
|Q: You know, until this morning I hadn't looked up your filmography or any information about you, and I when I was watching the film, I was convinced you were 15.|
A: That's such a compliment! Thank you!
|Q: I (also) discovered you played Sean Patrick Thomas' sister in "Save the Last Dance," the girl who chews out Julia Stiles for snatching up -- and I quote --"one of the few good black men left after drugs, jail and drive-bys."|
A: [in unison]...and drive-bys!" [Laughs.]
|Q: I thought that was the best scene in that movie. And that character is so far at the opposite end of the teenage girl spectrum from your role in "Our Song." Lanisha is still very much in that girl-woman transition and the character in "Dance"...|
|Q: ...is much more...|
A: She's in control, baby!
|Q: Yeah, yeah.|
A: Chenille just has a very different sense of self. She's a lot more confident and secure. I did a lot of research and spent time with teen parents when I was preparing for the role. They helped me understand that when you have a child at that age, suddenly you really get that motherly, care-taking feeling toward a lot of people around you, which really helped me understand why she was willing to embrace Julia Stiles' character. So I think there's a part of that, you know, that having a child just makes you sort of rise to the occasion.
Lanisha I think is just learning how to rise to the occasion, because she's afraid of it. It means leaving behind her friends, it means being different, and those are hard things to be at 15.
|Q: How do you prepare for playing somebody who is 15 when you're 22?|
A: It's funny -- Jim McKay, our director, that was the one thing he was concerned about. I remember before my final callback I had a telephone conversation with him -- he asked me to call his house, and this was my first film and I was like "this big director wants me to call him at home!" I was so terrified. [Laughs.] But he said, "You're a phenomenal actress, but I'm just a little worried about the age stuff." Because of the kind of person I am, immediately I was like, "A challenge! I'm gonna do it!"
I think one of the things that helped was that I lived close to a junior high school, so I watched, I really tried to watch how people walk, how people talk, you know, where they hold their energy. We actually joined the band in real life about a month before shooting, and that was like a dream come true as an actor! There was all this physical vocabulary to pull from (so I could learn) to do what these kids do, to really try to embody the spirit of that age and the spirit of that kind of physical insecurity and emotional insecurity.
|Q: Well, I'll tell you, I think you nailed it. There's a scene in which you're thinking to yourself and just kind of rocking your shoulders back and forth. It was a girlish touch that really felt like the absent-minded body language of a 15-year-old. That was one of the things that really sold me. Another touch of authenticity was that you really played the drums in the marching band.|
A: I did! I'd never played the drums before in my life. I'm a singer, but I'd never played an instrument. That was really cool to really learn how to play the tenor drums -- and dance at the same time!
|Q: There's a lot of energy in those scenes.|
A: It's a lot of hard work, all that marching around. We had to perform in a real parade before we started shooting. It was really intense. And those uniforms are wool, baby. And that was the hottest summer I ever remember having in New York -- ever, ev-er! Oh my god.
|Q: You grew up in the Bronx, right?|
A: Yes! [Throws her fists in the air triumphantly.] I'm very proud of that.
|Q: Did you have much in common with Lanisha when you were growing up?|
A: I have so much in common with Lanisha on a lot of different levels. We have a lot of similarities. Although her parents don't live together, she's the only one of the three (central characters) who has both a father and mother present. My parents are still together now, which was so rare among my peers growing up. Like Lanisha, I left public school and started commuting for junior high school and high school to the Spence School for Girls in Manhattan. So I understood that journey, too, and what it's like to venture out of your community at a young age, and make a decision to do something a little different for yourself -- your goals and your dreams not really (being like) what the people around you are doing. And that daily commute on the subway, looking out the window and thinking "Who am I? What am I doing? What is all this about?" I think at 16 I was a lot like Lanisha.
|Q: Did you have to sort of regress to that age to play the part?|
A: Well, I think I also had a lot in common with Lanisha at 22, when I shot the film. I was still going through some of the things that she's going through. She's really caught between that little girl/womanhood thing, and I had just graduated college and moved back in with my parents, and I was looking for an apartment of my own. So I was also going through that becoming a woman, venturing out into the world, meeting a guy I really like and pursuing him. So it was like I felt a lot of connections with her both from my past and my present while we were doing it.
|Q: Does this feel strange, doing a press tour for a movie you finished two years ago?|
A: You know, it's always about a year between when (a film) is made and when it comes out. We had about a year and a half for "Save the Last Dance." It always happens. But for this, we shot about two and a half years ago. It would be weird, except that I love this film so much, that it's so close to my heart, it's so easy to talk about.
|Q: When you made this film you were working as a substitute teacher in between acting gigs. Are you still teaching?|
A: I haven't actually, but I'm gonna renew my license this summer because I would prefer to substitute teach than do something I really, really hate as an actor. I'm going to keep that option open. But right now I'm living off acting and really loving that. It's a real blessing. I'm very grateful for that.
|Q: I appreciate that integrity, that you'd rather sub than be the girl running behind Arnold Schwarzenegger or something.|
A: [Laughs.] Although, I mean, you know, I just finished doing this film with Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins (a CIA action-comedy tentatively titled "Bad Company") where I'm like the girl who's kidnapped. It's not that I'm totally against doing (blockbusters). I just want to be able to make choices.
|Q: Well, even if that's just The Girl role, I mean, look who you're working with!|
A: Yeah! That was it. I mean to work with these -- Chris Rock, in my opinion, is an absolute comic genius, and just so smart. Anthony Hopkins is one of my heroes as an actor -- I mean, he's Sir Anthony! (With Chris) I kept saying, "How's my comic timing? Was that good?" Initially I didn't have any scenes with Sir Tony -- everybody calls him Tony but can't bring myself to call him Tony, so I say Sir Tony. I didn't have any scenes with him, but they rewrote the ending and I was able to work with him after all quite a bit, in Prague, with Sir Tony. And what a delight.
|Q: You also shot a film recently called "Lift," in which you play a shoplifter. That sounds like kind of a fun role. Is it liberating to get into a character like that? To do something you would never do in real life?|
A: That's why I love being an actor! Growing up people would say, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" And I was like, "How much time do you have?" There is so much I want to do! Acting is a career that lets me do that in a way -- to be everything. Even if it's only for a week or for a few months. Like, I'm in no way, shape or form ready to be a parent, but it was really fun to be a parent for 12 hours on a film set then hand (the kids) over at the end of the day on "Save the Last Dance." [Laughs.] So for "Lift," it was amazing to embody this part of my character. I think that lives in me -- there are times I'm in a store and I think, "I could just take this!" Not that I ever would, you know, but to be able to live in that shadow part of me.
|Q: Well, I really, really liked "Our Song." It took me by surprise because the description on the press materials sounded very standard issue -- a low budget, teen-adversity-in-the-projects -- it sounded like it might get preachy. But that wasn't what it was like at all. It was refreshingly nonjudgmental, day-in-the-life stuff|
A: Yeah. I think the idea is that in the lives of these kids in these kinds of communities -- and in every community, really -- you deal with trauma on a daily basis. You know, we have these huge, life-changing events, but you don't not go grocery shopping. You know? You gotta keep going. You gotta live your life.