Isaiah Washington is more passionate about architecture, African roots than returning to TV land.
ISAIAH Washington emerged from an Oak Park Frank Lloyd Wright house in a happy daze, cheering the architect’s “trickery” and enthusiasm for upending conventions and flummoxing expectations.
“I’m kind of like that,” the 47-year-old actor said with a loud laugh. “It’s almost like, try to put me in a box, I’ll reinvent over here.”
Washington wouldn’t expect most people to know that he’s a Wright fan and a student of architecture and history in general. He would certainly like them to know about the work he has been doing to help provide clean water and infrastructure to the impoverished West African nation of Sierra Leone.
He appreciates that so many know him as the talented cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Preston Burke from his three seasons on the ABC drama Grey’s Anatomy. He wishes more folks would forget about his widely reported argument with castmate Patrick Dempsey, in which he used an anti-gay epithet that co-star T.R. Knight said was directed at him. That Washington repeated the word – in the context of denying he’d hurled it at Knight, all while his fellow cast members stood dumbfounded on the Golden Globes backstage podium to celebrate their best-drama win – well, he’d appreciate it if people would look past that, too.
He did apologise, after all. Repeatedly. And he paid a price, as he was dismissed from the show in June 2007, five months after the Globes brouhaha. Have you seen him much since then? Well, maybe you caught his appearances on NBC’s Bionic Woman later in 2007 before that series bit the dust. You probably didn’t see him as the priest investigating dark secrets in The Least Of These, a 2008 movie that never hit theatres, or as a basketball coach alongside Forest Whitaker in Hurricane Season, which the financially challenged Weinstein Co finally sent straight to DVD earlier this year.
Washington has some other projects in the works as well, including Area Q, a thriller shot in Brazil in which he stars and is producing, but his focus has moved elsewhere.
Strong sense of connection
In 2005 Washington took a DNA test that linked him to the Mende people of Sierra Leone, a discovery that sent him on an obsessive fact-finding mission. He said he came down with “Google ADD” as he researched the country’s rituals, customs and history and its connections to the United States’ earliest days. His sense of connection became so strong that in April of this year he was sworn in as a Sierra Leone citizen, his dual citizenship represented by a lapel pin he wears depicting the United States and Sierra Leone flags.
“I never thought I’d live to say this, or see this: I’m more interested in this journey than I could ever be spending my time on a set with makeup and hair,” Washington said. He has even written a book (with Lavaille Lavette) called A Man From Another Land: How Finding My Roots Changed My Life, which Center Street/Hachette is scheduled to release in April. Washington wears a goatee now – pepper for the mustache, more salt in the beard – as well as thick-framed glasses and a brown suede beret over what he reveals to be a shaved head. He’s elegant in a grey suit and crisp white shirt, no tie. He’s tall, lean, confident and very talkative.
He also was game to clear the air about his Grey’s Anatomy exit.
“At the time it was very painful, embarrassing, humiliating,” Washington said. “I was distraught. I was nervous. I didn’t know what my future was going to be economically because I was being taken to task for something that I apologised for, and it never stopped, and I realised I was a part of a much larger political agenda.”
That agenda, he continued, involved the reaction to his progressive character.
“This is not egocentric here. Dr Burke was Barack Obama before Barack Obama, particularly in the world of the black community.” He asserted that his elite, professional African-American character was a television pioneer, one who happened to be in an interracial romance with Sandra Oh’s Cristina Yang.
“I said my days are going to be numbered, because a lot of people are going to be unhappy about that, because my character wasn’t really supposed to be as prominent as he became,” he said. “A lot of people were really concerned with where the progression of the show was going to go.”
Asked whether these people were inside or outside the show, Washington said, “Both, but those people are no longer there. The ones that had the biggest concerns about my character, what I wore, what I said, what I did, ended up leaving shortly after I did.”
He acknowledged that this was a reference to Knight, who left two seasons after Washington, and Katherine Heigl, Knight’s friend and Washington’s most outspoken critic when everything was hitting the fan; her last episode aired early this year.
Efforts to reach Knight, Heigl and Grey’s Anatomy executive producer Shonda Rhimes were unsuccessful.
There are others who view Washington’s downfall as spectacular career self-immolation. “It was stupid, stupid, stupid because it was so early in his newfound career,” said E! gossip columnist Bruce Bibby, aka Ted Casablanca, whose question at the Golden Globes prompted Washington’s foot-inmouth answer. “That was his big hit, and he screwed it up right away. That’s got to go down in history as the all-time ‘ What are you thinking?’ (moment).”
Washington said the controversy never represented who he actually is. He said he considers African-American author and activist James Baldwin and other gay figures to be personal heroes, and he played a gay character in Spike Lee’s 1996 film Get On The Bus.
After his dismissal from Grey’s Anatomy, he campaigned against California’s anti-gaymarriage referendum, Proposition 8, and he took a photo with photographer/gay-marriage activist Adam Bouska when, he claimed, “no other African-American would support it”.
Washington admitted that finding meaningful work post-Grey’s Anatomy was difficult, though he landed that Bionic Woman gig almost immediately. He noted the contrast between his challenges and those of Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen, who not only were linked to racial slurs but also have arrests and abuse complaints in their recent histories.
“I wasn’t given the same benefit of the doubt,” he said. “But you know what’s strange, though? I would still work with Mel Gibson!” He said with a laugh. “He’s talented, man! Come on, he came up with Apocalypto, man! I want to work with this guy. I’ve worked with Steven Seagal. He’s out of his mind. I mean, I’ve worked with Spike Lee for four films. I’ve worked with some people that you can say are right there teetering between genius and madness. So I don’t look at their
‘I’m on the world stage right now,’ says Isaiah Washington.
Leaving the drama behind: Isaiah Washington, the talented cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Preston Burke, and Sandra Oh, as his on-screen lover Cristina Yang, in Grey’s Anatomy.