Life in balance
She’s a screen star, a mom, a trailblazer for causes and a producer. Here’s how Kerry Washington stays cool, calm and totally in control.
“I have to take care of myself in order to live the way I want to.”
kerry Washington wakes up early. This is something I learn when her publicist asks if I’d like to do Pilates with the actress at 6.30am before we sit down for our interview. A quick Google search suggests I’m in trouble: this is, after all, a woman who moved to India and became a yoga instructor after her university studies. But my fear of Pilates-induced humiliation is outweighed by my desire to watch Olivia Pope work out.
Kerry, 40, arrives in sweats, with no makeup and no entourage, looking way more relaxed than the character she plays on television. And even though she is a mother again with a hit show on her hands, her face betrays none of the stress this must all entail. Her skin glows, her smile is bright and her eyes convey warmth, strength and vulnerability all at once.
“Hi, I’m Kerry.” She extends her hand. We are on The Fixer set in Hollywood, standing in a dressing room that’s been converted into a small gym. Her trainer, Julie Turner, arrives and they chat briefly; after five years and up to six weekly Pilates sessions together they don’t need to spend much time discussing a workout.
Although she and the other The Fixer actresses have a group ritual of hikes around Los Angeles, Pilates is Kerry’s anchor. “With Pilates, I bring my true self. I cry, I laugh. I go, ‘Where is my body today? What do I need today? How can I take care of myself and push past my comfort zone?’”
She lies down on the reformer, then she bounces off its jump board, landing on the balls of her feet. Her eyes are fixed on the wall in front of her as sweat begins to glisten on her brow. She asks if I’d like to try, and after 10 jumps, my legs shake. I stare at the spot that held her gaze and see a message she’s written by Mahatma Gandhi, “Be truthful, gentle and fearless.”
The main reason Kerry works out before most of LA wakes up is that she wants to get home to her husband, former pro football player Nnamdi Asomugha, and their children, Isabelle, two, and Caleb, five months. “I try to get it in early so I can be back with them early,” she says. Truth be told, she’d prefer to cuddle with her loves and their Shih Tzu-yorkie mix, Josie. “But I have to take care of myself in order to live the way I want to,” she says. “Rest days are important, but if I don’t work out for, like, three days, I feel worse, not better.”
Her commitment to fitness is just one thing she has in common with her husband. I interviewed Nnamdi several years ago, before he’d met Kerry. Then a star cornerback, he was the highestpaid player in the NFL. But he was also a bit of a nerd, having graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in corporate finance. I liked him immediately. As a professional athlete, he was finding it hard to meet women who were smart, self-motivated and independent – and it was seriously bumming him out.
We lost touch, but I always wondered if he would end up with an intelligent woman who enjoyed her own success. Then I read that he’d married Kerry, who, in addition to being a gorgeous and superbly talented actress, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from George Washington University. They reportedly met
backstage after he saw her perform in Race on Broadway. I laughed and thought, nice work, Nnamdi.
Kerry famously avoids discussing her private life, and I don’t know how she will react if I tell her that I interviewed Nnamdi. But we’ve just worked out together, and we’re sitting cross-legged on the floor. It feels like good timing, and when I mention the day I’d spent with her husband, her face lights up. “Oh my God, that’s amazing!” she says, laughing and taking a swig of water. “Isn’t he just the best?”
It’s funny to hear her describe her husband that way, because it’s the same way millions of The Fixer fans would describe her. Her turn as Olivia Pope, the savvy Washington DC fixer tortured by her on-again, off-again relationship with the president of the US, is a study in confidence and grace under pressure. It’s made her a cultural icon ( The Fixer airs in more than 80 countries), and it has inspired viewers to find their own empowerment by adopting Olivia’s can-do attitude. “Olivia has such resilience,” she says of the show, which is now in its sixth season.
The series is the brainchild of Shonda Rhimes, the genius behind many of television’s most dynamic female characters. And when she cast Kerry as Olivia, she also created the first African-american female lead on a network drama in 40 years.
“People were like, ‘Do you feel so much pressure?’” Kerry recalls. “And I kept saying, ‘I don’t feel that the pressure is on me.’ I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, because there’s never been a black lead, I’m suddenly going to try to be good.’”
And she admits that when she first got the part, she had no idea whether the show would last. She’d never done TV before, let alone had to carry an hour-long drama with 22 annual episodes. And so, she turned for advice to Ellen Pompeo, who stars in another Shonda Rhimes hit, Grey’s Anatomy.
“Ellen said, ‘You have to treat yourself like an athlete.’ And luckily, I have an excellent role model at home. ‘You have to eat like an athlete, train like an athlete, sleep like an athlete. The only way to get through 18-hour days is if you treat your body like a precious machine.’”
She began to think about her body as an instrument and a way to get into character. “Olivia has to be strong for others, so she tries to keep everything as close to neutral as she can. I try to know what’s going on in my body, so that I’m not bringing my stuff into my character.”
To transform into Olivia, she says she initiates movement from her head, since Olivia is cerebral. But when she works with Tony Goldwyn, who plays the love interest Fitz, her focus shifts. “In those scenes, my centre moves from my head to my heart,” she says. “And sometimes it happens unconsciously, because I’m just in the moment.”
Being in the moment can be hard. The Fixer’s schedule can mean filming two episodes at once, and Kerry usually gets the script for an episode the day before going into filming it. And her workday might start with a joyous scene and end with one that calls for her to be an emotional wreck.
The long hours also keep her away from home, where she likes to prepare healthy meals. “I don’t have strict food rules and I eat some animal protein,” she says. “But I try to eat organic and local, and to listen to my body.” Although Olivia Pope drinks a balloon glass of red wine every night, Kerry doesn’t drink at all when she’s filming. “I’m a lightweight and it takes me a couple of days to recover,” she admits. “So I prefer to do it on a beach and not when I have a three-page monologue the next day.”
Filming The Fixer was especially tough once she became pregnant with Isabelle, during season three. How could she find neutral spine in her character’s four-inch spiky heels? “My OB was like, ‘Uh, enough with the heels!’”
She does not, however, look like a woman who recently gave birth.
“A few weeks ago, my manager asked, ‘Do you feel like you’re back? I feel like you’re back.’ She meant it as a total compliment, but we had this great conversation where I was like, ‘ You know what? I try really hard not to use that language, because it’s not about going backward in life.’ I think it comes from this culture of anti-ageing, which is so not loving to ourselves.”
Instead, Kerry has embraced her new body, which she does not want to look like the body she had before. “I’ve been really focused on not being ‘back’ to anything, but being the best version of myself right now,” she says. “My body is the site of a miracle now. I don’t want to be pre-miracle.”
When I tell her that is probably the most enlightened thing anyone has ever said to me in an interview, she laughs. “I’m no more evolved than anyone else. I’ve probably just done the most therapy and read the most self-help books.”
I tell her I don’t want to ask her how she will balance having a career with being a mom, because men never get that question. She agrees. “I think it’s really silly,” she says of the double standard. “The way that families work is so much more inclusive and shared now. Men should get that question more.”
Instead, I ask what kind of mother she is. “That would be a good question for other people, although nobody would answer you because they’d say, ‘Kerry is so private – I’m not answering that question,’” she says. “I try to be a really conscious mom. I try to be the mom they need me to be, not the mom I want to be.”
In addition to getting married and becoming a mother during The Fixer’s run, Kerry also took on the role of producer when she decamped to
“The only way to get through 18-hour days is to treat your body like a precious machine.” “I try to be the mom they need me to be, not the mom I want to be.”
Atlanta to shoot Confirmation, an HBO movie about the whistleblower Anita Hill. Although the story navigated the same Washington DC political complex as The Fixer does, Kerry was drawn to the challenge of going from playing the ultimate insider to playing a largely powerless outsider.
“Anita is not a part of the system,” she says. “Liv kind of runs the system. So I was thinking, how can I stretch myself and do something that feels really different from Olivia?”
On top of all this, she also works with Allstate Foundation Purple Purse, a programme aimed at raising awareness around financial abuse and how a lack of access to resources can trap women in abusive relationships.
“Purple is the colour for domestic violence, and a purse is a symbol of where a woman keeps her financial well-being,” she says. “Financial abuse is this insidious part of domestic violence – like someone ruining your credit so that you can’t go,” she says. “It’s not always as obvious as a black eye or a broken wrist.”
While Kerry has always been a high achiever, she says she would have been nervous about undertaking so many commitments before standing in the heels of her iconic character. But she has more in common with Olivia Pope than she initially realised.
“It makes my heart smile to think that maybe part of the reason I’m taking all this on is because of Olivia,” she says. “She truly believes that she can handle every situation, and I do feel that has bled into my life. I have more of a sense of my capacity to do anything.”