Kerry Washington - Hot in Cracktown

Posted on 02. Jul, 2009 by in Film/TV, hCovers, Profiles

words by Randy Gambill
photos by Robert Todd Williamson 

styled by Mariel Haenn & Rob Zangardi
make-up by Matthew Vanleeuwen
hair by Ursula Stephen
manicurist Tom Bachik

  The Sheats-Goldstein House — an architectural wonder of soaring glass windows, open skylights, and precipitous outdoor passageways nestled high in the hills of Beverly Hills — is the kind of special treat Hollywood presents just when you think Tinseltown has nothing refreshingly new to offer. The same might be said about the beautiful and vivacious woman seated in a make-up chair in the middle of this breathtaking abode. 

pant by Balenciaga, vest by Rick Owens,boots by Brian Atwood

As I enter the fray to interview Ms. Washington during her photo shoot, she is ensconced in the kind of cozily familiar relationship most successful leading ladies enjoy with their make-up people and stylists. A game of “What animal would you be?” is afoot and Washington has just announced her mother would be an owl; wise and firmly entrenched in her tree but able to swoop down and grab a rabbit at a moment’s notice. Then she definitively announces that she would be a dolphin. When the frisky make-up man retorts that dolphins spend 60% of their lives engaged in sex, Washington slyly breaks into a Cheshire cat grin and exclaims, “That’s hot.” She made the right choice. 

And speaking of right choices, Washington’s new film Life Is Hot in Cracktown, opening in limited release on June 26, is a gritty and daring urban ensemble drama depicting the harsh daily lives of a group of people society tends to forget. It’s a dark and tough film directed by cult filmmaker and novelist Buddy Giovinazzo, based on his own book. Washington is dazzling, actually playing a man, in the guise of a pre-op transsexual. When I congratulate Washington on her film, she smiles, “My new romantic comedy?” 

Right. The film opens with the brutal gang-rape of a teenage girl and things get rosier from there. (since cut from movie) Washington toplines an extraordinary ensemble cast which includes Desmond Harrington, Evan Ross, Ileana Douglas, Brandon Routh, Lara Flynn Boyle, Victor Rasuk, and Shannon Sossyman. Kerry says she had an emotional connection to the material. “It just felt very real to me. The whole project and story just felt so authentic. I was drawn to it without reason.”  

Kerry Washington represents the dichotomy of the modern female celebrity: An A-List actress who appears alongside Oscar winners such as Jamie Foxx (Ray) and Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) and costars in blockbuster films like The Fantastic Four series, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and last year’s hit, Lakeview Terrace. She is both a politically conscious, high-profile member of the successful Obama presidential campaign and a L’ORÉAL cover girl. And she has decided to place her growing clout into a labor-of-love indie film that is a tough sell, especially amidst all the summer blockbusters. 
I ask her about the unique challenges of playing the part of Marybeth, a pre-op transsexual drug-addict prostitute, and Washington laughs, perhaps just now taking in what a hyphenate her character is. “One of the things that was exciting for me as an actor was that any one of those challenges alone would have been intimidating. I’ve done different combinations of those. I’ve played a prostitute. I’ve played a drug addict. But altogether the idea of it was very challenging. It definitely was taxing but also incredibly rewarding.” 

Washington is a serious actress who considers herself a cultural representative of the characters she portrays. She immerses herself into character research with a commitment that might give some method actors pause. “One of the things I try to do when I’m working in a world that’s culturally so different from mine is to surround myself with an authentic community and beg them for their support and guidance. I beg for entrée into people who really belong in the world I’m trying to portray. I feel like that is the only way I can do those worlds justice.” 

Washington received some very specific guidance while essaying the part of Marybeth in Cracktown. “I actually worked with an amazing transwoman named Valerie Spencer. Valerie is a phenomenal, incredible woman. I spent so much time with her and she really brought me into the trans community, whether it was going to church or just having dinner or hanging out, and she was with me onset a lot. We got a lot of women from the community to be in the film so whether it was the party scene or the scene where I was on the corner working, a lot of those girls were women that had lent their time to me for the purposes of discovering this character. In terms of the worlds blending, that was just a blast to have them on the set.” 

Washington is stunning in the movie, making no special concessions to playing the role with any sense of masculinity. In fact, she makes a beautiful transgendered woman. When I mention this to her, Washington relates how her good looks almost cost her the role. “It was interesting. I have this beautiful email that Buddy wrote me because originally he rejected me. It’s the most beautiful rejection letter I’ve ever received. But he sent me this letter saying, ‘I just don’t think I can do it because I think it’s gonna be really distracting to have this beautiful woman play Marybeth.’” 

Body suite by AU79, boots by Chloe, Vintage Necklace by V VIntage Boutique


When I ask her how she changed Giovinazzo’s opinion she responds: “I really encouraged him. He and I both did some research. And the reality is a lot of these girls are gorgeous. That’s just the truth of it. Transwomen are women. There are many of them that you would never know… ever, ever, ever. In playing the role what I realized very quickly in spending time in the transgender community was that these transwomen had much to teach me about being a woman. Many of them are much more of a woman than I will ever be because I take my gender for granted. And I don’t own my female identity in the same way. The real challenge in playing this woman was to be even more of a woman. How do I really swing my hips? It was really fun to go, ‘I am just gonna unabashedly be a woman. What does that feel like?’ I wanted to honor the trans community by embodying the true womanhood of Marybeth because that’s who she is. She’s a woman. Turns out she is more woman than I am.” 

When I balk at this suggestion Washington sets me straight. 

“Really. Listen in some ways, yeah; I learned things about hair and make-up playing her. Playing Marybeth taught me how to walk in some really high heels. I have a new ability to walk in those platform pumps that I wasn’t going to get in my own life as a woman.” 

When I ask Washington how the modern transgendered woman finds those incredible heels in men’s sizes, she giggles, “I think they have special connections with the shoe stores; when the shoes come in and who has first dibs on what. Again, I was like ‘My God, you guys are so much more of a girl than I am. I would never have a direct line to a shoe dealer. How fabulous.’”

In the film, Washington’s character is involved with a petty thief, Benny, played superbly by Desmond Harrington. Their love story plays out amidst their drug addiction and the desperation of their lives on the street and gives the film much of its galvanizing force. “Their love is such an amazing love to me. It’s really beautiful. One of the fundamental truths of her that was really important to me was this sense of what is it like to love somebody that much, somebody who may not be perfect. And what it’s like to be afraid of losing them. All loves are perfectly imperfect. And that is so clear in this relationship. They’re such flawed human beings, but their love for each other is so genuine, even when it doesn’t feel like it is what it’s supposed to be. They have all these kinds of hang-ups that we all have. I think so many of us know what its like to be in a relationship where we think, ‘Well you know I know he’s going to leave me one day.’ Or where we think, ‘What am I doing with this guy? He doesn’t fit into my world.’ That whole spectrum. On a good day he’s not good enough for her and on a bad day she’ll never be good enough for him. Relationships are really about bravely living in those feelings and exploring them and allowing for them and moving toward greater and greater intimacy within all of that. That was big for me. Their love is a really incredible love.” 

top by L’wren Scott, shoes by Christian Louboutin, gloves by Chanel

Washington is no overnight success. This girl from the Bronx has been paying her dues steadily the last 10 years. After making a splash in the indie world in 2000’s Our Song, she had a sizeable role in the 2001 hit Save the Last Dance followed by films like Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Spike Lee’s She Hate Me as well as a stint as a regular on David E. Kelley’s Boston Legal. This led to her breakout role as Della Bea in the Oscar-winning Ray, followed closely by stellar roles in The Last King of Scotland and The Fantastic Four films. I ask Washington if her process varies depending on the type of role she’s playing. “I would say my approach to the character is always the same. [It’s] always, Who is this person and how do they express who they are in the world? Those are the two fundamental questions. What changes, depending on the kind of film I’m doing, is the execution of that. The process is so different. And also working with different actors is so different, which has been so fun for me to learn.  Like working with somebody like Jamie Foxx — Jamie comes in and out of character like a light switch. And it’s a little bit intimidating; I need to have a running start into my character. So I’d be like sitting around laughing as Jamie’s doing off-camera stand-up for the whole crew and the director would call action and I would be totally off my game and he would be totally in it and I was like ‘Oh my God! He’s there and I need another two minutes to get there. I need a little bit more time.’ But working with him really taught me how to throw myself in more because I never want to get in the way of [another] actor’s process. It taught me a lot of how to work at that pace. Whereas with Forest Whitaker — Forest is always in character. I know Forest. I love Forest. I did not see my friend Forest the entire time we were living in Uganda. Forest is this big, cuddly, loveable, gentle spirit artist. That guy was not in Kampala. So that’s part of it too, it’s fun to learn to work with different directors and different actors. You also never know where you’re gonna make your friends.”

Washington made a lot of friends growing up in the Bronx, and at the tender age of 13 when she began acting in children’s theater companies.“My interest in theater mostly came from having two parents who worked full time. It was one of the many after school activities to keep me busy. And it worked. I was sort of a dramatic child so it was helpful. I have great parents and they really saw that it might be useful to give me an outlet in that way. So that’s kind of how it started. And the Tada Theater Company is this wonderful children’s theater company in New York where, to be honest, I learned a lot of the discipline that
I have today.” 
Washington is known for being socially conscious in her work and life. She is a member on the Board of Directors for The Creative Coalition, is a Committee Member of Americans for the Arts, and is a member of the V-Counsel. A great deal of this sense of social responsibility was borne in her through her work with one particular theater group.“I was in another theater company in high school called Night Star — that’s the theater company connected with St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital.  And that was a company where we would go to schools and do a show about self-esteem and homosexuality and safe-sex issues and teen pregnancy. I’ve always been really interested in the connection between social change and art. I joined the company in 1988 — so that’s like two years after the strange gay cancer was found in a San Francisco hospital. We’re really talking about the epicenter of the virus hitting the media and social consciousness. And so that was really the place for me. I became a peer educator for the hospital and I used to go into schools and community centers and homeless shelters and just do the education part even without the theater. I always knew that I loved the acting, but I didn’t actually think it would be a career. I thought I would work in some sort of social service, whether it was teaching or counseling or psychiatry. 

I ask Washington when she finally decided acting was what she wanted to do when she grew up. “Honestly, I was very intimidated by the world of acting. Because growing up in The Bronx, coming from an academic family [her mother is a retired professor], I didn’t know [any] actors. It just seemed like this impossible thing and I didn’t quite understand how you get from being who I was to being a movie star. That was unfathomable to me. And then I was taking this great course with a wonderful teacher in New York who I still work with named Larry Singer, and I learned that there are entire unions of actors; there’s a big grey area in between being a starving artist and being a movie star. What I learned was I could actually be a working actor. I didn’t want to be famous; I just really loved acting and so I really needed to learn and be encouraged around the idea of ‘No, no, no, you can actually spend your life being a working actor.’ Whether it’s on television or in theater or doing commercial work, whatever it is, you can be a card-carrying member of SAG and Equity and build a life for yourself in that way. And then it didn’t feel impossible anymore. I’ve been really lucky in that I have been able to be associated with really successful work.” 

In fact, Washington has amassed an amazingly accomplished body of work in basically the last 10 years. When I applaud her for this, the actress has a rather unorthodox and bracingly honest response to her success. 

“I attribute a lot of it to luck. That’s the thing about what I do. It’s interesting. I try to always remember that for every success there’s hundreds and hundreds of people who are equally if not more talented who just didn’t have the same lucky break. I’ve been in school with those people, I’ve been in classes with those people, I’ve been in theater companies with people who have taught me what I know, who have inspired me to grow into the artist that I am. Such a huge part of it is luck of the draw.” 

Washington stumped hard for President Obama’s successful election campaign and continues to be vocal in her support, leading to a few well-received appearances on Real Time with Bill Maher. “I just think it’s exciting that we live in a time when democracy has become sexy again. It’s so exciting. Both of my parents have always been really politically aware and politically involved. So I grew up talking about desegregation around the table or talking about affirmative action or talking about abortion rights. That kind of stuff is what we talked about at my house. So that is a really big part of me. And I was really active. I was an official co-chair with the Obama campaign. I traveled to 13 states.  I’m really involved.”

I ask Washington a particularly long-winded and pretentious question concerning Obama’s critics and how she thinks he should deal with them and she laughs heartily, “I wouldn’t even pretend to be able to offer insight into the White House right now.” 

But she is effusive in her praise of the Obama regime and the effect she sees it having on the country. “I think it’s good that people are feeling so excited about our country right now and about our President because we are actually living in really tough times. And so I think this enthusiasm is really healthy because it’s going to allow us to all be a part of the solution — which has always been a part of his vision. I think he is an incredible leader. I think what he’s done just in the short time that he has been in office has been so inspiring. It’s pretty incredible. It makes me proud to be an American again.” 

Washington has a few upcoming projects that may be of interest to her fellow Americans, including an upcoming Eddie Murphy comedy, A Thousand Words and Mother and Child with Annette Bening and Naomi Watts. But it is Life Is Hot in Cracktown that is foremost in her thoughts right now. “I’m excited. Thank you guys for covering the film. I know it’s not an easy one. So I really appreciate you guys for stepping up.” 

With that, Kerry Washington steps up to go into the photo shoot, looking like the cover girl she is. With her killer combination of brains and beauty Kerry Washington is woman enough or transwoman enough for anybody. That’s hot.


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One Response to “Kerry Washington - Hot in Cracktown”

  1. Diamond Stylz

    05. Dec, 2010

    Thank you so much for taking this role Kerry…this means alot to us. Choosing this role was daring. As a transwoman, I was elated to here about the movie. I must admit that i was lil thrown off by them not using a real trasnwoman for the role. Nevertheless, the fact that you can see the human side of our journey and relate to it is inspiration to me in it self. So thank you so much

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