Kerry Washington - Tarantino's leading lady is calling all the shots

Kerry Washington won't be overshadowed by her male co-stars in the director's new spaghetti Western

There's a running joke in Kerry Washington's family. "This is slightly embarrassing," she confides. "As a young girl, my real dream was to be the woman in the shows at SeaWorld." So keen was she to be the trainer who tempts the dolphins and killer whales from the water to entertain the crowds, "it seemed like a real calling for me". Then life took her towards acting. "So the joke in my family is that I thought, 'Forget the whale, I'll just get up on the stage myself!'"

Since coming to prominence a decade ago in US indie Our Song – when Interview magazine claimed "no other young African-American actress is quite as believable" – Washington has done much more than that. Last year, she made her Broadway debut in David Mamet's new play, Race. This year, she fronts Scandal, a new US television show from Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey's Anatomy. And next year? She's the female lead in Quentin Tarantino's highly anticipated spaghetti Western, Django Unchained.

For the moment, the 34-year-old beauty is staying calm. She knows from experience that appearing in high-profile films doesn't always guarantee a boost to your career, that A-list co-stars can often overshadow you. "I'm sure we could've done an interview five years ago, when I had just shot Ray and was shooting Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and people would say, 'This is such a fertile time for you.' But I have been really lucky to even make a living doing what I love to do."

The difference is that five years ago she was the spouse-for-hire. In efforts like the aforementioned Ray Charles biopic or Kevin Macdonald's Idi Amin effort The Last King of Scotland – starring as, respectively, Della Bea Robinson and Kay Amin – Washington watched while James Foxx and Forest Whitaker claimed Best Actor Oscars. Even when it came to blockbusters, playing Alicia Masters in Marvel Comics adaptation The Fantastic Four and its sequel, she went unnoticed as the girlfriend to the brick-like bruiser The Thing.

"So often as women, you're playing the accessory to a story that is really dominated by a male narrative," she sighs, though it's something Washington is gradually overcoming. Scandal sees her play Olivia Pope, the head of a crisis management PR company based in Washington DC.

Her latest role, in Rodrigo García's dramatic ensemble Mother and Child, is further evidence that she has graduated beyond being a male "accessory". Co-starring with Naomi Watts and Annette Bening, she plays Lucy, a thirtysomething Los Angeles resident frantically driving her and her husband through the adoption process. In Washington's mind, it represents the culmination of an already traumatic odyssey. "By the time you get to the adoption process," she says, "so many mothers are already dealing with a journey that is epic, in terms of the things that they've gone through to try to be a parent."

Certainly this shows in Lucy's scenes where she meets the pregnant teen who is considering giving up her baby for adoption. "There's such a real tension around 'Will I say the right thing?' And a balance between being a person of integrity but also really wanting it to work out." While the film has its contrivances – not least the link up between Lucy's story and that of Bening's physical therapist Karen, haunted by giving up her daughter years earlier – Washington's journey through the movie is a deeply affecting one.

While its various narratives circulate around the theme of the mother-child bond, the actress sees it in wider terms. "I think one of the things that was so important to me about the film was this idea of family. I think the film is very committed to getting behind the idea that in this day and age, families take many different forms [be it single parent, mixed race]. I think that's what happens for each of these characters – embracing the unexpected, new, inclusive definitions of what families can be."

Born in the Bronx, in New York, Washington's own upbringing stemmed from a "middle-class working family – where the focus is on work ethic". Her mother (now retired) was a professor and education consultant, while her father worked in real estate, though Washington credits them for stimulating her interest in acting. "So I wouldn't just come home from school and watch TV everyday, they had me involved in lots of local theatre. I was a very dramatic, talkative child. And that was part of my mother's creative solution – to put me in workshops and classes and children's theatre programmes."

Though now one the faces for cosmetics giant L'Oréal, she was not the sort of little girl who dreamt of becoming a model. "I was way too busy chasing frogs!" she cries. For a moment, I think she's said "chasing boys". "Oh God, no! By the time I was a teenager, I guess. But not in my earlier years. I was a bit of a tomboy. It took me a longer time than some people to come into my own as a young lady, let's say." Was she shy? "I wasn't shy. I've never been shy. I'm probably more shy now than I've ever been. I'm more guarded because of what I do."

Acting was not viewed as a "normal occupation" in her family. "I didn't know anybody who made a life in the arts," she notes. So when Washington announced that's what she wanted to do for a living, her parents "were devastated", she chuckles. "My mother used to say things like, 'You know, closing arguments are just like monologues!' And 'Psychiatrists also have to get inside the minds of different characters!' She tried to find all these ways to coerce me into other professions."

In the end, after graduating from the George Washington University, and enjoying a brief sojourn to India, she gave herself a target – one year to get her acting career underway or she would go to law school. Even then, she didn't give herself much of a chance. "It just seemed so impossible to me – the idea of wanting to be somebody who is on the cover of People magazine just felt so disconnected from what I loved about acting, which was the process and the experience of creating the work."

While it took a little longer than 12 months, Washington soon found herself acting opposite the likes of Chris Rock (Bad Company) and Anthony Hopkins (The Human Stain). By the time 2004 rolled around, she'd won her role in Ray and a part in Spike Lee's She Hate Me, a thematic forerunner in some ways to Mother and Child, in which she played a lesbian who employs her former male partner to become a sperm donor.

Reuniting with Lee for his Second World War effort Miracle at St. Anna four years later, Washington has since maintained a smart balance between light and dark. "I do like to change it up," she admits. "For example, I did a movie with the Wayans Brothers called Little Man right after Last King of Scotland, as I thought, 'OK, I need a change!' So that's what I do. After I've done something, I'm drawn to a project that is sort of its opposite – in scope, in scale, in subject matter, in tone. It's just more fun for me that way."

It's a pattern that looks set to continue. In the spring, she will be seen opposite Eddie Murphy in A Thousand Words, a "big comedy" in which he plays a literary agent who discovers he only has the aforementioned numbers of words left to say before he dies. She plays his wife – a fact that causes her to giggle uncontrollably, perhaps because it's a role she's so studiously avoided of late. "He's not able to talk and I – as I think women in relationships do – keep demanding better communication!"

If this brought a smile to her face, by all accounts her role in the Tarantino movie will do anything but. She plays Broomhilda, long-suffering wife to Django (Jamie Foxx), a former slave who has been freed by a bounty hunter and is desperate to be reunited with his spouse. Early internet reports claim she is very much a victim, enduring rapes and beatings – though Washington clams up when pressed. "I'm not really at liberty to talk about it at any depth," she says, "but I'm super-excited."

Indeed, such is the secrecy of the project, it's not even clear where it's shooting. California has been mooted, which is at least partly convenient for Washington, who spends most of her time "based in a suitcase", bouncing between New York and Los Angeles. After calling off her three-year engagement to actor David Moscow in 2007, insisting she was too young to wed, it seems like she's currently investing all her energies into her career. And why not? As Tarantino's latest muse, Washington has come a long way since those dreams of SeaWorld.

'Mother and Child' opens on 6 January; 'A Thousand Words' is released on 6 April; 'Django Unchained' opens in December 2012

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