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When Kerry Washington arrived at this week's Metropolitan Gala with punky purple streaks in her hair, she shocked some people. Not us! We know there are a lot of layers to this actress -- she has a Phi Beta Kappa from George Washington University -- who's dominating this year on screens big and small.
On TV, the aptly-named Washington owns the sexy D.C. drama "Scandal." During Oscar season, she rode the red carpet as the only major female star in Quentin Tarantino's Oscar-winning antebellum revenge fantasy "Django Unchained." And, now, with a glamorous shake of her head, the Bronx-born beauty gets laughs in "Peeples," an upscale African American meet-the-parents comedy co-starring Craig Robinson.
Washington Can Do Funny
Washington embraced the chance to take on a humorous role as the uptight, upscale lawyer Grace Peeples in Tina Gordon Chism's directorial debut. Set among the African American elite in the Hamptons, Washington's child of privilege recalls Katharine Hepburn heiresses in "Bringing up Baby" and "The Philadelphia Story."
That fact wasn't lost on Washington, who took inspiration from Hepburn. "I watched Katharine Hepburn because a lot of her humor comes from that intelligent, affluent background that reminded me of Grace."
It was an exciting change of pace for Washington, who's known for her serious dramatic roles in the biopic "Ray" and "The Last King of Scotland." She told Yahoo! Movies: "Usually I'm only allowed to be goofy when the camera isn't rolling."
Washington credits her father for her lighter side. In an earlier interview for Marie Claire, she told me: "I probably learned a lot about my sense of humor from my dad because he looks for the joy in life and he's very gregarious. We have a joke in my family that my dad has never met a stranger."
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Washington Breaks Ground on TV's "Scandal"
The "Peeples" star makes history as the first African American woman to star in her own series since Teresa Graves said "You're under arrest, sugah!" in the ABC LAPD drama "Get Christie Love" (1974-75). Washington would also be the first to give props to her "Peeples" co-star Diahann Carroll, who played a widowed nurse for three seasons as TV's "Julia" (1969-71).
While it seems obvious to us that this is the year of Kerry Washington, she's working too hard to notice. "We just finished shooting the season for 'Scandal,'" she explained. "It demands long hours of intense memorization and homework to really wrap my head around the emotions."
One key to Kerry is that she's a good and driven student, another trait for which she credits her parents. "If there's one thing I've learned from my mother and father, and going to the Spence School and George Washington University, it's the importance of studying," she said. "I'm more concerned with doing my homework than what's going on in the outside world."
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As Washington Told Leo... She's Up for a Serious Challenge
Washington and Leonardo DiCaprio bonded over their challenging roles in Tarantinos's controversial and violent "Django Unchained." In the movie, an African American freeman named Django (Jamie Foxx) risks bondage to rescue his enslaved wife Broomhilda from her sadistic master Calvin Candie (DiCaprio). Foxx and Washington first played husband and wife in "Ray" (2004).
Looking back, Washington said: "The film's point was the hero's journey. Leo and I talked about it: Every hero has to slay a dragon. We had to have the courage to play those dragons, so that Jamie could be the hero as Django."
From Washington's appearance, naked and sweating, when white men release her from a wooden box, her character repeatedly disturbed audiences. She, too, found those scenes scarring. "But I felt like it was worth the personal sacrifice," Washington said quietly. "The women who came before me, my ancestors, went through things far worse than anything Broomhilda did."
Washington continued, "It was very intense because as an actor you are always being called to put yourself in someone else's shoes and ask yourself what it would be like. The circumstances that Broomhilda and Django experienced were unfathomable: the idea that as a slave you were only a fraction of a person under the law. That was a painful period of American history, and going to that place emotionally was hurtful."
Washington's Summer Movie Picks
Following such a serious season, Washington encourages audiences to laugh with her in "Peeples," which opens today. She's also anticipating her share of summer movies. "I'm excited to see 'Fruitvale Station,'" Washington said of the indie drama about the last day in the life of Oakland shooting victim Oscar Chance starring Michael B. Jordan. That film won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and opens theatrically July 12. But she also plans to grab some quality time with a summer blockbuster. "I am as excited to see 'Iron Man 3' as 'Fruitvale Station,'" Washington said. "I'm excited about both."
Watch the theatrical trailer for 'Peeples':