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Welcome to E!'s Tales From the Top, our series on women who are leaders in their fields and masters of their craft. Spanning industries and experiences, these powerhouse women answer all the questions you've ever had about how they got to where they are today—and what they overcame to get there. Read along as they bring their resumés to life.
"I was literally unpacking my groceries and my phone started exploding," the Scandal star recalled to E! News of that momentous summer morning in 2020. "I was like, 'What? Why is everybody calling me?'"
But though Washington is clear that she's not in this business for the plaudits, that achievement—recognition not only for acting in the Hulu limited series Little Fires Everywhere, but also as a producer on that, the Netflix movie American Son and the ABC special Live in Front of a Studio Audience: "All in the Family" and "Good Times"—was particularly gratifying.
"I am really proud to be creating and participating in so many different kinds of projects across so many different mediums," said the founder of Simpson Street Productions, who ended up winning her first Emmy as a producer for best live variety special. "It does feel really significant and exciting."
"But," she added with a laugh, "I definitely don't have the sense that I've made it yet. I feel like we're just getting started."
Simpson Street, which the 45-year-old mother of two launched in 2016, is also behind her new Audible series The Prophecy, created by Randy McKinnon and starring Washington as a doctor who's called upon to investigate a spate of natural disasters that feel eerily familiar. Oh, and the character finds out she's pregnant by no discernible means.
"Which, as a scientist," she added wryly, "is tremendously troubling—and really terrifying."
It's a "surrealist thriller," Washington said of her first foray into the scripted-podcast space, that "asks the question, what if the stories that we have been telling in the Bible, what if those are not events that happened in the past, but what if this book was about stories that are unfolding in our very present?"
Intrigued by the idea of telling such a provocative and compelling story through sound, as well as the "tremendous world-building" McKinnon was taking on, Washington was up for the challenge, joined by an all-star cast that includes Laurence Fishburne and Daniel Dae Kim.
While discussing The Prophecy ahead of its July 28 premiere, she talked to E! News about what's been motivating her choices throughout a purposeful career she admittedly did not foresee:
E! News: Your first acting credit was a 1994 episode of ABC Afterschool Specials. How did your on-screen career begin?
Kerry Washington: I had a friend of a friend who was a casting director and I went in to audition for something and she was like, "Do you have an agent?" I said, "[Sigh], no." I really just got so lucky. When I look back on my life, I think, Well, that was a miracle I had no idea was unfolding in my lap. I really stumbled into having one of the best agencies in the biz. So I just started auditioning from a pretty young age—and, to be honest, it took a long time for me to admit to myself and have the courage to say that this was something I was going to try to do with my life. That took a very long time. It was just a hobby from the beginning.
E!: It feels as though you've been very deliberate about what roles you've taken, especially once your career got rolling. What interested you?
KW: At the beginning it wasn't so much that I had a laser focus on the kinds of things I wanted to do. I had a deep awareness of not wanting to portray characters or embody material that I felt was disrespectful to women or disrespectful to people of color, and Black women in particular. And that didn't mean that every character I played was aspirational, by any means. I've always been drawn to complicated characters, to the complexity of humanity and being willing to lean into the imperfection of the women that I've played—but figuring out how to thread the needle of embodying the imperfections of humanity while not perpetuating stereotypes of negativity.
E!: You also have The School for Good and Evil coming up. What has it been like diving into more supernatural, fantastical stories?
KW: It's fun to work in genres outside of traditional drama, which is where I've trafficked most of my career, but I've always really loved playing in other modalities. I'd really like to be able to upgrade my toolbox, dig around in there and figure out what I need to be able to bring new material to life. So the opportunity to stretch in new ways is always really fun. And with The Prophecy, doing this stripped-down version of storytelling—where really the only tool you have is sound—was so thrilling.
E!: You're also directing episodes of Reasonable Doubt. Tell us about the transition from being in front of the camera to wanting to be behind it.
KW: I was really inspired by some of my co-stars on Scandal to start directing. The show was so historic in so many ways in terms of breaking ground, and changing the face of television—but the only two actors on the show who ever directed at first were our two white male leads, Tony Goldwyn and Scott Foley. Shonda [Rhimes] asked me early on—I guess she was watching dailies and heard me talking to some of the actors—she said, "You know, I'd love for you to direct an episode." But it took me a few seasons to have the guts to do it. I didn't want the show to end without taking that leap and making sure that our legacy of actor-directors included a more diverse pool.
E!: Do you relate to the feeling of being content about your accomplishments for about six minutes and then it's onto the next thing?
KW: I think so. Part of it is, I've never been drawn to this work for accolades. And I'm not saying that in an arrogant way, I think the accolades are incredible and I probably should celebrate them more than I do. But the thing that brings me the most joy is the magic of the process, discovering a story, figuring out a way to have the story reveal itself. For me I more feel like, "Look at us, we're doing it!" when I'm on set at 6 a.m. on a Monday morning and planning my shot while the sun is rising, trying to make sure we're there just at the right moment. That for me is, "Wow, look at where we are, this is so exciting!"
(This interview was edited for length and clarity.)