Kerry Washington was born on Jan. 31, 1977, in the Bronx, N.Y., to Valerie, a professor, and Earl Washington, a real estate broker. “I grew up in a household where it was instilled in me that it’s important to … be engaged in the world around you. To try and leave the world a better place than when you found it,” she told PopSugar.
Acting and activism were a part of her life from a young age. As a teenager, she became a safe-sex advocate and joined an educational troupe through Mount Sinai Hospital’s Adolescent Health Center that performed self-written sex-ed sketches in schools and community centers.
“It was some of the best actor training I’ve ever had,” Washington told Vanity Fair. “We would stay in character after the show, and the audience would interact with us. It taught me the importance of really understanding everything about who you’re playing, because you never knew what question was going to come.”
Washington attended the prestigious Spence School (Gwyneth Paltrow and Emmy Rossum are a couple of notable alumni) on the Upper East Side, graduating in 1994. “I was a kooky theater kid, silly, goofy, and academic,” she told Elle.
She went on to graduate from George Washington University in 1998 Phi Beta Kappa with a double major in anthropology and sociology. “I imagined I’d be a clinical psychologist, with a focus on how performance shapes identity,” she told Vanity Fair. “I’d figure out ways to use role-playing in the healing of people.”
In 2013, Washington returned to deliver the touching, powerful, and inspiring commencement address below.
After graduating from GWU, Washington gave herself a year to make it as an actress. “When I said that this is what I wanted to do, my mother literally cried. She didn’t want me to experience all that rejection. They both would have preferred me to have been a lawyer,” she told Vanity Fair. “[I] was living in my parents’ house, teaching beginner’s yoga when I got my first part, in Our Song. Then I got Save the Last Dance.”
In 2001, Washington played Chenille in Save the Last Dance, which went on to gross more than $90 million at the U.S. box office. “It was really exciting for me. It was the first time I had a trailer and a per diem and hair and makeup people,” she told Parade.
The film tackled issues of race, class, and, with Chenille specifically, teen pregnancy. “I don’t think any of us knew what a huge hit it was going to be, but we were all really driven to tell an important story, regardless of how well it did commercially.”
In 2002, Washington earned a Best Actress Independent Spirit Award nomination for her harrowing performance as a “booster” in Lift. “The directors told me I had to steal something, so I stole this apple from a New York deli,” she told IGN. “But then after we finished wrapping the film I went and paid for it. But for the whole filming process, I was a booster.”
Washington jumped between independent and mainstream film for the next three years, working with Chris Rock in Bad Company, Ryan Gosling in The United States of Leland, and Meg Ryan in Against the Ropes.
Then, in 2004, she landed the role of Della Bea Robinson in the Oscar-winning Ray. Washington said playing Ray Charles’ second wife and the mother of his three children was a profound privilege, partly because it afforded her the opportunity to meet Della, who is notoriously publicity-shy.
“One of my favorite things about acting is research, and bringing what I’ve learned into playing the role,” Washington told Tribute. “She refuses to do interviews with the press, [so] for her to sit down and talk with me was very special.”
Minor supporting roles in big-budget films like 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Fantastic Four followed.
But even with little screen time, her attention to character details was paramount, particularly when it came to creating the visual look for Alicia, The Thing’s sweetheart in Fantastic Four, who is blind. “She’s a love interest, so obviously the producers wanted her to look beautiful, but I kept fighting for the reality of it,” Washington told Mania. “She’s a blind chick. I wanted to make sure that I was wearing my hair curly as opposed to straight because I didn’t want to set up this idea that this blind girl would be at home all morning blow-drying her hair. That just didn’t seem realistic to me.”
Washington returned to the indie world for her next project: The Last King of Scotland, a biopic of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. She played Idi’s wife, Kay, opposite Forest Whitaker, who went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor.
After Foxx’s Ray win and Whitaker’s win, Washington joked on the radio show Frank & Wanda, “I’m a secret weapon in Hollywood. If you hire me to play your wife, you might win an Oscar.”
In 2008, Washington hit the campaign trail in support of Barack Obama, delivering speeches all over the country. Civic responsibility was instilled in her from an early age. “My becoming a voting citizen was celebrated the way other people would celebrate a Sweet 16,” she told Vanity Fair. “My parents took me out to dinner, and we talked about who I was going to vote for.”
Following Obama’s victory, Washington returned to Hollywood and starred in many heavy-hitting indies like Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna, Life Is Hot in Cracktown, Mother and Child, Night Catches Us, and Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls.
Since she was appearing on more red carpets, soon fashion editors began to notice her superior sense of style on the promotional trail. And Washington recognized the power fashion offered her professionally.
“There were a couple of actresses whom I felt were having the upper hand career-wise because they knew how to work that red carpet,” she told Glamour. “I was like, ‘I’m missing a really important tool. If I am the CEO of the Kerry Washington Corporation, my marketing department is really lax.’ So I sort of developed a new character: Red-Carpet Kerry.”
Then, in 2011, Washington landed the role that would catapult her onto the A-list: Olivia Pope on ABC’s Scandal — and the character projects the same ideals that Washington has long held dear.
“One of the most profound things for me about the show is the number of white women of all ages who come up to me and say, ‘I want to be Olivia Pope,’ ” Washington told Vanity Fair. “It’s especially profound in a place like South Africa. It’s called The Fixer over there. The fact that white women can see this woman of color as an aspirational character is revolutionary, I think, in the medium of television. I don’t think white women would feel that way about Olivia if her identity as a woman, period, wasn’t first in their mind.”
Initially a slow burn with audiences, Shonda Rhimes’ political potboiler has become one of the most talked- and tweeted-about television shows, thanks to its shocking twists, steamy affairs, and insanely enviable wardrobe.
And, it has also become one of the most GIF’d shows. #Gladiators
In 2012, Washington hit the campaign trail once again and delivered this rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention.
“I was so nervous because I make my living speaking and being other people,” she said of that experience on Sirius Radio’s Sway’s Universe. “I was getting up there as myself. When I talk politics, I’m not talking as a celebrity; I’m talking as an American.”
In 2013, she was appointed to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, and toured D.C. schools with First Lady Michelle Obama, who serves as a daily inspiration for Washington. “She has used her tremendous power to really make a difference in the lives on so many people,” Washington told PopSugar.
And the affection is certainly mutual. “I love Kerry Washington. She is amazing,” the First Lady said on On Air with Ryan Seacrest.
And the First Lady must have a pretty good sense of humor since Washington played her on Saturday Night Live when she hosted in November 2013, also proving she has some serious comedic chops as well.
Now Washington is expecting her first child with husband football player Nnamdi Asomugha, a secret the actress, who rarely speaks about her personal life, kept under wraps as long as she possibly could.
“Lynn Paolo, who is our brilliant [Scandal] costume designer, she and I are having a really good time keeping the fashion elevated but still making room for this little human,” she told Extra while patting her baby bump.