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Kerry Washington On Surviving Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’

Kerry Washington On Surviving Quentin Tarantino's 'Django Unchained'

Following their work in the Oscar-winning biopic “Ray,” Kerry Washington again plays the wife of Jamie Foxx in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” — and the similarities end there. In Tarantino’s controversial spaghetti western, Washington plays Broomhilda, the wife of the titular hero (played by Foxx), held captive by a sadistic plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). When Django gets freed by a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz), he sets out on a mission to track down his love and liberate her.

The role, which required Washington to learn German and endure a lot of on-screen torture, couldn’t be further removed from Olivia Pope, the high-powered lawyer she plays on ABC’s hit nighttime soap “Scandal.” Indiewire sat down with the actress in Manhattan to discuss going from “Django” back into the second season of “Scandal,” what it was like reuniting with Foxx and working for Tarantino.

When did Quentin first get on your radar?

Mmm. Um, I think I saw “Pulp Fiction” in college and then “Reservoir Dogs” after. Yeah, so I think in college which is kind of the perfect time to it, I think.

I think the thing that’s most captivating to me about Quentin, or two things…One is that he has become his own genre. The fact that he is so undefinable. You can’t say that it’s comedy or drama or romance or action — but you know what a Tarantino-esque film is. I think that that’s just tremendous; to work with someone that’s such a visionary, such an original artist. It’s pretty phenomenal.

And then, the man is in love with filmmaking. I mean there is nowhere the man would rather be 24 hours a day, seven days a week than on a film set. Film is his love. It’s inspiring to be around somebody who’s that committed and passionate about the work.

He’s cultivated this manic, irrepressible persona thanks to his many TV appearances. What’s he like while on a film set?

He’s really, again, he’s so in love with the process. He’s in love with the writing, with the rehearsals, with the editing, with the wardrobe, with the hair, with the lighting…with all of it. You feel like he’s doing all of those jobs. I mean he hires really talented people, but then he seems to feel it’s his responsibility to be your partner no matter what department you’re in. He’s doing your job with you. He’s in the scene with us; he’s never over sitting by the monitor. He’s sitting next to the camera, mouthing the words. So you feel like you have a partner in your art at all times.

You have and Jamie worked together on “Ray.” Was he the one to recommend you to Quentin?

No, I was the first person that Quentin met for this role. And then he spent, like (laughs), a lot of months meeting with a lot of other people. And then in the end it came back to me.

How did that first meeting go?

It was great. We talked a lot about the script and about the character and where the project came from.

Were you gung-ho upon first reading the script or did you have some reservations?

I loved the script and I thought it was intense, original and important. I thought I had never seen anything like this before and that it had to get made. I didn’t know if I was the right person to do it because it scared the crap out of me. I was scared about the places I had to go emotionally and psychologically as an artist.

Did you seek out any advice from mentors in the business about what to do?

It was a long process. I think for him it was, too. He was kind of meeting with lots of people, and then in the end we ended up in the same space.

Jamie’s admitted to consulting with Spike Lee and Tyler Perry before signing on. Did you seek anyone out, specifically?

No, not really.

So…how was reuniting with Jamie?

He’s a much better husband in this film that he was in “Ray.” In “Ray” he was sleeping around and doing a lot of drugs. I think there’s a really cool poetry to the idea that the film’s about a husband and wife trying to be reunited, and that Jamie and I are reunited as husband and wife. I think that works in the subtext of the film.

We have great chemistry. We really love and respect each other. Especially since so much of our stuff is nonverbal, you really need to have that connection. And I think I am so grateful to Jamie because he really was a partner — he protected me. This film was really hard on both of us, so we both leaned on each other. We’d text each other at three, four in the morning because neither of us could sleep. I’ll never be able to thank him enough for being there for me as a friend.

Was Quentin there for you?

Absolutely. I would actually say all of the men. There were moments where Sam [Samuel L. Jackson] would step in and say, “You can’t do that. This is a movie, you gotta do this for pretend.” Sam was very protective of Leo [Leonardo DiCaprio]. At that scene at the dinner table, every moment after cut he would ask, “Are you OK?” We all just walked this line of protecting each other and pushing each other. Our coach in all of that is Quentin.

Broomhilda endures so much in “Django.” How did you mentally prepare yourself for the shoot?

I remember turning to Jamie one day and saying, “If this movie goes on for one week longer, I’m not going to survive it.” My parents came down and my manager came down at some point because they were concerned. It was really tough. I guess one of the things I walked away with was more gratitude than I have ever had before for the people who were able to survive this period, because I feel like we barely survived it for pretend, for nine months. I got to go home and take a shower every night, eat a nice dinner and call my therapist.

Did you have your therapist on speed dial?

Yes! I used to joke that I would bill him for my ‘extra sessions.’

Did you shoot this in one big block, or were you also shooting “Scandal” at the time?

No. I shot this in the nine-month hiatus between season one and season two.

What was it like going from playing a slave to playing a powerful confidante to the President?

It was crazy. I remember when I was done with the film, I bascially had two days to prep for “Scandal.” I called my mom and I was like, “I have to go two centuries in two days.” I really didn’t know how I was going to do it because I was so broken from the process of making the film — going from someone who desperately needs to be saved, to going to someone who makes a living saving people. It was such a huge transformation. I got back onto “Scandal” wearing Gucci pumps, and was like, “What am I doing?” It’s been an exciting year as an actor for that reason.

Are you an actress who lives with a character for an extended period of time after wrapping?

I would try to really distinguish them — that’s kinda the job. One day we were shooting (“Django Unchained”), there was a background actor…it was one of those hot Louisiana days and everyone was having a hard time. One of the actors said, “We have to remember that we are the answer to their prayers. Us as African Americans today, we are the answer to the prayers of the people who actually worked this field.” We shot on a real slave plantation. The fact that we can vote, read, own property, travel: that all means that their prayers were answered. I felt that way going back to Olivia Pope. Her personal life is a total mess (laughs), but so much of who she is, is beyond Broomhilda’s prayers. I think, if anything, I carried that with me. The awareness of that empowerment.

It was actually sometimes the other way around. I had days that were so tough on “Django,” that Jamie would sometimes lean over and say, “How are you doing Olivia?” to kind of remind me that this wasn’t my own reality; to help me remember that there’s an end to this story that’s phenomenal.

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