Prada coat. Chopard earrings. Sydney Evan necklaces. Dale Novick Ltd. rings (right ring and left index fingers). Washington’s own ring, worn throughout (left ring finger).
As Washington, 43, evolves from actor to producer to director (she recently went behind the camera for an episode of TV comedy drama series Insecure), these types of female bonds are increasingly important to her; they are significant not only personally but also professionally. “One of the biggest gifts of my life came out of Time’s Up,” she says, citing how the birth of the movement was a turning point. Previously, female actors existed in isolation from one another. “We were told, ‘That one is difficult, and that one is crazy and that one is unreliable.’ We’d been told these untruths because often times you are the only woman in the room. Those labels would get filtered to us about each other.”
Washington enthusiastically begins listing some of her latest projects: there is the film 24-7, directed by and co-starring Eva Longoria, and another movie being written and directed by Rashida Jones. “We are really pouring into each other,” Washington says of Hollywood’s current synergistic state. “We became a sisterhood in the industry across different roles and, in particular, with fellow actresses. We are so invested now, and we understand each other.”
Louis Vuitton dress and brooch. Chopard earrings.
When the opportunity arose to work with Reese Witherspoon on the upcoming miniseries Little Fires Everywhere, based on Celeste Ng’s bestselling book, Washington pounced. Playing an artist named Mia Warren, Washington becomes the on-screen nemesis of Witherspoon’s uptight Elena Richardson, but in real life co-stars and executive producers were in lock step. United in their mission to establish a safe and inclusive work environment, they banded together to hire a diverse group of directors and female writers. “And one man, Washington says, winking. Working with men, she notes, is not off the table by any means. “I’m doing a project with two co-producers who are black men, and it’s a different kind of safety. In a room full of women, I still have to translate my blackness, in a way,” she says. “In these rooms there is another kind of safety that comes from speaking to the same cultural, racial identity.”
Washington established her production company, Simpson Street, in 2016, in part because she felt she had a responsibility to create more opportunities for people of colour. She was coming off a successful seven-season run as Olivia Pope on the hit drama Scandal, and the experience made her thirsty for more control of her projects. “Being number one on the call sheet for a show as historic as Scandal, where the stakes were so high and meant possible opportunities for other actresses of colour, that felt like a real test,” she says.
She reached out to Witherspoon for advice on how to navigate the terrain. “I knew that Reese had several production companies through the years and had learned a lot during the various stages of their development. I said to her, ‘You’re killing it now, but tell me all the mistakes you made so I don’t have to reinvent the wheel.’” Witherspoon obliged and then revealed something surprising. “She said, ‘Not a single other actress has called me to have this conversation.’”
Dolce & Gabbana bra and pants. Dale Novick Ltd. rings (right ring and left index fingers).Giuseppe Zanotti heels.
When discussing how the industry tends to treat female-led films such as Hustlers and Girls Trip as outliers, Washington shakes her head. “We have some amazing films like Girls Trip with a cast of all black women. It’s a huge, juggernaut success. Then there’s this thing like, ‘Maybe we should make another film about women’s friendships?’ And you want to be like, ‘Did you see Fried Green Tomatoes?’” she says, laughing. “You just want to catch people up and not have them think these [films] are miraculous, exceptional experiences.”
Washington didn’t get into the business to change it, although that is where her career has taken her. She initially attended children’s-theatre classes as an afterschool activity and kept going until she had professional gigs (and an agent) by her mid-teens. “I have really great parents, and my mum wanted to keep me entertained and distracted from whatever was going on in the Bronx in the ’80s,” she says. But Washington never imagined herself as a movie star, in part because she didn’t see herself as someone who could be the centrepiece of a story. Her Bronx buddy J.Lo, on the other hand? Yes. Washington would finish her homework early on Sunday nights to watch Lopez dance on [’90s TV series] In Living Color. And she looked up to women with multifaceted careers, such as Rita Moreno, Barbra Streisand, Diahann Carroll and Cicely Tyson.
It wasn’t until she starred on Scandal that Washington realised she had the mojo to be more than just a character actor. “I would disappear into these different roles and, you know, nobody was connecting that the woman from Save the Last Dance was the same woman from Ray who was the same person from The Last King of Scotland. They are totally different humans, and that was great for me. I got to really keep my life and not have it disrupted in a big way. [But] that changed with the one-two punch of Scandal and Django Unchained.”
Richard Quinn jumpsuit with cape. Tiffany & Co. necklace and rings.
By then, in 2012, stardom had come for her. She recalls walking down 23rd Street in Manhattan when a guy called out her name from a bus stop. She hugged him, assuming they knew each other from college, before realising he was just a fan. “It is an interesting and vulnerable dynamic,” she says. “But this is not, like, cry-me-a-river. [Fame] has also come with extraordinary privileges and benefits beyond what I can articulate.” Still, she’s all about establishing boundaries, especially in her personal life. She’s been married to actor and former NFL star Nnamdi Asomugha since 2013, and the couple have three children. Washington describes herself as “really, really vigilant” early on when it came to keeping her kids out of the public eye. “These are their lives. But it’s not about pulling a Rapunzel and hiding them away in a castle from the world—we don’t want to do that,” she says. “I think any parent would want to keep kids from a situation that causes them to feel scared. I don’t want them to be exploited, particularly in this social-media world.”
When she needs a break, Washington looks for activities that ground her, such as Pilates and yoga. Swimming is also big at her house. “My husband teased me that if I did the [DNA test] 23andMe, it would come back 11 per cent mermaid. My kids are the same way. They’re just fish.”
Meanwhile, the woman who didn’t think she could be at the centre of anything is suddenly at the centre of everything. And her power is reaching outside Hollywood, too. Since 2013, she has been an ambassador and creative consultant for Neutrogena and participates in the company’s marketing meetings. She even developed her own line of make-up for the brand. “That, for me, is so much more fulfilling than just being a face,” she says.
Marc Jacobs dress. Tiffany & Co. hair clip and bracelet. Giuseppe Zanotti flats.
As evidenced by the aforementioned Altuzarra number, Washington has also developed a certain swagger in her style. At director Tyler Perry’s Hollywood Walk of Fame tribute last October, she accessorised her black tulle Mary Katrantzou dress with a hairpin that read “Boss”.
The label suits her—and Washington is finally at the point where she knows it. “I want to do things that really come from my own sense of curiosity and desire and joy and service,” she says. And when she looks at her slate of projects, she is acting in less than half of them—producing is her main focus now. “It comes naturally to me,” she says, laughing. “Because it’s really hard for me to mind my own business.”
Photographed by Sebastian Faena. Styled by Law Roach. Hair by Takisha Sturdivant-Drew. Make-up by Allan Avendaño. Manicure by Kim Truong.
This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of InStyle.