Who doesn’t love Kerry Washington and Don Cheadle? They hold things down on their respective TV shows, ABC’s Scandal and Showtime’s House of Lies. They are exceptional actors in some of our favorite movies. And when they’re off-camera, they fight for causes, social issues and the democratic process as involved activists. They’re more than just red-carpet mainstays and the usual over-exposed celebrities. In an interview with Variety, the two powerhouses discussed their road to primetime success, being black in Hollywood, and using their celebrity powers to improve the world around them. Here are some of the highlights from their interview below:
The role race plays in their career, and if they think it’s something “overplayed in the media as part of your story?”
Cheadle: I think I’m somewhat defined by my race for sure, and I’m good with that and I actually want that to be a part. … I think that should be fodder for our work — we should use all aspects of ourselves. I’m always trying to find a place where that’s actually an impact on what I’m doing as opposed to going, “Well, we’re all just people and we’re the same.”
Washington: I agree. I think it’s relevant. I think gender is relevant. I bring something to the table as a woman; I bring something to the table as a woman of color. So I feel like, if it’s the only thing you focus on, then it’s a danger, and if you never talk about it then it’s a danger.
Finding work and opportunities as black actors and actresses when roles are so scarce:
Cheadle: There’s not enough work for anybody, so whenever there’s not enough for anybody, the people who are somewhat already marginalized, the margin is going to be even smaller. … That being said though, where we are is sort of antithetical to that: She’s the lead of a hit TV show, and she’s not the only black actor on network TV in the lead of a show. That’s amazing.
Washington: That’s huge right now, and different. I think you’re really right. I think there’s that curve, but I do have a sense that it’s curving upwards and that I have more opportunities than Josephine Baker and Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll had. … This is a business where, if you’re looking for consistency and dependability in your work, this is not the career for you. But I think as more women are in positions of power, more people in color are in positions of power, the stories become more inclusive, the casts become more inclusive.
How they use their celebrity to fight for big causes and important issues:
Cheadle: You’re there because you can draw focus and attention and attraction, but really what you’re (trying) to do is go, “That’s the expert, that person really knows a thousand times more than what I do about this issue and these are the people who it’s about. Yes, I would love to talk about Iron Man with you, but I want you to talk to them about their thing.”
I’m trying to pass the ball like Brad Pitt was saying: “We can’t get out of the light, and they can’t get in the light.” So, we’re trying to use that bounce and go, “Oh you’re looking me? Bing! Now go look at that.” … A lot of it is frustrating to me because — and I see (this) when I get the feedback from the organizations I work with — when I pull out of it, a lot of times that whole energy gets sucked out of it, too, and now it’s hard to get that issue back in the press.
Washington: It’s one of the reasons I feel like it’s so important when we do this kind of work to shine the light on the organization but to also encourage our fans to become involved, because that’s what it requires: the ongoing momentum of people being involved. For me I remember a point when — I come from a family that is pretty politically active and politically engaged — and for me there was a point in my career where I thought, am I going to have to stand back and not be involved because I’m in the public eye?
…but I said, “No, I participate because I’m an American, and I live in a democracy that needs me to participate.” So I can’t stand back and let go of my responsibility because I’m an actor, but the hope is that other people will know it’s their responsibility to also participate, because if they want to be like us in these other ways — in terms of what shoes are they wearing and where are they going on vacation, what are they eating, what all the weekly magazines are telling you — then they should also want to be engaged with their friends and want to do something more meaningful. So you hope that example is part of what comes out of it.
Check out their full sit-down (and the video of it, which is a hefty 30 minutes) over at Variety where they talk about the paths their career have taken, and let us know what you thought of their comments below!