Life is Hot for Kerry Washington | Interview

Published September 15, 2010

Kerry Washington is back in the edgy role of Marybeth, a transgender prostitute with a drug addiction in “Life is Hot in Cracktown.”  Based on the book by Buddy Giovinazzo, who also wrote and directed the film, “Cracktown” is a haunting tale of intertwining stories surrounding the crack-cocaine epidemic. 

The Bronx, N.Y., native is known as one of the most respected actresses of this generation for her work in films like “Ray,” “The Last King of Scotland” and Spike Lee’s “She Hate Me.”  Washington has never been afraid of provocative roles and says, “This film allows us to have a window into a world that we normally wouldn’t pay attention to,” referring to “Cracktown.”

Here, Kerry Washington sounds off on “Cracktown,” playing a transgender woman, homophobia and much more. 

I was so amazed at how well you landed this character.
Oh, thank you!  You say that to all the girls! [Laughs]

[Laughs] What type of research did you do for the character?
I had an incredible woman named Valerie Spencer, who was my transgender authenticity consultant. [Laughs] She was a girl from the community and an incredible woman.  I knew that I was going to need a lot of support on this.  So, I worked with her and did a lot of reading, research and watched a lot of movies.  I always work that way -- I feel my job in some ways is that of an anthropologist to immerse myself into the world of the character.  I knew this world was so different than mine so I had Valerie on set everyday.  I believe very strongly in a community of guidance.  My job is to respect the community I am portraying. 

You definitely look like a woman, but your character, Marybeth, looked like a transgender woman.  So what look were you going for?
That's such an interesting question.  One of the things I realized in approaching this role was that I actually figured out early on that I was going to learn a lot about being a woman -- period.  Because, really, what a trans woman is, is somebody who is a woman but whose biology has betrayed them in someway.  For me, I take for granted my identity as a woman.  I take for granted my anatomy and physiology.  I don't really think about those things.  What if actually I was born with my body betraying me in some way?  I would think about it differently.  I go to the gym four times a week to get rid of my ass but what if instead I was paying thousands of dollars on the black market in hormone therapy to have an ass? [Laughs] I might walk differently, stand differently, dress differently -- I might think about celebrating my identity as a woman in a different way. 

Were you concerned at all with getting any flack for playing a transsexual character?
I don’t really think my job as an actress is to be liked.  I think my job as an actress is to tell stories about human beings; I felt like that is what was important.  I went through similar things on "She Hate Me" -- people are going to say what they are going to say, but I think my work is about honoring humanity.  For me, as an artist, I don’t think it's fair for me to say, "I’m going to tell honest stories about this segment of society and not this other segment."  I respect other people's decisions to only tell certain stories and only portray certain characters.  It might be different if I had kids, it might be different if I was just at a different point in my life, but right now I try not to shy away from things because it might not make people like me -- no matter what I do in life people are not going to like me for one reason or another. [Laughs]

There's a perception that Black people are more homophobic than White people.  What's your reaction to that?
I think generalizations of any sort are dangerous.  I'll say, if that is the case -- right now it's an American issue.  We're dealing with Prop. 8 in California and it's scary, it's really scary.  People don’t think about the fact that when Barack Obama's parents had him -- it was illegal for them to be married in several states in this country.  So if we start making it okay that certain people can marry and other people can't, it's a slippery slope of civil rights.  Who knows who is going to be allowed to marry or not marry next.  I’m not interested in moving backward as a society.  So whether it's more prevalent or not in the Black community, I think as a whole America is dealing with the issue of homophobia.  We got to be really honest about whether we believe in civil rights for all people or not.  As Black people we need to remember the moment that we say it's okay to disenfranchise one segment of society, we're opening the door to move backward on ourselves. 

I have a feeling you are going to get some rave reviews for this film.  Do good reviews matter to you?
There's no easy answer to that.  With a film like this, I want people to have access to this story because I think it's unique so good reviews help that.  But, again, I really make an effort to not do the work so that people like me.  That's like the kiss of death for any artist.  In order to stay truthful and brave in the work you have to let go about whether people like you or not.  You have to be willing to have people misunderstand you and judge you. 

This character has sexuality about her, but she is in some rough circumstances.  Did you feel sexy playing her?
Wow -- that is such an interesting question.  It's always hard for me to watch my own work.  Sometimes that's because I’m so in it that it's almost like when I see it, it's like somebody showing yourself video when you're drunk at a party.  [Laughs] You're like, "I don't remember any of that!"  I had a lot of that with Marybeth.  I keep trying to wrap my head around it.  It was kind of shocking for me to watch the movie because I was so immersed in it.  Sometimes when I work, I do a movie like "Fantastic Four" for example, you are kind of more conscious of the result and what it all looks like.  This was one of those movies where I was just in it.  There's a lot about the process I don’t really remember.  But, I do know when I was playing her I felt very connected to womaness, to what if my identity as a woman was something that was really important to me -- sensually, sexually, physically, emotionally. What if it was something that I could never take for granted any day of the week?  I was really connected to women in energy in a different way.  She is a woman who makes her living having sex so there is some of that, too.  I was connected to my sexuality as commerce.  It was complicated. 

What do you think people can learn most about "Life is Hot in Cracktown”?
I think sometimes in life we want to ignore the problems of society and just think about the good.  I believe in positive thinking and affirmative living, I also think it's really important to remember all of our disenfranchised members of society.  This community, for me, I would have nights coming from a late night of shooting or coming home from a club where I would be driving on Santa Monica Boulevard at two in the morning and I would see these girls.  But, I never really thought about them.  I never really thought about what their lives looked like, what their realities were.  I just kept my eyes on the road.  I think it's important to think about the people that we sometimes are afraid to make eye contact with in life and that's what the film is about -- all those people we ignore on the street that we don't make eye contact with, that we don't pay attention to and allow into our lives for all kinds of reasons that makes sense, but it's important to remember the full spectrum of human existence.

“Life is Hot in Cracktown” opens in select cities today. 

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Clay is a blogger for BET.com's What the Flick.  You can read more of his work at www.claycane.net

Written by Clay Cane

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