When one first comes into Kerry Washington’s presence, one is immediately struck by how strong she is. Not “strong” in the sense of exuding a masculine energy, or “strong” in the sense of overt aggressiveness — but strong in a beautiful, tensile sense, with eyes like cold-rolled steel and a presence that’s all-too-inviting to even the most casual stranger.
And it’s here, at the equally beautiful and tensile St. Regis Hotel in Toronto, during the Toronto International Film Festival, that one is first graced with Washington’s presence. She’s in town to promote American Son, which had its premiere at the festival to rave reviews and is based on the Broadway play of the same name.
“I was very excited when I met with Netflix about bringing the play to their screens,” she said, exclusively, to BET.com. “They really wanted to figure out how to bring the play to a larger audience. So we weren’t making the ‘movie version’ of the play. We were, in fact, doing an adaptation of the play.”
Set in South Florida, the film adaptation of American Son tells the story of an estranged inter-racial couple who are desperate to find their missing son. Using the Rashomon effect — a technique first popularized by Akira Kurosawa in his film of the same name, in which the pace of the story relies solely on several eyewitness accounts, thus giving the viewer previously unseen details about the story while also allowing the viewer to question the reliability of the witness — American Son tells the story of the missing teen through the eyes of four different people: the boy’s mother (Washington, reprising her Broadway role), the boy’s father (Steven Pasquale, also reprising his role originated on Broadway), Larkin (Jeremy Jordan) and Lt. John Stokes (Eugene Lee).
For Washington, maintaining the integrity of the eyewitness accounts — however unreliable they may be to the viewer — was the most important factor of all. Put simply, it’s this Rashomon effect that keeps audiences engaged. “Bringing American Son to Netflix was exciting for a variety of reasons,” she said. “Of course, there was the knowledge that the film would have a profound impact on audiences — just like the play did. But more than that, there was the knowledge that we would be bringing Broadway to a whole new audience — one that, really, might not get to see it otherwise.”
Based on the initial reviews of American Son, it looks like Washington succeeded in her intent. Variety, for example, said that the film “is a strong spur for discussion on various hot-button topics,” suggesting that the subject matter is, if nothing else, timely. “People all over the world are practicing theater, you know,” she said. “But it’s exciting to bring this particular play to the big screen, you know? I think it’s important because it’s having such a profound, and intense, impact on audiences in New York, and I’d love to see how the rest of the world receives it. Just the opportunity to bring this to a bigger audience is a gift.”
But, Washington wants to make clear: this isn’t The Sound of Music on NBC. Rather, she says, this hearkens back to the golden age of television, when one-off performances were considered a special presentation. As such, Washington says, this adaptation of American Son is a “television event,” and it’s a marketing tool that Netflix is glad to utilize in their promotions, as well. “This isn’t a special, or a performance. It’s a television event,” she said. “And what we really did — what we tried to do, and what we hope the audience sees — is that we tried to build it out. We tried to break the fourth wall, so that the audience could see the proverbial gears turning in our collective heads. We wanted the audience to see this story unfold in real time, not with any sort of double-speak or with any special effects of the camera. It is, indeed, this interesting hybrid between a proper play, a documentary, and arthouse cinema. We shot it verité style, you see, so it has a very different feel for me from those live events, or from anything else I’d done in the past. We took a very “indie” style approach, rather than a big budget approach, and you see the difference.”
The biggest draw to American Son, of course, is Kerry Washington herself. While she may be best known for her work in the television drama Scandal — for which she won several awards, including two Golden Globe Awards — and for her portrayal of Anita Hill in the HBO film Confirmation, her experience on the stage allowed her to bring a different level of pathos to her portrayal of Kendra. And while, certainly, she’s had experience performing live in front of a studio audience when she reprised the role of Helen Willis in ABC’s recent one-night-only reboot of All in the Family & The Jeffersons, Washington said that performing American Son on Broadway was the true test of her mettle as an actress.
“Every role I play is like my child, you know?” she said. “I don’t have a favorite role I’ve played, be it on stage or on screen. But playing Kendra on stage required a different type of attention and a different type of approach than the one I usually take. I think what’s so special about [this role] is that I’m in the space with the audience. We’re having a communal experience. I can see it in real time — no director yelling,“cut!” or anything — and so I know I only have one chance to pull it off with the audience. But the fact that they’ve responded so well to it tells me that I’m doing something right. And I hope I bring that same energy to this role on Netflix.”
American Son premieres on Netflix on November 1, 2019.