The actress is the first African-American nominee in her category in 18 years
This article first appeared in the EmmyWrap: "Down to the Wire."
A lot can change in a year.
Last July, on the heels of the first season of her Shonda Rhimes drama “Scandal,” Kerry Washington presented the Emmy nominations with Jimmy Kimmel.
On one hand, landing the presenter’s job was a nod to her work and a sign that she had garnered the Academy's attention — but on the other, it made her one of the first to know that she hadn’t been nominated, a fact she handled with grace as her reaction was captured by the cameras.
Also read: Emmys 2013: The Complete List of Nominations
But if 2012 wasn't Washington's year at the Emmys, 2013 has been. Fresh off the huge international attention for playing a central character in Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," and the even bigger, more highly watched sophomore season of the ABC series, Washington was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.
This time she found out not on the stage of the TV Academy but on her way to catch a plane from her honeymoon with new husband, NFL player Nnamdi Asomugha.
"I was at the airport in Northern California," she told TheWrap. “I was flying back to L.A. for work, because we had our first table read that day."
Juggling three bags, her dog and attempting to buy some water, Washington got the news in a call from her publicist. "I was standing in a magazine shop at the airport, trying to keep it together," she said. “I don’t remember what I even said to her, but I know I had to sort of maintain composure. I had to just pull it together and get on my flight."
It's a shame that she had to temper her jubilation, because Washington has a lot to celebrate. The recognition for playing “Scandal's” Olivia Pope, the political fixer who will stop at nothing to make things right for her clients while her own personal problems stack up, is historic in itself:
She's the first African-American actress to lead an American network drama series since 1974. And with the Emmy nomination, Washington is also now the first African-American to be nominated in the category of Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 18 years, since Cicely Tyson was honored for “Sweet Justice” in 1995.
Sitting on a couch on “Scandal’s” White House residence set, Washington took a moment to think about the significance of her nomination — and the fact that it took a troubling 18 years to get there.
(At left, with Tony Goldwyn in "Scandal.")
"You know, it’s so tricky," she said after a long pause. "I feel really honored to be in the company that I’m in: Cicely Tyson, Alfre Woodard and Regina Taylor. These are women whom I admire and look up to, so to be included in a historical category with these other four women is really extraordinary."
Her answer is no doubt sincere — but it's also the kind of thing Olivia Pope would whisper in a client's ear when faced with a question that's better left half answered.
"Rather than comment specifically on the Emmy nomination, I’ll say I’m really proud to live in world where a show that has a woman of color as its lead character can be a success," she continued.
"I’m proud to be in a show that really champions inclusivity, because our show values diversity not just in terms of race but in terms of ethnicity, in terms of sexual orientation, in terms of age, in terms of gender. You look at the lead characters on the show, and the majority of them belong to a minority group."
Washington has a long history of championing social change, and it wasn't always clear to her that acting would be her vocation. Her mother, a college professor, and her father, a real estate broker, instilled in her a very strong sense of social responsibility.
(At right: With Samuel L. Jackson in "Django Unchained.)
She has said that they celebrated her 18th birthday like others would celebrate a Sweet 16, because she was finally able to vote.
"I’ve always known that I really love acting, and I think in high school in particular I fell in love with acting, both at school and working at an educational theater company in New York," she recalled. "But I never thought it would be my profession. I come from an academic, professional family, no one in show biz. I didn’t think this is what I would do for a living."
Although she made a couple of early television appearances, the New York City native would go on to graduate from George Washington University in 1998 with a double major in anthropology and sociology. After graduation, she went to live in India for close to a year. But acting still called to her — and upon returning from India, she made a decision.
"I gave myself a year," the 36-year-old said. "I thought, 'If it feels like I’ve made some headway, if it feels like I could have a career or at least a brief stint as a working actor, that’s what I’ll do. And if not, I’ll figure out whether I’ll go to grad or law school.' It was very much, like, ‘Who knows? I’m not sure, but I’ll see what happens.’"
In that year, she booked her first film, “Our Song,” a coming-of-age drama about three Brooklyn teen girls with big dreams that seemed to be a natural fit for where Washington was in her own life. The film would go on to play at the Sundance Film Festival and be nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.
Also within that trial year, Washington landed “Save the Last Dance,” which would open in the No. 1 spot at the box office in 2001 as thoughts of furthering her education fell by the wayside. "I still haven’t made it to law school or grad school,” Washington said with a wink more than a decade later. “But there’s time, there’s time."
In the years that would follow, she dabbled in television series but focused on film. Her would really take off with “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “Fantastic Four,” “The Last King of Scotland” and last year's controversial and Oscar-winning film from Quentin Tarantino, “Django Unchained,” in which she played the key role of Broomhilda von Schaft, a German-speaking slave and the wife to Jamie Foxx’s Django.
Now that “Scandal” has put her back in the small-screen spotlight, Washington feels proud about balancing both a film and TV career. "I still very much consider myself a film actress," she said. "Last year, there was something really exciting about presenting at the Oscars, which were on ABC [and also aired] a “Scandal” promo. It was sort of this magical moment of all the worlds coming together. I will continue to work in both mediums."
"I know how phenomenally blessed I am right now," she added. "So I’m along for the ride. I’m loving every minute of it and feeling very grateful."