LOS ANGELES — Kerry Washington starts with the shoes. To portray Olivia Pope, the tough crisis manager at the center of the hit ABC series “Scandal,” Washington is always in gravity-defying heels. How else to make that sexed-up power stalk down the White House corridors?
“I never completely understand a character until I know what kind of shoes they wear,” Washington said. For an interview at Milk Studios in Los Angeles, she was in a pair of intimidating white high heels. But Washington is often in sneakers or flip-flops, a clue for anyone trying to understand her.
“It says I’m not really attracted to walking in the world in any one way,” she explained. “I like to walk in the world a lot of different ways.”
Those ways have ranged from the role of the slave Broomhilda in Quentin Tarantino’s recent “Django Unchained” to the pampered Grace Peeples in the modern romantic comedy “Peeples,” out on May 10. But it has been through the intimacy and reach of television that Washington, 36, has arrived in the center of a major cultural discussion.
Thanks to “Scandal,” she is only the second black woman in almost 40 years to lead a network television drama — Teresa Graves in “Get Christie Love!” was the first — and the first one to make it a bona fide hit. Ratings for the political thriller, which began last April, have been building all season; it now beats its rival at 10 p.m. on Thursday — “Elementary” on CBS — many weeks among viewers 18 to 49, the demographic advertisers covet most.
The designer-dressed Pope, who has her own crisis-management firm, and her team of young “gladiators in suits” repair reputations and fix scandals, from kidnappings to murder. Pope is also the former mistress of President Fitzgerald Grant, a white married Republican played by Tony Goldwyn.
For many devotees, the show’s depiction of a complex black woman at the top of her game — her racial identity never a big deal — is the cherry on top. Paradoxically, attention to the role has meant Washington must carry the racial aspirations and fantasies of more than a few fans as well as the expectation that her success could open doors in the notoriously race-averse world of network television.
“We’re putting a lot of our hopes on Kerry’s shoulders,” said Yaba Blay, an assistant professor of Africana Studies at Drexel University, who live-tweets about the show with a group of female academics. “The conversations about her go beyond the role, to the idea of representing us well as middle-class and upper middle-class, educated women,” mostly because of the scarcity of such images of black women.
Washington said she had never felt undue responsibility for presenting a certain brand of black womanhood. In her view, she said, it’s more a matter of Hollywood executives catching up with a changing world.
A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of George Washington University, where she designed an interdisciplinary major that covered theater, anthropology and sociology, Washington knows the stakes: “I wanted ‘Scandal’ to be a success because I wanted networks and studios to believe that people of color and that women can be the driving force — both separately and when you happen to have both. I feel proud that we live in a world where ‘Scandal’ can succeed. It wasn’t up to me. The variable was the audience: Was the audience going to be ready?”
Washington’s first big break came in the urban drama “Save the Last Dance,” in 2001. There were other important movies: She played the wife of Ray Charles in “Ray” and of Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland,” and had roles in “I Think I Love My Wife” and “Lakeview Terrace.” In 2009 she made her Broadway debut in David Mamet’s “Race,” as part of a legal team defending a white man against charges of raping a young black woman.
Washington points with pride to her choices. “I see how all this is important, and yet I have never shied away from taking on controversial issues or controversial roles.”