Kerry Washington, star of ABC’s “Scandal,” is ready for her close-up in Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming western “Django Unchained.”
“Django” also stars Jamie Foxx, Don Johnson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Watlz. The film also rekindles Washington’s onscreen love affair with Foxx (they played a real-life married couple in the Oscar-winning “Ray” in 2004).
HitFix contributor Geoff Berkshire sat down with Washington, who discussed Comic-Con Tarantino’s “visionary” style and encyclopedic movie knowledge, and the film’s brutal depiction of America’s ugly history.
On her Comic-Con experience:
It was great. I just think Quentin has such truly loyal fans. The energy is so electric when it’s people who are coming as committed, loyal, Tarantino fans and I think the energy at Comic-Con is just so great anyway because people who come here are people who are really enthusiastic and committed and imaginative and creative. It’s just a fun place to come.
Was she a Tarantino fan before getting the gig?
I wouldn’t have come to Comic-Con to see him talk about a movie before now, but I was an admirer of his work. I mean I think he’s one of our auteurs and he’s a truly visionary prolific filmmaker who has a real original voice.
Did Tarantino put her through “film school” before shooting?
No, actually he talked about on the panel that I was one of the only people that really requested things to watch. There were a couple of movies from the ’30s. I think for some of the other actors he asked them to watch some of those spaghetti westerns. We watched some of Marlene Dietrich’s old films, but no, there is not a specific film school, but working with him is like being in film school because he references work all the time whether it’s television, film, music, theater. I was joking on the panel that this was a true story. We were at a cast dinner early on and he was talking about some movie or TV show that Don Johnson had done and Don was like, “I didn’t do that.” And [Quentin] was like, “Yeah, this is the art director and the film crew.” And [Don] was like, “Oh yeah, I did do that.” [Quentin’s] like an encyclopedia.
On her character’s importance to the story:
In some ways she is the catalyst for a lot of the action. The film is very much about a man [Jamie Foxx as Django] who is seeking out his wife and is willing to travel to the ends of the earth and into the depths of hell to rescue his wife.
On Tarantino’s attempt to deconstruct the western genre:
Well I think one of the things that’s different and one of the things that’s really important about the film is just the face of the hero. We don’t often get to see the hero of this kind of film [as an] African-American, and so it’s interesting. He places a western in the antebellum south, which in itself is already like a twist. Quentin has never been somebody who has been intimidated by evil and by gore and by blood and just the dark side of humanity. I think in some ways that’s why he’s a powerful storyteller within the context of slavery because I think for a long time or maybe forever we’ve been afraid, in a narrative context, to really portray the ugliness of this part of American history, but Quentin is not afraid of ugly and so we go there.
On Tarantino’s directing style and the way the screenplay evolved during production:
He is very collaborative and we talked a lot about the character and about the journey. The film has had a lot of changes. People keep talking about the script and I’m like, that’s not even in the movie anymore. So there is a lot of change and I think a big part of that is living in the context of the world of the film. One of the privileges that we had shooting in New Orleans was that we shot on an actual slave plantation in Louisiana. So when you’re doing a scene where [my character] Broomhilda is being whipped by overseers and you’re doing it in a place where you know hundreds of years before the sound of that whip against flesh was echoing through that alley of oak trees, it just resonates in your spirit in a different way. So things kind of took on a really intense emotional context. We don’t deal with this part of our culture as a country very often and we were all forced to deal with it in a very raw way. The film is in no way a documentary. It’s a Quentin Tarantino film, but it was quite an adventure and a journey to dive into the emotional reality and the truth of the brutality of the period.
There was this one scene where Quentin writes that this horrific mask is put on Django’s character, this horrific metal mask and I thought wow, that’s some crazy, fucked up Quentin Tarantino shit, right? But then I went into the production designer’s office and there were all these photos of real masks that were put on slaves in the period and I thought how unfortunate that, as an African-American, I didn’t even know the history of the brutality of this institution enough to know that that was really done to people.
Was she cautious about starring in a film dealing with slavery?
Yeah, I mean I have this weird thing where I’m very curious about things that scare me. I don’t immediately run from them. I think maybe because it forces me to grow as an artist or something, but this movie definitely terrified me every day. I thought about it, but what I really loved about the script was that this is a story that takes place in a time. In order to keep black people enslaved there was the destruction of the black family, so children were literally taken from their parents and sold down the river. That’s where we get the expression sold down the river. Black people could not be married legally because if you allow people to have that kind of love connection then they could get in the way of the economics of slavery.
So here you have this director who has never been intimidated by the ugliness and the gore of humanity which represents the true evils of this institution, but at the core of [the movie] he places this love story about these two people who against all odds, in a time when in the Constitution they’re considered three-fifths of a human being, believe enough in their own humanity and in their love for each other that they travel to the ends of the earth to rescue that love. [Django wants] to honor that love and to find [his wife] so that love is able to trump even this evil institution. That’s what I loved about the script and that’s what has been so magical about the process.
I also loved the strange irony that the film is about reuniting this husband and wife and that Jamie and I would be cinematically reunited almost eight years after “Ray.” There was something really special about that too.
“Django Unchained” opens December 25.