Few aspiring actors ever get advice directly from their favorite movie star. But that’s exactly what happened for a small group of George Washington University students last Wednesday, when Emmy-winning actor, director, producer, activist and Monumental Alumna Kerry Washington, star of television’s “Scandal” and “Little Fires Everywhere” and of blockbuster films including “Django Unchained,” hosted an intimate master class at her alma mater—an #OnlyatGW moment for the ages.
Washington, B.A. ‘98; HON ‘13, kicked off a whirlwind evening at GW with the invite-only event for students from the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design’s Department of Theatre and Dance, housed within the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. After a wide-ranging and insightful conversation with Corcoran Director Lauren Onkey, Washington not only answered students’ questions but surprised every student with a copy of her autobiography, “Thicker than Water,” and spent almost an hour signing books and taking photos with attendees.
Corcoran students shared one-on-one moments with Washington after her conversation and Q & A. (Abby Greenawalt/GW Today)
The star’s GW takeover continued with a sold-out conversation with “Scandal” co-star Tony Goldwyn at Lisner Auditorium and, finally, to a post-event reception at the home of GW President Ellen M. Granberg and her wife, Sonya Rankin. The GW stop was part of Washington’s book tour in promotion of “Thicker than Water,” a candid, loving account of Washington’s relationship with her parents and the corrosive effect of long-held family secrets.
A testament to Washington’s love and esteem for her parents, the event closed with a surprise announcement by President Granberg of the Earl and Valerie Washington Endowed Scholarship. Washington established this new $1 million fund in honor of her parents to provide need-based support for undergraduate students in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.
‘All of that happened here’
Washington already was a working actor as a high school student, but it was at GW, she told the master class students, that she fell irrevocably in love with her craft.
“This is where I learned how to break down a scene and develop character and figure out beats and learn scene study and dramaturgy—all of that happened here,” she said. “I just fell in love with that. I fell in love with really wanting to create something beautiful and honest and real.”
Corcoran Director Lauren Onkey, left, and Washington talked craftsmanship with a group of Corcoran students and faculty before the star's sold-out Lisner Auditorium book event. (Abby Greenawalt/GW Today)
Washington was able to attend GW thanks to generous financial aid, including the prestigious Presidential Performing Arts Scholarship and a work-study assignment in the Department of Theatre—meaning her financial support did essentially come from acting. But compared to the “hustle” of pursuing her chosen career full time in New York City, Washington's growth as an actor at GW “wasn’t transactional,” she said. “It wasn't like, ‘Do this scene, and we’ll give you money.’ It was, ‘We’re going to give you money to study and to learn and to grow.’”
It was here, too, that Washington said she began to disentangle her sense of self from the rollercoaster of rejection and affirmation faced by all auditioning actors. One condition of her scholarship was that she try out for every show GW put on, whether she wanted to be in it or not. That consistency, she said, made it possible for her to lower the emotional stakes of each audition.
“It took some of the pressure off of auditioning, because it wasn’t ‘Oh, I really, really hope you like me—I really, really want this part,’” Washington remembered. “Auditioning was like, ‘I get to walk into a room for 10 minutes and do what I love to do, and either I'm right for it or not.’ And that sensibility I was able to carry with me for the rest of my career, the rest of my life.”
Washington designed her own major at GW, with a focus not only on performance but also on the social sciences, particularly anthropology, sociology and psychology. “I felt like if my job is to embody the human experience, I'm going to do that better if I know about psychology and sociology and history,” she said during the master class. “It was really me studying people: how people become who they are and then how they express who they are and how they ritualize that and how they perform that. I love having a liberal arts education, and I think it really serves me all the time.”
College wasn’t always easy for Washington. A high-performing student who piled on extracurriculars, she struggled with extreme perfectionism that manifested in spells of depression, anxiety and a vicious eating disorder. But she told students that thinking about her time at GW brought moments of joy, too.
“I was an RA in Thurston, and I think about how much fun that was,” she said. “I think about the community of artists that I was a part of here, where everybody did everything. I have happy memories of being onstage, but also taking apart the set at the end of a show—sitting onstage eating pizza after everything’s struck, and the lights are down. I did a senior thesis performance here in the black box that I was really, really proud of.
“The part of me that was intellectually curious, and the part of me that was geared towards social science, anthropology and psychology, sociology, I learned how to bridge those worlds.”
First-year theatre student Nathan Desta (red shirt) poses a question to Washington about how actors fill in the blanks in a character's biography and motivation. (Abby Greenawalt/GW Today)
The talk resonated deeply with students, many of whom are themselves aspiring actors, writers, directors and producers. Nathan Desta, a first-year student majoring in theatre and communications, “almost passed out” when he found out he’d have the opportunity to sit a few feet from Washington and ask her questions. He asked Washington about character creation and specificity that elicited a memory of a role she’d struggled with at GW—a challenge Washington eventually addressed through the character's movement and posture, using physical choices she demonstrated for the student audience.
“I'm a big fan of everything she does and everything she stands for,” Desta said. “She’s just an amazing actress and amazing person. I’m so glad I got to talk to her and just listen to her share.”
Desta was particularly touched by a point Washington made about agency and integrity—about her own refusal, even early in her career, to take roles she felt were damaging or irresponsible. “You may not have agency over your career, but you always have agency over yourself,” she said. Washington always maintained a “side hustle”: substitute teaching, babysitting, working at a restaurant. “I always said to myself—and I did this on more than one occasion—that I would rather work more shifts at the restaurant than do a project that I think is bad for women or bad for people of color.”
Washington said she holds to that policy to this day. “Now that side hustle looks different—that side hustle is that I'm the face of Neutrogena,” she said, to laughter. “But that allows me to maintain my creative freedom.”
The master class audience even included some of her own former professors, whom Washington greeted with undisguised delight. And the feeling, clearly, was mutual.
Washington with her former teacher Leslie Jacobsen, left, professor emerita of theatre, and Marc E. Albert, Esq., B.A. ’70, J.D. ’73, an emeritus member of CCAS' National Council for Arts and Sciences. (Abby Greenawalt/GW Today)
“I see in her career a reflection of the kind of person she was even while she was a student here, which is that she cared about the world, she was political, she was a wonderful artist and she was extremely humble and kind,” said Leslie Jacobsen, professor emerita of theatre, who directed Washington in multiple productions during her time in Foggy Bottom. “I still see all that in her now. And I see it in this conversation.”
Gabriella Tesi, a sophomore double majoring in theatre and communications, said she was “still shaking” after listening to and meeting Washington. Tesi herself recently auditioned for a role she didn’t get: “I was having such a hard time accepting it. But when [Washington] said, ‘You know what, you're either right for it or you just move on’—I definitely think that's something that I'm going to carry with me.”
In fact, Tesi hopes she’ll be able to discuss it with Washington again. “Obviously I want to make a career in acting, so I hope our paths cross in the future,” she said, laughing. “Maybe 10 years from now I can be like, ‘Do you remember how giddy I was when I met you?’”
A ’Scandal’-ous reunion
Later that evening, a sold-out and enthusiastic crowd packed Lisner Auditorium to watch the Politics & Prose event where Washington discussed “Thicker than Water” with her “Scandal” co-star and close friend Tony Goldwyn.
“We are so delighted that Kerry has made her alma mater a stop on her national book tour and so grateful for her continued support of GW,” said President Ellen M. Granberg. “As one of our most distinguished alumni, we are so proud of what Kerry has accomplished in her life and career and are honored that she continues to make the George Washington University a part of her remarkable journey. And thanks to her incredible generosity, a new generation of leaders and changemakers will have the opportunity to start their own amazing journey here at GW through the Earl and Valerie Washington Endowed Scholarship. ”
Goldwyn and Washington shared their mutual admiration and remembered the 'Scandal' set as a space for learning and collaboration. (Lily Speredelozzi/GW Today)
In his introduction of Washington, Goldwyn said he was “thrilled to be with you tonight, especially at GW, because I know how much this place means to my friend Kerry Washington—or I guess I should call her Dr. Washington.” (Washington received an honorary doctor of fine arts degree from GW when she spoke at Commencement in 2013.)
Spoiler alert: “Thicker than Water” unpacks a secret Washington’s parents did not share with her until her mid-30s—that her father was not her biological parent and that she was conceived via artificial insemination, a much more taboo subject at the time of her birth in the 1970s than it is today. Though the family was extremely close—they often attended red carpet events together, and Goldwyn remembered Washington’s parents, Earl and Valerie, as a constant and beloved presence on set—Washington said their withholding, done from love, caused a barrier she could not understand or explain until she learned the truth.
When she agreed in 2018 to be on a show that would unpack her genetic roots, her parents reacted with unexpected dismay. That moment, she said, was the spur that forced them to tell her the truth.
“It’s like there was a painting in my house that had a missing puzzle piece, and my parents jammed in a piece from a different puzzle, just so we could be complete, and we all walked past that painting pretending that it was perfect,” Washington said. “And when my parents finally told me, it was like somebody took out that wrong puzzle piece for the first time, and I could breathe.”
Writing 'Thicker than Water' was sometimes painful but ultimately rewarding, Washington said. (Lily Speredelozzi/GW Today)
While Washington, who values her privacy enormously, said writing the book was difficult and often painful, she said it has transformed her relationship with her parents for the better. Goldwyn read an excerpt from the book about the moment she learned the truth:
“’The crazy thing,’ I said, still holding on to my dad’s leg, ‘is that our whole lives we have loved one another under false pretenses. Starting today, you’ll get to see that even though I know the truth, I still love you.’ And then I turned to my dad and leaned into him. ‘Now you’ll get to feel what it’s like to be loved unconditionally.’”
At the end of the event, Washington and Goldwyn took questions from the audience about the importance of allyship, the uncertain rights of donor-conceived children and the power of representation.
And they took a question from two GW students who referenced the university’s new moniker: What does it mean to Kerry Washington to be a Revolutionary?
Washington hesitated, not sure if the word described her—“I have had this good-girl façade my whole life”— but then reconsidered.
“I think I'm a revolutionary…because somehow I became a person who was willing to take big risks and willing to swim in the deep end, and it's funny because I think my parents raised me that way,” she said. “When I hear that word I hear ‘revolve’—it’s about being willing to turn things around. And in this situation, my life got turned upside down with this new information, but I was willing to be on that ride. Because I felt like there was something special on the other side.”