Kerry Washington’s last name seems perfectly suited to an actress who these days is spending a lot of time in Washington, D.C. Of course since 2012, she has played Olivia Pope, the ultimate D.C. insider and confidant to the President in Scandal. The role has won her a widespread following, plus Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG nominations.

That’s a trio of honors she can also probably count on for her understated and pitch-perfect performance as Anita Hill, who in 1991 accused then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. The U.S. Senate hearings became a sensation, but through it all, Hill maintained her dignity, even as Thomas was eventually confirmed.

This is hot-button stuff, but Washington, who also is an executive producer on the HBO film Confirmation depicting this particular battle of the sexes, doesn’t even suggest Olivia Pope territory, delivering a finely modulated performance in a movie sure to bring back memories of those who lived through the era, and spark interest from those just discovering this unique moment in recent American history. She was 14 around the time of the events, she says, but her memories were more specific to the way her parents viewed the controversial hearings, with her dad taking Thomas’ side and her mother in Hill’s corner. It surprised Washington, because her parents had always agreed on everything and were always on the same page.

So with just that to go on from her personal life, how did she approach the daunting task of playing someone still very much alive? “I did meet with her. I really studied every press conference and TV interview in the hearings themselves because I wanted to find her rhythm and her cadence through the truth of who she was, and we have that on film because who she was in ’91 is obviously different from who she is today,” she says.

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Age 14 around the time of the events portrayed in Confirmation, what Washington remembers most vividly is how the trials caused divisions in her own household.
HBO

Washington and writer Susannah Grant spent a lot of time during the research phase with not only Hill, but also other key figures of the time. For Washington, there was fun in the details, like the necklace she wore, or the sling-back shoes. “But I also had to figure out where I could enter into the truth of her from my own experience and my own understanding. I had to figure out what I could bring of myself into her experience so that I could bring some emotional truth to what she was going through.”

It is interesting to note that Washington says the filmmakers didn’t make the film seeking Hill’s approval, so she is sure Hill doesn’t love everything about it. However the important thing for her is that Hill was pleased with her performance. That isn’t true of some of the other figures depicted in the film, but Washington said it was to be expected that there might be some blowback over how the filmmakers, who included director Rick Famuyiwa, handled everything.

Grant says it was all checked and double-checked, and Washington believes they have gotten to the core of the truth. “I think it was a really difficult time in our American history where really complicated issues were coming forward for the first time, and nobody had a toolbox to deal with it in the way that we do now. So not everybody, looking back, feels great about what they did or how they did it, and that is showing up in some of the feedback,” she says.

Washington feels it was all very complex. Anita Hill came forward to talk about sexual harassment, but the dynamics at play were about power, gender and race, in her view. She also notes it was really the beginning of the idea of consuming news around the clock as we now do with 24-hour cable news. She emphasizes it was not her goal to make a simple story that is just about good guys and bad guys, winners and losers. “I just felt like there was more here. I wanted to peel back more of the layers that were going on for Anita, but I also wanted to know what was going on with [Judiciary committee chairman] Joe Biden, and what was going on with Clarence Thomas. I wanted to know what was really going on at the White House, and maybe that’s because of being on Scandal for five years.

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For Washington, the question worth exploring was, “What is the machine doing?”
HBO

“I was like, ‘What is the machine doing?’ We really wanted to take these kind of iconic symbols and find the humanity, rather than have them be just political figureheads. That, for me, is what the film is all about.” She also notes the movie doesn’t define just who were the winners and losers, and that was intentional. “It’s tricky. And we wanted to keep it tricky. We wanted to keep it complicated.”

So what was the underlying challenge for an actress who spends so much time in the Washington D.C. environment? Why did she want to go back there—at least figuratively— on her hiatus? “I have spent five years playing somebody who, for the most part, is always the most powerful person in the room. Olivia Pope is always the smartest, most powerful person with the most access in every room she’s in. And I think I was drawn to the idea of working within that same environment—that same context—but playing somebody at the complete opposite end of the spectrum; somebody who has no power, and access and authority in that setting, and who still has to find the courage to step forward.

“Honestly it was a real challenge for me, too, because I was nervous for some of my Scandal family to see the film. If anybody was going to see a bag of acting tricks, they were,” she laughs. “It would be easy in that context—in that world—to just fall into patterns that I’ve very happily developed over the past five years because I know the character so well. So to keep pushing myself, to make sure I was being somebody else even in that very same world, in some of the same kinds of rooms, and to really define the difference between those two women… that was important to me.”