Golden Globe and Emmy nominated actress Kerry Washington has teamed up with director Rick Famuyiwa and HBO to bring the story of the 1991 sexual harassment court hearings surrounding the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to the small screen. Washington is both executive producer and star of the film portraying Anita Hill, the woman whose allegations set in motion the subsequent proceedings. Wendell Pierce steps into the shoes of Thomas in the film as Thomas battles to clear his name and reputation. Recently at a screening in New York, Washington, Pierce and director Famuyiwa discussed how the initial proceedings impacted them, and more.
How closely were you all following this case, and how has working on this film changed how you felt about what happened?
Kerry: I really like Wendell’s answer about this, too. But I think complexity is the key for me, too. I mean in terms of my experience of the hearings when it was going on, I had a similar experience to the one you alluded to in my house, we were always on the same page with these issues. I grew up in a house where we would regularly talk about progressive issues at the dinner table, but whether it was a woman’s right to choose or affirmative action or housing discrimination everybody always had basically the same belief. Then these hearings came along and my father was engaging with the issues, unraveling in a very specific way as an African American man who is watching this man’s reputation, his career being stripped from him and my mother was identifying as an African American professional woman and I was like well they’re not on the same page and it was one of the first moments that I think I became aware of my own intersectionality in terms of race and gender of like ‘oh I belong to a couple boxes that I’m gonna check off and they might sometimes be at odds with each other.’ So I was about the same age as you were, but it stuck with me thematically.
I think the complexity for me is the thing that’s changed. I remember the first time I told a friend of mine that we were doing a movie about the hearings, he was like well she lost right, as if it was a trial number one and as if she had like been fined (given a metal detector to wear for a couple of weeks at home), like she lost and I said “well that’s not exactly what it was. You can say she lost, you can also say she won because it changed the country, it changed the dialogue it changed the history of how our representational bodies look and how we approach them, although we still have a lot of work to do.
Wendell: It was a great debate back and forth. I remember it was painful to see two successful black lawyers at odds airing dirty laundry. It was a painful incident to watch. How I’ve changed in my view point is I can openly say that I had pre-conceived notions about Clarence Thomas. It’s an open secret that we are politically opposites. But I realized that this wasn’t a political journey, it was a personal journey and that was how I could key in to who he was. Then I had this realization — a real epiphany that it wasn’t how little we had in common but how much we had in common. African American, families from the south black Catholics five generations from slavery through Jim Crow and the violence of that who put a premium on education. So we had a shared family value and faith that I recognized in his autobiography. I remember my grandfather said, “can’t died three days before the creation of the world don’t ever tell me you can’t do something” and his grandfather said “can’t is already dead I helped to bury him, don’t ever say you can’t do anything.” I said “wow we come from a similarity.” So I have reached a point now, someone who had these preconceived prejudices about the man and this incident, I’m curious to meet the man because I want to know where that fork in the road is for us why I went one way and he went the other when we come from such a common background.
Kerry: Wendell’s performance is extraordinary. I’m so grateful you exist. In the casting process we were like who’s gonna bring the heart to this character because as a producer we also felt like these people have become political caricatures Joe Biden, Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, they are names that we throw around almost symbolically and a lot of our goal with the film which we also credit to Susanna Grants’ amazing writing and our fearless director. Our goal was to turn these into human beings so that you peel back the layers and stop seeing the symbol and see a complicated person and a complicated situation. We wanted your compassion to be pulled in more than one direction.
Why was it important to tell this story now?
Rick: Obviously these issues still live and I think what it tells us is that we always need to be engaged and questioning who we are as a country. I think what we do as artists is put a mirror to the world and to the audience. This was an event that happened 25 years ago — hard to believe, but we’re always revisiting who we are as a nation, the beauty of it and obviously the shortcomings of it have to all intersect with race, class, gender and how we want to be represented. I feel like these issues are always relevant but this one in particular because it became sort of a forgotten piece of our history. I was struck by how when I would say what I was working on next, and I’d say I’m working on this film about Anita Hill and the Clarence Thomas confirmation if it was somebody under a certain age and I won’t say what that age is. (Kerry: 30). Rick: There you go. There were many who didn’t even know who Anita Hill was and don’t know who Clarence Thomas is even though he’s a sitting justice. Now that might be some other issue. So I just felt this was a story that somehow because so many other more sensational stories whether it’s OJ or Monica Lewinsky became sort of the things people identified with in nineties pop culture or culture this had became sort of a footnote in history that we all felt was worth revisiting for so many reasons.
Kerry: I think also the reasons why — I think so much of why it became forgotten was because the country wanted to sweep it under the rug. This country was like we don’t really know what to make of what that was we don’t really understand what the point of that was in terms of race, we don’t really understand what the point of that was in terms of gender, we’re gonna just make now sexual harassment will be a thing but we don’t know how to think about those very well spoken black people that seem to be fighting with each other. We don’t know what to make of it so we just haven’t dealt with it and yet we’re still trying to figure out as a country how to have these very nuanced, important conversations about gender, about race, about power and who knew this woman would come out and we would have another supreme court seat that we’re trying to fill and also the idea that we get to examine the process of how we fill those seats. One of my favorite things about the film is when Clarence Thomas is talking or Anita Hill is talking or Joe Biden is talking and you hear the phones start to ring. The phones ringing is the American people saying I have a voice about this this is not okay with me I have something to say.
How did you prepare for your roles and what did you learn about the people you were portraying through research that you didn’t previously know before?
Wendell: I studied the tapes a lot. As a student of human behavior you approach a role almost like a psychologist. We know Clarence Thomas as a public figure, we don’t know him as a personal figure he’s very much an enigma. So I tied into what we shared in common that family history that I was talking about. Then he said something in the confirmation hearing that really opened the window for me. He said “I deny all these allegations but if there is something that I said to Anita Hill or any other woman that was offensive I am so truly sorry.” I knew then that he was thinking about it. I’m sure he sat at home and said to himself what did I say, what did I do? He reflected on maybe he had done something and he wasn’t even aware of it. As he said in the film I wish I had known. That’s almost a declaration to himself. As a student of human behavior, as an actor you create the world that is so strong that it induces the behavior. I knew that the temptation would be to make it a political journey, but it’s really not a political journey for him. It’s actually someone who at the pinnacle of their career is about to lose everything they worked for because of an incident or event in their past and they may be complicit in it. That is a lot of meat to grit your teeth into as an actor to play and that has nothing to do with politics.
Kerry: There is an actress that I really admire she is one of my acting heroes. Her name is Anna Deavere Smith and she works very heavily from raw material, from interviews. She works like a sociologist, an anthropologist where she video records people and she is studying not just what people say, but how you say it where the silences are, where the breaths are and so we were really lucky that the hearings existed, that these press conferences existed and I tried to work as her initially to really approach finding the rhythm and music of how she speaks. Even when we were developing the script, these are difficult characters to dramatize because they’re both so guarded. Neither of them wears their emotions on their sleeves which is part of the environments that they’ve grown up in. Being educated in the ways they were educated, in the environments where you’re one of the only, you have to be composed and guarded at all times and so there’s not a lot of emoting from these people. Which I really credit you with being able to maintain the tension of that and Susana in terms of breaking the emotional truth underneath all of that composure because also we couldn’t portray because that is one of the things that confounded America. Like not only are they smart but they’re so calm, these very calm black people, that was important to telling the story.
So trying to find the music of how she speaks and then yeah I think a lot of times people think acting is about becoming somebody else which it is in the behavior. I really thought a lot about how she walks: her posture is very different from mine, how she holds her head, where she places her voice is very different from mine, those things were very important to me particularly when I’m shaking off ten months of Olivia Pope. Those things really helped to ground me in being somebody else.
But the core of how you get to know a character is figuring out what you have in common. For me from the very beginning in the research I knew it couldn’t be a political journey because she says in her autobiography again and again no feminist group put me forward, this was no liberal movement this was my need to tell the truth because of how I held the court to such a high esteem. It’s funny because I think up until a certain point I was mostly thinking as an executive producer and it was all very cerebral for me: well she has to be emotional and we have to have a moment where we get a window in. I was thinking conceptually and then there was a moment where I turned to the director and my fellow producers and I was like ‘okay I gotta take the producer hat and really dive into it.’ I had the opportunity to meet Anita Hill early on and when she was resistant to talk to me she said ‘you know I just don’t know if I want to relive all of this again.’ And kind of flippantly because I was so passionate about the project I said ‘well that’s okay you don’t have to, it’s my job to live it for you, I’m gonna feel it for you.’ Man a week before filming I was like what was I thinking, this is awful. But I really didn’t expect her courage to change me as much as it did, so I was very grateful for the opportunity.
Was the outcome of how the proceedings ended ultimately a victory or a failure?
Kerry: It changed both of these people for the rest of their life you see it you see how they are changed human beings. I think one of the reasons why we wanted to make this film is to eradicate this idea of winners and losers that there’s much more complexity in life and the idea that you don’t join a social movement and or you don’t fight for truth or you don’t speak truth because you may not win is a dangerous idea because I think it’s about maintaining the conversation and chipping away at injustice and bias wherever you see it and knowing this is the long game, this is not just about winning this round, this is about creating change over a period of time. So yes it’s a problem that that article was in the Times about Stem. But the truth is if we didn’t have those hearings the New York Times wouldn’t even be talking about sexual harassment. So because we’re having these conversations we get to continually hold the mirror up and say we need to do better, we need to more. Saying we need to do better, we need to more doesn’t mean our warriors for justice have failed it means that we are continuing to evolve and we have to continue to do that we have to fight for that.
Confirmation will premiere on HBO on Saturday, April 16, 8:00 P.M. ET.