‘Confirmation’ Writer on Meeting Anita Hill, Kerry Washington’s Transformation

Confirmation Kerry Washington
Courtesy of HBO

On TV, the ’90s are back, complete with their boxy suits, puffed-up shoulder pads and complicated controversies. “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” recently completed its FX run to much acclaim and healthy ratings, and became part of an ongoing national dialogue on racism, sexism and the intersection of power, wealth and uncomfortable truths.

Now it’s HBO’s turn. On Saturday, the network airs the TV movie “Confirmation,” which stars Kerry Washington as Anita Hill and Wendell Pierce as Clarence Thomas. The two-hour film depicts the battle over Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court, a conflict that turned brutal once Hill said she’d been sexually harassed by Thomas, her former boss. In his review, Variety’s Brian Lowry said the film was “meticulously produced, cast to the hilt and [boasts] powerful performances.”

Executive producer and writer Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) spoke about her research process for the film, what the rancorous hearings did and didn’t change about American society, and what it was like to work with “Scandal” star Washington, who is also an executive producer of “Confirmation.”

With Kerry as the lead, did you think about ways you could tailor the role to her?

That’s something I out of habit rarely do. I like to write a character [without thinking about that] and most actors want to find a character that isn’t familiar to them. Because Anita Hill did agree to talk to us, Kerry and I met her together. As producers, we were trying to figure out who she was at the time, rather than trying to tailor [the role to] Kerry. We were really just trying to get to the essential truth of her experience.

It obviously was more than two decades after the fact, so we were relying on memory. We also spoke to people who knew her at the time, [asking] how she is different now. But no, really, Kerry is way too versatile to do it for her. She definitely hit a point when she took the producer hat off and put the actor hat on and did her work from that perspective, and that was a whole transformation that was remarkable.

We shot all her stuff first, because she had to get back to her TV show, but she stayed in Atlanta for a couple of days after shooting. She came back to the set, and I hadn’t even really realized that I had not seen just Kerry in five weeks. Because [as Anita Hill] she just adopted a different way of talking, a different cadence, a different way of carrying herself and walking. I hadn’t even seen it happen, and then when she jumped back to Kerry, it was remarkable. She’s really a tremendous actor.

A friend of hers was at the premiere and Anita Hill was at the premiere. The friend saw Anita Hill from the back and saw her walk away from the car she got out of, and knew immediately from the back that it was Anita Hill, because her walk was exactly the walk she had seen Kerry do in the movie.

Can you talk about how you went about the rest of the research process for this film?

Well, I had the luxury of having a lot of material. Many of the people involved in the hearings wrote about it. Anita Hill wrote a book about it. Clarence Thomas devoted a few chapters in his memoir to it. Senator Danforth wrote an entire book about it. There are two very well researched books [by other authors] about the confirmation process. So there was a lot of written material.

A lot of the people are still around, so I talked to everyone who was involved, and most people were willing to talk to me about it. A lot of people were actually eager to talk to me about it. So I did a ton of interviews, some in person, some on the phone. I just gathered as much information as possible. And in the beginning it seems like it’s a very “Rashomon”-like experience. People said often contradictory things. But the more I dug in, the clearer the truth became.

Given that people had very different recollections, how did you go about constructing the story? Was it your goal to be fair to all parties, or did you have to come at it with a point of view?

It was absolutely my goal to be fair to all parties, because I felt like the fairness had really evaporated from this whole process right at the get-go. There’s that central question of whom to believe when you’re talking about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill and their testimonies. And I approached that really with the belief that I would never know for sure. Nobody will ever know for sure except two people. So I really erased from my mind the presumption that I could ever know what happened in a room between two people 35 years ago.

But the truth is, the more I spent time with the story, the less interesting that became to me. I just found that there were questions raised by it that were more interesting. I was more interested in how our system of government could so chew up a couple of people who were coming forward to do their civic duty. It was about the preservation of power, and it obviously it raised really important questions and notions and challenges to our sense of gender parity. It raised very important questions to our sense of how race is handled in this country. And those just seemed like more interesting things to pursue than the question of which one of the two of them was telling the truth.

Did you come down on one side or the other, having done all this research?

You know, when it happened in ’91, I was in film school. I was a young woman entering the workplace. So the person telling the story that sounded like my experience was Anita Hill at that point.

Kerry Washington told a story about being at the dinner table when she was 14 years old and hearing her parents argue about it. [She was] hearing her mother, who is a professor herself, completely see it from Anita Hill’s perspective, and at the same time, she’s hearing her father, who was watching a black professional man have his life work stripped from him by a panel of middle-aged white men, and that was resonant for him.

Right from the very beginning we all said, that’s what’s interesting about this — that a number of divergent truths are being told here and they ended up being at war with each other in the process of these hearings. Obviously the hearings were about sexual harassment. And yet what Clarence Thomas raised about race I think was a very valid point.

There are so many characters and senators and memorable moments that “Confirmation” brings up. Did you ever think about making it longer?

We did think about making it a two-parter, because there is a lot of material, but we ultimately decided that the tension and the pressure of it would get dissipated if it got split up into two different parts.

With this film and “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” it seems to me in part that, as a culture, we put the issues they brought up on a shelf and didn’t really work through them fully. And that’s why they feel so relevant and maybe even more urgent now. Does that make sense to you?

Yeah. I think these were both wake-up moments for our country. I know for Anita Hill, it was a wake-up moment, in that there was a massive gulf between how men and women perceive women in a professional light. “The People v. O.J.” was about a massive gulf between white people and black people when it comes to law enforcement. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in our culture, and those are both issues that are so challenging to us now, if not more challenging.

What made this case so difficult is that it was inextricably tied up with both race and gender — both of them together, at the core of it.

I heard Anita Hill say the other night, “People talk about race and gender as if everyone doesn’t have one of each.” It’s such a powerful statement and true statement. And a black professional man is treated very differently than a white professional man in this culture. It certainly was true in ’91 and it couldn’t be ignored. Once it was said, it couldn’t be ignored.

Do you think the hearings and everything surrounding them helped establish a framework for people to understand what sexual harassment is?

Absolutely. It established the cultural language for that conversation. “Sexual harassment” was a phrase, a legal phrase, but it was a brand-new subject. This is a quote, and I’m not going to remember which senator it is — which is probably a blessing — but I saw it quoted in two separate sources.  [It was] a senator saying, “Well gosh, if that’s sexual harassment, we’re all guilty of it.” It was eye-opening. [The hearings] started the dialogue. Obviously, the dialogue is still ongoing, but at least we have a language for it. We have a structure for it.

Do you think he sexually harassed her?

I’m only going to talk within the context of the movie because it really is not — I think everybody has their inclination, but I don’t want that to be the story. I can tell you that when I read her memoir, I thought, “I understand you, I feel you.” And when I read his memoir, I said the exact same thing. So, as for whom I believe, I think it’s not the point. If I were to answer that, it would distract.

I didn’t even know a lot of what Anita Hill went through. The film really highlighted how painful it all must have been.

That was also something that was really important to me to convey. I think it’s important to remember that there’s always a sacrificial nature in demanding change. Telling the truth, especially when power is at stake, can be very disruptive. And I think Anita Hill was aware of this sacrificial nature of it when she took it on. I don’t think she had any idea now extreme it would become, but to her, the Supreme Court was a very real thing.

She’s the youngest of 13, so she had siblings who went to segregated schools. She went to integrated schools. So just within her generation in her family, she saw the impact of Brown v. Board of Education. [Supreme Court justice] Thurgood Marshall’s feat [as a lawyer in the Brown decision] was a very real, tangible thing. So the decision to say what she had to say — it had meaning beyond just speaking up about this.

In some ways, I wonder if things have gotten any better for women who speak up. For almost any woman in the public eye for any reason, they are just constantly scrutinized and put through the wringer in so many ways.

I am not an expert on that, but one thing I do believe is that critical mass is still a factor. The fact that there were other women who were willing to testify and were not allowed to testify — that left it as one woman’s word against one man’s word. I think that’s still a factor. I think having more than one person come forward is really important and very often [shows] a pattern of behavior.

When this was going on, people did say in the moment, “Look, she was treated so badly, nobody’s going to come forward anymore.” But they did. The year after, almost twice as many people came forward with claims of sexual harassment as the year before. I found that really heartening, that there was more support for her claims among women who had experienced the same thing than there was fear for their own skin. There was more galvanizing and validating.