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Kerry Washington Was ‘Terrified’ to Tell Anita Hill’s Story in HBO Film: ‘That Responsibility Was Not Lost on Me’

Kerry Washington is used to playing a powerful woman in Washington, D.C., but five seasons of “Scandal” could not prepare her for taking on a real-life figure with a monumental story.

“I think I feel inspired,” Washington said Thursday at HBO’s “Confirmation” panel at the Television Critics Association in Pasadena, Calif. when asked by a reporter if she has a cynical view on D.C., after filming the two very different dramas, both set in the U.S. capital.

That inspiration, Washington said, comes from the “cultural shift” that one person can make — referring to Anita Hill, who she portrays in HBO’s upcoming film, which chronicles the high profile 1991 case in which Hill, a young African-American law professor, accused her former boss and Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas (played by Wendell Pierce) of sexually harassing her.

Washington — who said that the film’s cast and crew had to take a sexual harassment class before filming began — said that despite the outcome of the real-life case, she’s inspired by the impact it had on victims’ rights, sexual harassment and race. Along with the rest of the cast, including Greg Kinnear who plays Joe Biden, she explained that one of the goals of the HBO project was to continue the conversation.

“Some of the issues are still rearing their head, in terms of gender and in terms of race and how we understand those things,” Washington said. “The outcome that happened is that the conversation began and we want to make sure that conversation continues.”

Though viewers know how the story ends, said Kinnear, “It’s much richer than what you would expect. It’s not as simple as he-said-she-said. It’s so much broader and deeper than that and that’s a testament to great filmmaking.”

Scribe Susannah Grant spoke to the film-making, noting that her research was deep, but readily available, given the content’s circumstances. “One of the benefits of this is it was such a painful and traumatic experience for almost everyone involved so everyone wrote about it,” Grant said. “I have a massive shelf of books on it. We pondered briefly even if it would be a longer piece, but decided that this would be the best structure for it.”

As for Washington’s research, part of her preparation was meeting with Hill.

“I have met her and she is very private. I think that was something that she and I really shared — the circumstances of your personal life being thrust into the public eye when it’s not really your choice — that’s something we really bonded on,” Washington said. “I wish that I had the level of elegance and grace that I think Anita did. I just keep trying to learn to live a public life and still have some private space.”

Asked if she felt any pressure to portray Hill, Washington admitted, “Yeah, I was terrified. Portraying somebody who’s real is a different type of responsibility, especially when they’re alive. That responsibility was not lost on me.”

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