Heart to Heart with Isaiah Washington
Houston native and star of “Grey’s Anatomy” on the before and after
Growing up in Northeast Houston, Isaiah Washington watched as his mother worked several jobs at a time — not only to feed him and his two sisters, but to move the family to a safer neighborhood. Washington’s father had been murdered on the streets close by in 1976. Because of his mother’s strong desire and diligence, she was successful in moving the family to Fort Bend County, where Washington played football, made good grades and ultimately became one of the first graduates from Willowridge High School in 1981.
“My memories of childhood [are] organic … filled with love,” Washington reminisces about growing up in Houston. “Because Mom was working all the time, I lived with my grandmother, a great human being, who was such a strong presence in my life and instilled in me a deep, abiding faith in God.”
“I thought I was going to get a football scholarship,” he continues about his youth. “And truth is, I did — but it wasn’t a full scholarship. It wasn’t what I needed, and I didn’t want to be a burden on my mother. I decided to join the Air Force, where I got a degree in aerospace engineering. I thought, if I’m not going to be a famous football hero, I’ll be General Washington on the cover of Time magazine. I was just 18 or 19, and I really thought I was going to have a 20-year military career. I don’t regret a minute I spent in the Air Force.”
Getting his start
“I went to Howard University and studied art management and worked on a master’s in English,” he says. “Vera Katz, professor of drama at Ossie Davis’ Howard Players, saw something special in me and encouraged me, recommending me to Harry Poe of the Ebony Improvisation Theatre in Cleveland, who became like a guru to me.”
It was after seeing Spike Lee’s first feature film, “She’s Gotta Have It,” in 1986 that Washington decided to give acting a try. He made a promise to himself and to those in his world that within 10 years, he’d appear in one of Spike Lee’s films. In the meantime, he says he “planned, prayed, pushed and prepared.”
By the end of this 10-year period, Washington had been in four of Lee’s films. The writer and director had seen Washington in “Strap,” an HBO film in which the actor had a small scene. Washington had made his impression, and he got a part in Lee’s 1992 movie, “Crooklyn.” The other three movies that he did with Lee are “Girl 6,” “Clockers” and “Get on the Bus,” which earned Washington great notices from critics. He has guest starred on a myriad of television programs, and his film credits are many, including “Romeo Must Die,” “Exit Wounds,” “True Crime,” “Dead Presidents” and “Dead Bids,” for which he also served as co-producer.
Making a change
It was discontentment at being typecast as a criminal, a crooked cop or a thug that prompted Washington to tell his agent that he was not going to accept another role where he portrayed a negative stereotype. “I looked around and realized I was off track,” he reveals. “My roles had to change. And, guess what? I didn’t work for two years, and, I refused to touch my children’s trust fund.
“Then the call came to audition for the pilot of a series originally called ‘The Surgeons,’ which later became ‘Grey’s Anatomy,'” he says. “I read for the part of Dr. Derek Shepherd and was sorely disappointed when I didn’t get the role that ultimately went to Patrick Dempsey. That was until I was offered the role of Dr. Preston Burke, a cardiac thoracic surgeon, originally written as a nebbish, stout doctor; and, they told me that I could make the role my own.
“What a great opportunity this has been!” Washington says of his ABC drama series. “I had worked with a lot of fine actors in film and television, but in my 20 years’ experience, I’ve never worked with such talented people as the cast and crew of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ — absolutely the greatest imaginable.
“I never dreamed I would ever get the opportunity to push myself spiritually, emotionally, mentally and leave it all out there on the table,” he reveals. “I feel unbelievably blessed that the writers have enough faith and creativity to allow this to happen.”
Clearing the air
Several months ago, rumors circulated that a feud existed between Washington and Patrick Dempsey (an incident recently rehashed at the Golden Globes). Washington sheds light on the true inner-workings of the cast. “There are no perfect humans in life,” Washington says. “I like to say that we have ‘perfect imperfections.’ Much like me, I have perfect imperfections. We’re all individuals with raw emotions, passions, despondencies. It’s human stuff. But, all of the cast are friends, just as down-to-earth as you can get. Patrick and I are great friends. When things are said that are not true, it’s painful on both sides. So much is invented to make a juicy story. It’s like a hologram.”
Playing an integral role on America’s No. 1 show can be draining on the whole family. “That’s tough: that’s the challenge,” Washington says of incorporating his career success into his home life. “My wife, Jenisa, and I have two sons, Akin, 7, and Tyme, 4, and a daughter, Iman, who is 15 months. Most of the time, they’re asleep when I leave home to go to work and they’re asleep when I get back. Those are the huge sacrifices you make. We have to make time for each other. We try to go to the park on Saturday and to church together on Sunday. We take yoga, go bowling, watch art-house films.”
“I’ll always remember Dr. Gene Allen, a lovely gentleman friend of mine, who said, ‘fifteen percent of the people are not going to like you — no matter what. They may never meet you, but they’re not going to like you! But, 85 percent of them will like you. Focus on that!'” Washington reflects. “I’m going to teach my children to focus on that 85 percent!”
Changing the world
Through African Ancestry and a DNA sample, Washington learned that his maternal bloodline is traced back to the Mendé people in Sierra Leone and his paternal bloodline is of the Mbundu in Angola. Joyful and proud to have found his lineage, Washington traveled to Sierra Leone with a film crew, a doctor and an architect. He got Nike to donate tennis shoes and soccer balls, and a medical organization to give penicillin. He quickly established the Gondobay Manga Foundation, which is committed to helping Sierra Leone recover from its war-torn past and prosper in its future. With his production company, Coalhouse Productions, he is making a documentary chronicling his connection to Sierra Leone — capturing its land and people, village by village. A five-year project, the one-hour television shows will document how one person, Washington, can focus on changing one person, then an entire village, make an impact and move on to help people in the next village. Last year, he was inducted into the Mendé tribe, in the village of Ngalu of the Bagbwe chiefdom, where he was named Chief Gondobay Manga.
“This kind of celebrity gives me access to many powerful people, who open their hearts to me,” he reflects of his successes. “This past December, I was invited to serve as Master of Ceremonies at the While House Summit on Malaria hosted by President and Mrs. Bush at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., which focused on three themes: the Challenge of Malaria in Africa, the Power of Public/Private Partnerships and Growing the Grassroots. Mrs. Bush dedicated $1.2 billion to the African fight against malaria.” Washington was invited to speak about his Gondobay Manga Foundations’ involvement in combating malaria in Africa and how the foundation advocates cooperative planning to achieve positive, timely improvements in the lives of the people of Sierra Leone.
Other organizations he is committed to include the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. “There were so many times when I was going to school in Washington, D.C., that I’d sleep in my car, and I was hungry a lot of the time,” he says. “But, the good news is, I never lost hope, heart or my passion.” He is also committed to promoting water safety for all children.
Leaving a legacy
The NAACP acknowledged Washington’s work with the 2006 Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series and “Grey’s Anatomy” was the recipient of the Outstanding Drama Series Award. Most recently, the show won Best Drama Series at the Golden Globes. Additionally, his critically acclaimed performance in HBO’s “Dancing in September” earned Washington an NAACP Image Award nomination for “Outstanding Actor.” TV Guide, the magazine, included Washington in a list of TV’s Sexiest Men.
When aspiring actors seek his advice on how to make it in the business, he answers, “No. 1: You’ve got to love it! And, you’ve got to understand who you are as a person, good or bad. You have to have a clear idea of yourself. Don’t pretend; you can’t play it! You can’t act if you don’t know who you are. Do not listen to ‘No!’ P. S., you’ve got to have talent. If you’re not equipped, it won’t work. I can’t pretend I’m a quarterback in the NFL. Maybe I’d like to be a world-class ballerina, but that’s not very realistic. Get a mirror. Are you holding on to pipe dreams, floating around? Are you living in a house with no mirrors? Ask yourself, ‘Is this really for me?’ If it’s not gonna happen.”
Last August, the Houston Chapter of Women in Film and Television honored Washington and Chandra Wilson, another star of “Grey’s Anatomy” and Houstonian, as well, with the Reel Stars of Texas award. Several of Washington’s football coaches, Dennis Demel and Rex Staes, along with their wives, were among the surprise guests that honored him. After being introduced by Cynthia Neely, WIFT President, Washington reflected on growing up in Houston and how, 30 years before, his father had been murdered here. In a heartfelt speech, he said, “Today is the day that I can put to rest completely and unabashedly that little, angry black boy from Studewood. I can safely say I can rest my soul and my spirit, with no more anger or confusion. It doesn’t matter anymore.” He and his audience, filled with family, friends and fans, were visibly affected with tears of joy.
“I think this second, as we’re talking today, is just a moment in time,” he says of his goals for the future. “All we have is this moment. I take it one day at a time. A plan? A goal? Make a plan, and God laughs.
“I’m so grateful to God for my beautiful family,” Washington continues. “I’m grateful to have the best job on the planet. I’m thankful every day of my life. My mission statement for Coalhouse Productions lives with me: ‘To create change, we have to invite change. By asking ourselves to consider what a better world would look like, we encourage all of us to think deeper.'”