Becoming a parent is like falling in love — you can read about it, talk about it, worry about it … but nothing can fully prepare you for it. For an actress who hasn't been there, playing a woman who struggles to conceive, then finally adopts, then finds she might not be cut out for parenting was a special challenge.
"Every mother told me you don't know until you're in it. 'You think you know, but you don't know.' Well, great. That's helpful. Basically, you're saying, 'Good luck, you're going to fail,' " says a laughing Kerry Washington, one of the stars of Rodrigo Garcia's drama "Mother and Child."
Washington is Exhibit A of the brainy beauty: magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa at George Washington University; spokeswoman for L'Oreal; a political activist ("A fearsome debater," director Garcia has said of her) serving on the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities; just named to People magazine's list of most beautiful people. But when it comes to this mother-and-child thing, she's as adrift as the rest of us.
"Here is somebody we literally used to live inside of, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out how to individuate from that person and still remain close," she says. "What are those challenges when we don't know who that person is we lived inside of; or when [the child] actually didn't live inside us?"
The film links three strangers struggling with that most primal of bonds. Washington's new mother Lucy is desperately trying to begin the relationship; another is running from it ( Naomi Watts as an ambitious lawyer who never knew her birth mother); and the other is finally coming around to reestablish it ( Annette Bening as an embittered nurse haunted by the guilt of giving up her baby years ago).
"You really see each of these women transform because of love: the love they discover, they open themselves up to or close themselves off from," Washington says. "These characters are all intriguing and lovable and incredibly flawed. They're all in pain. They're figuring out how to deal with that pain."
Garcia is known for his films centered on female characters, such as "Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her" and "Nine Lives." He certainly doesn't have trouble getting top-notch actresses to play the parts ( Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Robin Wright and Anne Hathaway are just a few to appear in his movies).
"The reason we all rush to play them is because as women, we usually play an addendum, a side note," Washington says. "We're a line of harmony but we're not the melody. So to be in a film where the stories belong to us, and the men are the supporting figures, it's a joy."
She says her own mother hasn't seen the movie yet but was invaluable in the process of exploring Lucy because of her own struggles in conceiving.
"She tried for many, many years to have me," Washington says. "She was very insightful about the feelings of wanting something and not knowing how to make it happen, particularly 30 years ago.
"I have a really good relationship with my mother. I love her, I respect her, I admire her. It's still really … complicated. It just is. It always is. That relationship encompasses a lot."
One of the actress' favorite moments in the movie expresses the power and mystery of that bond perhaps better than anything the filmmakers could have planned:
"We pushed our schedule because Naomi was pregnant. So the scene when the baby kicks — that's really Naomi's baby. They stole that shot before we shot the rest of the movie," she says. "I love it. Every time I see it, it's just so magical that it's really her. That's not some prosthetic, remote-controlled kick. That's Naomi and her baby."