"He asked me to read the part of the wife - demure, best-friend, good-natured type. As we're reading, I kept listening to the part of Nikki and thinking - that's the girl I want to play," she recalled. "She's fantastic, and I've never been able to do anything like that. So I said to Chris after the reading, 'If you make this movie, I really want to play Nikki.' "
Rock's reaction surprised her.
"He laughed at me. He was like, 'That's hilarious,' " said Washington. Rock, like a lot of people, in the industry, had always thought of her as the good girl.
"I always want to break conI play formity. I remember thinking, if the wife in this movie, I'm going to end up getting typecast as the cuckold wife my whole career, and what is that about? Not just as an actor, but as a human being. What am I projecting that makes people think of me in that way?"
She had a chance to change things up a bit in Spike Lee's "She Hate Me," a role that gave her a chance to be edgier, sexier. She saw Rock at the New York premiere.
"He walked right up to me and said, 'You know, you CAN play Nikki,' and offered me the part," Washington said.
She believes Rock can identify with her struggle to break free of preconceptions.
"Chris is such a go-getter. He doesn't wait for people to create things for him. He figured he'd never get a chance to play a leading man, so he made himself a leading man [in "Head of State" and now "I Think I Love My Wife"]. He's very determined and clear about what he wants, and he doesn't accept limitations," she said.
Washington had a bit of a tough time at a recent Q&A preview screening of "I Think I Love My Wife" at the Ritz at the Bourse, fielding questions from audience members who thought her character perpetuated negative stereotypes about black women.
"I understand where they're coming from. But to me, Nikki is not just the girl with the ass in the hip-hop video. She comes from somewhere and has a whole story, and I try to project that - her fear of being alone, her lack of self-respect," said Washington.
At the same time, she knows why African-American viewers are on guard against the misuse of certain images.
"The problem is, the media has always been used as a tool to disempower and limit positive images of African-Americans, so there's always going to be a concern that you're crossing the line," she said.
What you hope for, she said, is a balance.
"For me, that's a big reason why I accepted when L'Oreal approached me to be one of the faces for their new campaign. I wasn't really sure - I'm kind of down on consumerism - but I remember when I was a girl how important it was for me to see African-American women in positions like that." *
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