'Grey's Anatomy' Actor Touts Investing in Africa

Actor Isaiah Washington, from the TV series Grey's Anatomy, discusses his search for family roots and his plans for investing in the West African nation of Sierra Leone.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is News and Notes.

Each week, millions of viewers tune in to ABC's hit medical drama, Grey's Anatomy. Award-winning actor, Isaiah Washington, plays the cardio-thorasic surgeon, Doctor Preston Burke. Now, Washington is using the investment knowledge he developed as a struggling actor, to help the West African country of Sierra Leone. Washington describes the leap of faith that led to the role of a lifetime.

Mr. ISAIAH WASHINGTON (actor on TV series Grey's Anatomy): The leap was a very long one, here in LA, but I was prepared for it. Burke was a character that I've had on the horizon. And actually, I actually explored that world when I did a film called Dancing In September. But before that, what you saw on the big screen—I was often, as the money grew, and the studios grew, the characterization for me, got smaller—in scope and in depth. But what I always tried to do, was meet the challenge, and pretty much go toe-to-toe with the producers to try to make those characters a little bit more multidimensional.

At a certain point I just grew tired of it and I stepped out on faith. I stepped out on my strategy in terms of investments, and I sat on the sidelines for about a year, year and a half. And I became even more choosy with the kind of roles that I was going to participate in, just to keep a cash flow going.

And I just kept waiting, I kept waiting, and planning and strategizing, and sure enough, after I did Hollywood Homicide, I realized, okay, that's it. I'm going to step out and look at television.

They gave me ten scripts that were the hottest scripts at the time, Desperate Housewives, Lost, and what was called The Surgeons, which is now Grey's Anatomy, was in that lot. And I initially went in for the Patrick Dempsey role, but obviously ABC was not ready for that level of interracialness. And Patrick was cast and I was passed over.

Then they called me again and they said no, we want you to show up at rehearsal. The guy they had cast as Preston Burke, the actor had stepped down. And he was a very short Jewish man.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

So, it's now a situation where there's publicity photos, you're on the cover, you're certainly not a second string character. You have helped make this show what it is. And, in turn, you made some decisions that helped your life be what it is today.

Tell us more about investing. How did you get a passion for that? That's what allowed you to survive when you didn't want to take roles that you didn't want to take.

Mr. WASHINGTON: I knew early on, when I got here and had my first son, I realized there's a little bit more I have to do outside of this industry that's going to give me a foundation. And I got a book; it's called The First Book of Investing, or The Book on Investing. But I read that book twice, from cover to cover, trying to understand and not be intimidated by The Wall Street Journal.

And I got bearings, and I had Wall Street Journal coming to my home, and I studied them like I was studying any class. And I got involved with a brokerage, what I call Chuckie Schwab, fondly, Charles Schwab, and the broker was very patient with me. Any questions that I had, he was very supportive. And he pretty much helped guide me through the kinds of stocks I could actually afford, through, by using my residuals.

CHIDEYA: And residuals are the…

Mr. WASHINGTON: Oh, residuals are residual payments from my prior films.

I said, you know, let me take this cash and start investing. And I did just that. I started investing in certain commodities, water, power, storage.

CHIDEYA: How many areas of expertise do you have? You've got acting, engineering degree, investing, and now, looking at creating new venues for Sierra Leone. You've got a lot on your plate.

Just start us off by telling us how you became interested in Sierra Leone.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Well, how I became interested in Sierra Leone was, quite frankly, February 12th, 2005. I became born again.

I was given an opportunity to receive an award at the Pan African Film Festival in 2005. And Mosa(ph) and Babbul(ph) reached out to me and said, in addition to that, we would like you to take a DNA test, and I pretty much bristled and said no. I mean I have the same misconceptions as the most average person in this country, particularly African-American male about, no, I'm not giving up something that can quite easily be, fall into the government. And once I did my due diligence, I realized that there were a kind of personal genetic history company that does not have any affiliation with the forensics or any military companies, organizations, or government, where they could be subpoenaed and have access to this database.

But according to Dr. Rick Kittles, who designed this database in the last ten years to actually pinpoint African-Americans to their tribes on the continent…

CHIDEYA: But you found out some interesting things about your…

Mr. WASHINGTON: I found out that I share ancestry on my paternal side with the Umbundu out of Angola, and in taking the maternal lineage test I found out that I shared ancestry with the Minday(ph), which is why I'm going back to Sierra Leone. And what I'm negotiating with my documentary, it's not only addressing my spiritual journey back (unintelligible), but also addressing trying to set up a business there with Oracle or Motorola. Just get that country back on its feet, because it has the largest recourses in the world, but the people are only, you know, making one or two dollars a day.

CHIDEYA: Kanye West's song, Diamonds from Sierra Leone brings up the whole issue of diamonds. Is the issue to sort of end how America is addicted to the bling, or to make sure that when things are sold, that they're sold properly.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Yeah, to make sure that the, you're not going to stop people…there's a one percent markup that's worth billions of dollars. You're not going to stop people from wanting diamonds. That's why he had the conflict diamond issue, because of the atrocity that was allowed to happen because so many corporations were benefiting from it, so many cartels were benefiting from it.

The diamonds are not blood diamonds themselves. It's the people that want to abuse the individuals and enslave them to work for free. That's the issue. What I'm talking about is, I don't have a problem with businesses coming into Sierra Leone, my country, to mine diamonds. Just mine them properly, and adhere to the proper standards.

CHIDEYA: Well you certainly have goals and ambitions that you have already achieved, and then, you also are ambitious about giving back. You're working on raising awareness of narcolepsy, working with the Los Angeles regional Food Bank, water safety for kids, and you have a family of your own.

How do you deal with all that? Plus a new film, the Amateurs?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Yes, that's coming out, I think this May. You know, time management. (Laughs)

CHIDEYA: Help me out with that.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Time management.

CHIDEYA: Isaiah, I really want to thank you. You've got a lot going on.

Isaiah Washington portrays Dr. Preston Burke, Grey's Anatomy airs each Sunday on ABC.

Thanks for joining us.

Mr. WASHINGTON: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

KANYE WEST (rap artist): (Singing) ‘til I seen a picture of the shorty omelet, and here's the conflict. It's in a black person's soul to rock their goals. Sing your whole life trying to get you that ice. In the Polaroid gee you look so nice. How can something so bomb make me feel so right? Right. Boy I beefed myself up like Ike. You can feel like you're Rockefeller diamond (unintelligible). Throw your diamonds in the sky…

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