Film

Interview: BlacKkKlansman Star John David Washington Talks Movies as Football, Roles That Stay With Him and Learning from the Greats

In case you were wondering, actor John David Washington is about to become a very big deal. It will likely have very little to do (at least directly) with any help from his two-time Academy Award-winning father with the first name of Denzel.

After playing college football, a brief stint in the NFL (he refers to his position during this time as “professional bench-sitter”), and another short bit of football for NFL Europe (playing running back for the Hamburg Sea Devils), the younger Washington jumped at the chance in 2015 to play Ricky Jerret on HBO’s “Ballers” (which returns this Sunday night for its fourth season).

At Sundance earlier this year, he appeared in two powerful films: Monsters and Men, about the aftermath of a police killing of a black man, told from multiple perspectives; and Monster, the true story of 17-year-old honors student Steve Harmon, charged with felony murder. Washington isn’t the lead in either film, but it’s impossible to ignore the support he gives these weighty movies. At the end of September, he’s also set to appear in director David Lowery’s latest film, The Old Man & the Gun, co-starring with Robert Redford, who claims this will be his last role as an actor.

Blackkklansman

Image courtesy of Focus Features

Washington’s current starring role is in director Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman as Colorado Springs Police Officer Ron Stallworth (the first black officer in the city), who somehow managed to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan chapter (even becoming a candidate for head of the chapter) as part of an undercover investigation into possible terrorist activities being planned by the group in the 1970s. Stallworth did most of his infiltrating via the telephone—even becoming friendly with Grand Wizard David Duke—while fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (of Jewish descent, played by Adam Driver) took care of the in-person work, impersonating Stallworth and becoming more personally invested in taking down the Klan as the investigation went on.

The film is certainly one of the most important films of the year, and Washington manages to be both intense and very funny. I spoke to him when he was in Chicago recently. Please enjoy my talk with John David Washington…

I actually saw Monster at Sundance this year, so now I’ve seen your two movies, both of which are based on real events and seem to have relevance today. I’m wondering, at this point, if it’s driving you crazy that we’re not learning from history—that these movies can’t just be history lessons, they actually have to say “look how little things have changed”?

This is the business that I’m in, to be able to help remind people of what’s going on. But this story, I had a lot of people who missed this one, BlackkKlansman, so I was thrilled to be able to tell this story with Spike Lee and Jordan Peele and everybody in the movie. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

When you got this script—which you said, it’s almost like science fiction—what do you remember responding to initially? Was it terrifying you, the prospect of playing this character?

Yeah, it was scary, it really was. I was jolted by the language and what he had to say. I was saying it earlier, this is the language of hate though; that was his way in. This was how he made sure they trusted him, you know what I mean? As it goes on, seeing the work that he did and how it affected the city he protected, he’s a true hero, he and the detective bureau that helped him.

I think I read somewhere that Spike didn’t want you to meet Ron Stallworth initially.

Yeah.

And I’m wondering a) what did that do to you in terms of creating that character, and b) what did eventually meeting him closer to shooting—what did that bring to your portrayal that you otherwise wouldn’t have had?

What did it do? It made me anxious at first [laughs]. I’m like, “Spike, just let me get a conversation. Can I text him? I won’t even listen to him.” He didn’t want any of that. So I’m just going off of the book.

Why did he do that? Did he say?

I don’t know. Later on, he did tell me a day before we started, and this was after I did meet him, he said, “Remember, John David, Ron is not the Bible. In other words, I want you to bring your instincts to it, I don’t want you to turn that off, I want you to help tell this story, interpret this story.”

He wanted you to make it your own.

I guess that’s what he was saying. And that opened things up for me, and he was absolutely right.

So when you met him, did that change anything, or was it a formality at that point?

[laughs] Nope, it definitely changed a lot, because he’s an intense man, he’s a man with a purpose. He’s a good storyteller, I must say. He paints pictures very well with his words, so I got a wealth of information and got to get into the more personal life stuff—what he was feeling during those times, during the investigation, before the investigation when he was just a black cop in an all-white department. He was like the Jackie Robinson of police officers.

That’s a great line.

Yeah, I love that line. So what did that mean, and how did that make him feel.

Did you connect to him as a performer? Because that’s what he was doing, a performance.

I think so. And he told me how sting operations work, he had to have a backstory, he had to stick to it. Yeah, I think we have a lot in common. He would text me from time to time, “Stallworth brothers. Have a good day.” Yeah, he’s a performer in his own right. Except the pressure’s much, much more.

It’s life and death.

That’s what I was saying—they yell cut, and I go to my trailer. For him, they could yell cut  and that could be your life.

I love that he is doing this undercover work, but at the same time, he was having his mind opened up through the relationship with this woman [played by Laura Harrier]. He was living two lives that a lot of people didn’t even know about.

I love that, and you see a parallel storyline to Adam’s character as well, with him hiding what he had going on, too. I would characterize that or verbalize it this way: It’s like me, John David, I went to private school and then I went to a historically black college—I went to Morehouse College—and I learned so much more about my culture. Not that I wasn’t aware or woke, if you will, but just in more detail, I got to see and come into more information in that environment; it just did something to me. So I think it’s the same for Ron; that relationship just opened him. And he just liked the girl, too; I think he just fell for her. I think he fell for her passion, how passionate she was about a lot of things and how strong she was. And she saw that in him; he had to be strong on his side of the law.

When you’re preparing mentally for those scenes of you on the phone, beyond the voice, how do you even wrap your brain around the things you’re about to say to sell yourself as a white racist to David Duke? He is the litmus test for racism, basically.

I asked the same question of Ron, and he kept saying that “This is my duty, this is my job.” He was ambitious, so why not go to the top and call him? And he was able to get information out of him. Again, he had to use some language, hate language, to get that, to open that up, so, I understood that as the performer. This is the language I’ve got to use—if I’m speaking French, I gotta learn French, if I’m speaking Spanish, I gotta learn the language. This is the lay of the land, and I had to learn it. You had to commit to it, and, again, the stakes, what was at risk? People’s lives. When the department got behind him, he’s responsible for people’s lives, not just his own; he’s responsible for Patrice’s life now. There’s more at stake here, there’s no turning back at this point. You’ve got to fully commit to this thing.

Is it possible to walk away from making a movie like this and just leave it behind? I feel like these are things that would really linger.

With Monster, it was tough because he was…it was interesting being on that side, the gangster role. He was a product of his environment and a victim of the system. Walking away from the role, maybe I can do that, but the process is harder, it takes longer to walk away from. I live with the process longer than the actual role. I think about it, I go through my routine. I was in Newark for two weeks for that character and based it off of people there. With Ron, obviously, just talking to him and learning about what police officers do. That stuff stays with you for life, the stuff I learned.

What did you learn about being a police officer? You’ve played one a couple of times before.

Yeah, yeah. I learned a lot; I got to go on some ride-alongs, just really the risk [of the job]. It’s a thankless job, too; a lot of men and women doing their job out there that don’t get any credit for it, but they get the blame, unfortunately, for some of the people that aren’t doing their jobs very well. The risk, obviously; you’re putting your life on the line for a total stranger because it’s your job, because it’s, I guess, the American way. To be honest, I don’t know if I could do that. So I commend them, I take my hat off to them for being able to sacrifice on a daily basis—the ones who are doing their job the right way, who are truly there to protect and serve their community.

How is a Spike Lee set different than what you’ve done before?

Different than any other I’ve ever been on. You’ve really got to be on your game. We’ll mess around and get two scenes done, and he’ll ask to do something that’s supposed to be next week after lunch. So if you didn’t know the script, you’d be stuck. It’s like a football team—you know your playbook, just in case he calls audibles. And in those audibles, I think some of best stuff happens, the most organic stuff, the natural things happens, and he’s a master at understanding momentum and energy, and when the moment’s happening, you stay there, don’t move, let’s just stay with it, and it’ll help you be in that moment with him when you know your stuff and you’re prepared.

Are you still at a point in your acting career where you’re learning from some of the other, more seasoned actors that you’re working with?

All the time, all the time. I’m always searching and I admire everybody I’ve gotten to work with. All the time, it’s a learning experience. With the director, especially these last couple of movies, with Reinaldo Marcus Green in Monsters and Men and Spike, for sure, David Lowery as well, learning how to tell stories, and that there’s more than one way to get to the truth, and that was an eye-opening moment for me. These are men I got to work with, that believe in the process, that don’t skip steps, and that was the most important thing. So I’m still learning my process, I got some stuff that’s working for me, but I’m always looking to evolve, to continue to grow.

Let me bounce a couple names off of you: Adam Driver, who has a really interesting process. What do you learn about acting from working next to him?

Intense. Again, like with Spike, if you’re lying, if it’s false, he’ll let you know. But not tell you that was whack or anything like that, but when you’re in the scene, I feel like he was looking at me like, “You don’t believe in what you’re telling me right now.” “Damn, Adam, you’re right.” That’s my inner monologue, by the way. “On this second take, Adam, I’m going to tell the truth again, I’m sorry.” And Topher [Grace, who plays David Duke] as well, he was able to ad-lib and improv, and we were on the phone, too, but we actually got to hear each other.

I was going to ask, could you actually hear each other?

Yeah, they set up a speaker and the whole thing, and it activates these real-life moments that we were able to capture. And Laura, she really felt like this college student, passionate about her cause. She really got into that, and I just felt for her and everybody. Watching Corey’s [Hawkins, who plays activist Kwame Ture] speech—he delivered, that brother there.

I believe someone would be transformed by that speech, the way he delivered it.

For sure, I believe the audience will be in that together. I was really affected by it, and god bless Spike, he used that to show some wake-up moments that Ron has, that was real.

He lets that scene go long, too. It just keeps going until you realize “Oh, we’re supposed to be listening to this and taking it in.”

Yeah, pay attention. Pay attention!

Here’s another name: Dwayne Johnson. You actually have a working relationship with him. What do you learn from him, maybe it’s more than acting?

I was going to say, it is definitely more than just acting. He is the busiest man on the planet, and he still has time to take a picture with a total stranger. He still has time to say hello, so that shows me it doesn’t matter how big you get—whether it be physically or this superstar—you have time for the people, because that’s who you’re doing it for. And that’s what I’m doing it for. I love that he’s a humble king, and I really appreciate that.

What do you carry with you that you picked up from your father, strictly as an actor?

As an actor, I picked up a work ethic. He taught me how to hunt, which is not strictly as an actor I’m talking about life stuff. But as an actor, just know your stuff.

Has he seen the film?

No, he hasn’t, not yet.

Are you nervous about that?

No, because my mom saw it, so I’m good.

Especially with the relationship he’s had with Spike over the years.

Well, he didn’t know I was doing this, not until later. So he didn’t hand nothing to me. Spike was the one who brought me in.

Let me ask you about this David Lowery film. Who do you play in The Old Man & the Gun? This is supposed to be Redford’s last movie.

That’s what they say. I play a detective, and we’re on a chase. We’re trying to hunt him down, trying to hunt down Redford, Casey [Affleck] and myself. Every day on set that I got to work…actually, on my off day, I went to go see Redford, Danny Glover, and Tom Waits work. Talk about learning, that was a master class. I got a wealth of knowledge from that. It was amazing. They were talking about improv. Before takes, they would tell stories and actually jump right into it as if they were still telling stories; it was amazing. Again, just how calm and poised and seasoned they are, that’s what I really appreciated.

BlacKkKlansman got so embraced at Cannes this year. What was that experience like for you?

It felt like the Super Bowl.

I told someone, look, Europe doesn’t like us right now. This movie validates that in a way. How was that experience for you?

My expectations…I’ve heard the horror stories of walking out and booing. I feel like I’ve heard they throw fruit and stuff. I’ve heard the worst, so to get that sort of embrace, it felt like a true win. I was happy for Spike, though. They seem to get him over there. They seem to really support him, and it felt like, once I got there, they were rooting for him, too. They truly connected to this film. Afterwards when we were doing Q&As, they seemed to be passionate about what they saw and passionate about their questions: “How do we solve racism. How do we come together,” and I was like, “I’m the wrong guy to ask; I just act.” I just loved that they were passionate about it.

You’re going to become a touchstone for this issue. People are going to ask you questions like that.

They should ask Spike. I don’t know if you saw that press conference, but they should ask him.

What do you want people thinking and talking about when they come out of this movie?

How powerful words are. How hatred sounds. So if it sounds like that, what is the inverse? How do we remedy that? What is the connective language, what is the unified talk? How does that sound? What does it sound like? Is it through music—obviously it’s with words. But how does it sound?

John David, best of luck. Thank you so much.

Thank you, man.

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