Mr John David Washington On Tenet, Lockdown With His Parents And What Gives Him Hope
Despite being 36 years old and one of Hollywood’s hottest commodities, Mr John David Washington is living back at home with his parents and sleeping in his childhood bedroom. Such is the indignity of life during a pandemic. Is it one of those tiny, teen-appropriate, single beds? “Yeah,” he says laughing. “It definitely fits the bill.”
Mr Washington is giving me the tour on Zoom. Here is his Ms Aretha Franklin poster. And here is his Support Black Colleges poster. Over there are some family snapshots, including one of his mum while she was pregnant with him. And these are his action figures: a muscly black GI Joe, a Ghostbuster, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, plus a couple of his sports heroes, Mr Magic Johnson, Mr Danieal Manning and his favourite, Mr Randall Cunningham, one of the few African Americans to play quarterback. “He’s the reason I wanted to play football,” Mr Washington says of his first career as a running back in the NFL. “Seeing somebody at the quarterback position who looked like this was inspiring.”
Mr Washington didn’t plan on quarantining in Los Angeles. He lives in Brooklyn and his first instinct when cities started to announce shelter-in-place orders was to stock up on chicken from Whole Foods and ride things out there. But during a three-hour phone call, his agent talked about the world coming to an end and convinced him to fly west, so here he is in Beverly Hills, holed up with his parents, who just happen to be actors Mr Denzel Washington and Ms Pauletta Washington. “I’ve been loving it,” he says of having this family time together. “My folks are good housemates. They’re fun. I actually feel like the parent sometimes.” His three siblings, Ms Katia Washington, 32, and twins Mr Malcolm and Ms Olivia Washington, 29, live nearby in Los Feliz, and his cousins are close, too, so it’s been a blast (everyone in the family has been tested, he is quick to add). On 4 July, he spent hours grilling chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs for the extended clan. “I was the man,” he boasts.
He’s also been watching a lot of movies – The Battle Of Algiers, Bad Boys For Life, Cleopatra (“I’m a sucker for Liz Taylor”) – and, you know, just keeping busy. He doesn’t mention it at the time, but the next day I find out from the internet that he’s been making a movie in lockdown called Malcolm & Marie, co-starring Zendaya. That’s one definition of “keeping busy”, I suppose.
If Covid-19 hadn’t derailed things, he would be in the final stages of publicity for yet another movie, Mr Christopher Nolan’s enormous-budget, enormously anticipated Tenet, the release of which has now been postponed numerous times. That must be frustrating. “I mean, I’m human,” says Mr Washington. “I put everything into this film. You think it’s going to happen and they keep pushing it back. That can be disheartening. But it’s like your child. You want to send it to the best school, even if you have to wait a semester.”
It makes sense to wait. Mr Nolan’s films, which include Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy, are big-screen experiences that gross up to $1 billion at the global box office, an impossible sum to recoup with a digital-only release. Hollywood is counting on Tenet to lure audiences back into cinemas while using the film as a barometer for when to schedule other blockbusters, such as A Quiet Place Part II and Black Widow, that have been postponed since March.
Mr Washington won’t say anything about the plot of Tenet, but he does talk about his character (listed only as The Protagonist on IMDB), “a man of great integrity, a man I admire, a man who is ready to give his life for the people he is fighting with”. In other words, the kind of role that anoints leading men. Mr Washington’s pivotal role in Mr Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and smaller parts in indie films such as Monsters And Men made him a contender. Tenet will make him a star.
He came to the business late, but acting was always his ambition. He remembers poring over VHS tapes of “old movies” compiled by his uncle. Films such as 1986’s crime noir Band Of The Hand and Mr Jean-Claude Van Damme’s 1988 martial arts film Bloodsport. And anything with Mr Bruce Lee. “Then I’d go outside and try to re-enact them,” he says. “I was always taken by performance. I loved how it made me feel.” He recalls getting reprimanded for breaking his grandmother’s candles to use as nunchucks in pretend fight sequences with his cousin. “But we were being creative,” he reasons now.
Seeing his father’s 1989 film Glory was particularly galvanising. He memorised every line and was given his father’s costume, a Union Army Civil War jacket, as a gift one Christmas, which he then rarely took off. Why did that film mean so much? “The brotherhood for one,” he says of the African-American infantry unit at the heart of the film. “And we see [their white commanding officer] Robert Gould Shaw ripping up his paycheque in solidarity. He saw how wrong their treatment was. He saw their human qualities. As a six-year-old going to a private school, surrounded by people who looked like Robert Gould Shaw, there was great medicine in that film. Not everybody is what you think. There are some people who will see the human in me, the good in me, the person that I am. I just loved that. And I loved my father’s performance.”
“This kid sees an African-American man in a movie, he’s not looking at colour, he’s looking at what inspires him”
In his teens, however, Mr Washington turned away from acting. “I was related to Denzel Washington,” he says. “I saw how people changed when they found out who my father was. I used to lie, saying he was a construction worker or in jail, just to have some sense of normalcy. I felt like there was no way people would take me seriously, even if I was good. They would always judge me. So I hid who my father was. I guess I was protecting myself.”
Hoping to escape his father’s shadow, he went into an entirely separate career (where nepotism wouldn’t apply) and joined the NFL out of college. “And I kept getting jobs,” he says of his success. He was signed to the St Louis Rams and then the California Redwoods. “So, I was like, I’ll keep going. I’ll stay in character.” But with every triumph, he still got billed as Mr Denzel Washington’s son in newspaper headlines.
When an Achilles tendon injury ended his football career in 2013, he decided it was time to hang up his hang-ups and pursue his dream of acting. Within a year, he had landed his first major role in the HBO sports comedy Ballers. Mr Washington Snr’s advice was the same as it had always been: work extremely hard. “It doesn’t even guarantee you will make it, but if you don’t, you can almost guarantee that you won’t.” This is the Washington work ethic.
With a new kind of success beckoning, what kind of star does Mr John David Washington want to be and how does he want to use his platform? He points to the T-shirt he’s wearing, which has a sketch of the Tenet poster on it, drawn by his stylist, Ms Samantha McMillen’s six-year-old son. It’s the latest in a series of tees from his so-called “Dylan’s T-shirt club” (you can see the whole collection on Ms McMillen’s Instagram). “That’s the kind of impact I would love to have,” says Mr Washington. “This kid sees an African-American man in a movie, he’s not looking at colour, he’s looking at what inspires him. There’s so much medicine in these films. Hopefully, my work will speak for itself, like the early De Niros and Leonardo DiCaprios. Their work speaks for itself. That’s how I’d like to live.”
It’s a movie-star answer. Unassailable and all about the work. But given everything that’s going on in the world, I can’t help feeling he’s ducking an opportunity. Or a responsibility, depending on how you look at it. When we move onto knottier issues, however, he doesn’t shy away from speaking his mind. He’s played three police officers on screen. In Monsters And Men, he played a police officer who rallies behind two white officers caught shooting an unarmed black man on camera. When Mr Washington first saw the film, he broke down in tears. He couldn’t help judging his character.
When I ask what he learned from playing these roles and from going on ride-alongs in real-life patrols, which he did for all three, he turns the judgement on himself. “I realised I was racial profiling,” he says. “I was reacting to how I and people I know have been treated by police. If it happened to me on several occasions,” he says of being stopped, “they must all be like that. When I got examples of officers who are actually doing good in the community, it taught me not to generalise.” Given calls in the US to defund the police and protests that have sprung up across the country against systematic injustice and institutional racism in the police, this seems a remarkably restrained and even-handed position to take.
Similarly, on dealing with racism from football players on his own team, he talks in terms of conciliation, not rage. “I looked at it as an opportunity to help,” says Mr Washington. “Because this is learnt behaviour. You don’t know the backstory. Maybe they were beaten up when they were little, bullied by somebody who looks like me. They develop this hatred. So here they are having to work with somebody they have been taught to hate and they start seeing the human quality of a person.”
It’s not an approach you hear often these days – treating a racist with compassion instead of contempt and trying to bring them round to your side as if it were anyone’s job to educate them but their own. At the same time, who could doubt the real-world value of building bridges in order to change minds? Certainly, Mr Washington’s diplomacy isn’t born of naivety – it coexists with his very real sense of despair. “People been tired,” he says of the issue of racism in the US. “People been exhausted. I never put it to the side.” But now he chooses to emphasise the good.
On the subject of the Black Lives Matter protests, he sounds another note of positivity, echoing the theme of solidarity that so inspired him in the film Glory. “As an African American, what gives me hope about where we are going is the amount of people that don’t look like me on the front lines. I think they do actually have an understanding, a real understanding of what the problems are, the systemic issues. And they’re paying attention. I’ve got friends who don’t look like me in New York who have marched and are risking their safety. Not because it’s cool, not because they feel guilty. Because they are enraged. Because they feel like they’ve got to do something if they want real change for people who look like me. This is a war of attrition, but with these new optics, it feels like having an injection of electrolytes. That is extremely encouraging. I asked my folks and people who lived through the 1970s, was it ever like this? Was it this diverse? A lot of the answers were no. And that makes me very hopeful.”
Me, too. What was it he said earlier? There is great medicine in films. Right now, we need all we can get.
Tenet is out on 26 August (UK); 3 September (US)