'I don’t mind the questions - I’m used to the questions' - John David Washington talks being the son of Denzel and forging his own path in Spike Lee's Blackkklansman
The actor had his first role in Spike Lee's Malcolm X as a child but pursued a career as a pro-footballer before returning to acting. He tells Independent.ie about research, working with Spike Lee, infiltrating hate, and following in his father’s footsteps…
John David Washington is having a bit of a moment. The 34-year-old American actor – son of Oscar-winning film-maker, Denzel Washington – takes the lead in Spike Lee’s triumphant, award-winning drama, BlacKkKlansman, released in cinemas this Friday.
Directed by Lee, and co-produced by Get Out’s Jordan Peele, the film tells the incredible true story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department who, in the 1970s, went undercover to infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. It is every bit as outrageous as it sounds, and, for John David Washington – a pro-American football player-turned-actor, who stars as Stallworth – it represents his first major leading role in film.
Washington is also a series regular on HBO’s Ballers, opposite Dwayne Johnson. He’ll next be seen alongside Robert Redford in The Old Man & the Gun. Like we said, he’s having a bit of a moment. Independent.ie caught up with the man to talk research, working with Spike Lee, infiltrating hate, and following in his father’s footsteps…
We read that your casting in BlacKkKlansman started out with a surprise text message from director Spike Lee. Is this true - and, if so, what did the text say?
“It is true, and it said, ‘Yo, this is Spike. Call me’. The thing is, I’d never heard from Spike via cell phone, so I had my reservations. So, I’m in my head now, ‘Do I text him back and say ‘OK’? Do I text him back and say alright, Imma call you? Or do I just follow the instructions?’ So, I followed the instructions, and thank God, it was him…”
While researching for the role, you met with the real Ron Stallworth. How important an experience was this?
“It was instrumental. It was the key component to being as authentic as possible. And I also needed to talk to him, so I didn’t have to, like, try to mimic, based off what I saw online, and what I was reading. I wanted to catch the spirit of this man. I wanted to be able to tell the story through, you know, the spiritual foundation of what he was actually going through - let alone being a cop, but what it was like being a black man in those times, you know what I mean? It was so important that I was able to spend time with him...”
It is an extraordinary film, and one that plays havoc with the viewer’s emotions. Sometimes, it’s funny; sometimes, it’s frightening. Were there any scenes that you found particularly difficult to shoot?
“Yeah, the banquet scene, when Ron is working security detail for David Dukes – those were tough days. I mean, seeing the motorcycle gang, being with them, just being surrounded by all this hate – and the environment created by Spike Lee, it felt so real, I mean, I felt like we were in a time warp. It was a tough day. I actually called Ron after that scene and told him how much I admired the man, and told him that, ‘You’re a real American hero – because you were looking death in the eye, man’.
"I mean, danger and death were just permeated throughout that building, and it was in every corner, it could have happened at any moment, and he was steadfast - he was cool, calm, collected. He was a professional, he didn’t get too emotional. I mean, me, John David, I was getting a little emotional, and I had to keep that down and at bay for the integrity of the character. So that was a tough day – I commend him for it.”
Did you and your cast mates, Topher Grace and Adam Driver, have any sort of rituals to break the tension after shooting these scenes?
“All the cast, we were cracking dirty jokes, we were getting real ‘actory’ weird, we were on some thespian weird game stuff, because we had to, to break the tension - we had to, because everybody did a great job – a phenomenal job, acting. They were in it, they didn’t play into any caricature of anybody, they were playing human beings that believed this stuff - believed this crap. So, because this crap that we had to play so truly, we had to truly be as silly as possible off-screen or when they yelled cut, just to keep that balance, and I think that was great and it bonded us even more.”
The film premiered at Cannes, where it won the Grand Prix jury prize. Were you nervous when you took your seat in the theatre that night?
“You bet your bottom dollar I was nervous! I didn’t know what to expect. I was trying to manage my expectations, as they say, to expect the worst. I know that seems like a morose way of thinking, but I was trying to protect my heart. But actually, in doing that, when it got the reception it did, it probably heightened it even more, it probably just gave it even more juice of joy and emotion. I held it together till I got to the car, then I started crying like a little kid! But that was just overwhelming, man, I mean, it’s a big spectacle, it’s an event, man.
"You walk that red carpet, you know, I’ve never been to the Oscars or Golden Globes in a position where it’s the film I’m in, you know what I mean? So, it’s a film I’m in, with these cast mates - the attention is on you, so it felt like the pressure was on before we got in there, like, ‘Oh, they’re excited to see Spike Lee, they love him’, I was like, ‘Oh man, if we crash, we gonna crash hard.’ And it was quite the opposite. So, we partied like rock stars afterwards - and we deserved it.”
You’re getting a lot of questions about your family - particularly your father, Denzel Washington – on this promotional tour. Is this something that you’d expected? Is it something that you’re okay with, or does it get a bit annoying?
“Well, see, you’ve gotta be professional. Who would I be if I complained about having a father that provided for me? Who would I be if I was complaining about having a father who loved me? That would make me a real jerk. So, I don’t mind the questions - I’m used to the questions. And all I gotta do is be honest about it. So, yeah, it’s happening a lot, but it’s happened my whole life, you know what I mean?
And I’m lucky – I’m a lucky child because I had two parents that were there for me and believed in me and taught me what was right from wrong. You know, there’s a lot of men, that look like me, from different parts of the globe, that didn’t have that, that didn’t have that advice given to them, that didn’t learn right from wrong. So that’s why I’m lucky.”
Your parents are both artists. Did they have any advice or words of wisdom to offer you ahead of your first leading role?
“Yeah, ‘Keep God first in everything you do - and don’t mess up’.”
You had your first acting role, as a child, in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X back in 1992. And then you focused your attention on football. Was it intentional, then, that you’d play football for as long as you can, but that you always had it in your head to return to acting at a later stage?
“That’s pretty good there, brother - that’s kind of what happened. What was happening, too, was I started getting successful at football. I realised, ‘Oh, I might have something here’. Not only am I getting credit and praise and love from people that was about me and not about my father, it was for my hard work and my accomplishments on the field, that I was getting recognised for.
"So it started that I was building this character - I was building this shield of protection, of anxiety and resentment, of people treating me a certain way, because they think, you know, it’s nepotism, because they think that I had my life handed on a silver spoon… so football gave me this freedom, this sort of liberating feeling of, ‘I am my own man, hear me roar’. All the while, I’m burying what I truly wanted to do. But in a way, I was in character for a long time, you know, and I finally got to come out, and I’ve never been happier.”
Have you had time to reflect on director Boots Riley’s recent Twitter letter, about his feelings towards BlacKkKlansman? (The acclaimed film-maker of indie hit, Sorry to Bother You, has taken issue with the film’s narrative, its politics and its marketing methods…)
“I saw his film, and it was ground-breaking, it was a new idea, you know, he is a fantastic director, and I wish nothing but the best for him, God bless him. But we’re all standing on the shoulders of Spike Lee - everybody, he included. Spike Lee is a master of tone, so basically, if he wants to do something, he should do it, and Imma listen. I feel like because he’s a master of tone, he knows what the film needs, he knows what it didn’t need. We didn’t need to add to the ridiculousness of this story - the hilarity is in the ridiculousness of this story and how [Ron] was able to pull that sting operation off. So, a smart director, one that is confident in himself, one that knows how to tell stories, knows where the money is. And Spike did. “
You’re having quite the moment in your career – and you have three more films slated for release in 2018. How do you stay grounded?
“Listen, I pray every day. I’ve failed a lot, you know, in football, and I’ve gone on a lot of auditions, been told no, been told I’m not right, so I know what failure feels like. It’s about the work. At the moment, I guess I kind of got blinders on - I do actually need to work on enjoying this time, and really taking it in. There’s a bit of me that always feels like, ‘What’s next? How can I get better?’ People are feeling this now, that’s great, I really appreciate that people connected to this, but I gotta get better as an artist.”
Finally, if there is one thing you’d like audiences to take away from BlacKkKlansman, what would that be?
“The language of hate – how we sound as human beings, how primal we can be, and we’re posing as this sort of sophisticated, elitist group of people that think we know everything, and think that we are connected and united in the United States, but we are not. And hopefully we can inspire, through this film, somebody to find out whatever the medicine is, whatever the remedy is, whatever the language is, to stop this bleeding, and sort of pull us together – or, at least, point us in the right direction. And I’ll be ready to follow that person…”
BlacKkKlansman is in cinemas from today, Friday August 24.