John David Washington Is Living His Own Hollywood Dream

John David Washington
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John David Washington
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There were dozens of ways John David Washington envisioned 2020 playing out, yet strangely, getting up close and personal with Zendaya during a global pandemic was not one of them. But then, his life has never really gone according to plan.

Last year was meant to be his year. It certainly started off with excitement, a hum of anticipation just beneath his skin. Christopher Nolan had tapped him for the film Tenet, hot on the heels of his star-making turn in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. Hollywood was about to become his oyster. What could go wrong?

Famous last words.

Instead of offering its stars the chance to saunter down multiple red carpets as the toast of Tinseltown, Tenet — easily the most anticipated movie of the year — was delayed three times. When it did hit theaters, in August, it was with caution tape, a statement from parent company Warner Bros. that it was not being treated like a traditional global day-and-date release. Washington was understandably crushed.

“I had this whole idea that I’d be selling a Christopher Nolan movie all across the world and just getting welcomed with roses by everybody. Obviously, that shifted because of [the pandemic]. So at this point, I’m like, ‘Will I ever get to do this again?’” the 36-year-old actor recalls during our Zoom call in early January.

It didn’t help that, having fled his Brooklyn pad, he was currently camped out in his childhood bedroom back in L.A., despairingly sandwiched in between the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and G.I. Joe figurines of his youth. The loss felt on par with the moment he ruptured his Achilles tendon in 2013, abruptly bringing an end to his six-year pro football career; he was drafted by the NFL’s St. Louis Rams (now the L.A. Rams) in 2006 and, in 2009, signed to the United Football League’s California Redwoods (later the Sacaramento Mountain Lions). “I’m not very good at patience,” he says. “I have this sort of ticking clock in my head. Maybe that’s due to football, seeing that nothing is guaranteed. Maybe I’m shell-shocked from some of those experiences, like getting cut or working so hard to get your opportunity and it never comes. And I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m finally getting opportunities that I’ve been dreaming of my whole life, and this happens. Oh, man. This is not good. I’m done for.’”

But there was more: the fear and uncertainty that many of us felt, a despondency about the future. Washington wasn’t immune; he felt it, too. “I was thinking about my family in North Carolina, thinking about my family in New York and how many people were affected by this — their lives, their livelihoods, their jobs,” he says. “It was spiraling into, you know, that D word, which I won’t even say. I literally left New York thinking, ‘Well, this is I Am Legend about to happen. The zombie apocalypse is upon us. It’s over.’”

At first he planned on riding it out in New York. “I was going to hunker down. I thought, ‘This will last a month.’ I bought a whole bunch of chicken, was going to freeze it, like, ‘We’ll be good, we’ll be back to normal.’ And then my agent, god bless him, talked to me for two hours, telling me to get out of there. And I wanted to be with my mother, my siblings, the people I love the most. So I fled to Los Angeles in March, and I’ve been here ever since.”

And although he spent two and a half months living in his parents’ house, there was a silver lining. Had he not been in L.A., he might never have received the call that changed his perspective, career and, essentially, the future course of filmmaking.

Through the grapevine, he heard that Euphoria creator Sam Levinson, whom he had first met at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival while promoting Monsters and Men, was about to be blowing up his phone to discuss an ambitious new project. Needless to say, he was more than ready to make something — anything — happen.

John David Washington
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“I got wind that Sam was going to reach out to me. I was like, ‘I’m in.’ It really didn’t matter what he asked me to do. I wanted to work again. That there was an opportunity to maybe actually do a job was crazy. And it’s Sam Levinson, whom I’ve been a fan of [since his 2018 film Assassination Nation].”

It might not have taken much sweet-talking to reel him in, but Washington swears he would have signed on the dotted line solely based on the strength of the script and ambition of the project. Levinson laid it out, reading both roles in the two-part Malcolm & Marie, a dialogue-driven black-and-white indie drama about a romantic reckoning between a filmmaker and his girlfriend (played by Zendaya) after they return home from his movie premiere. It debuts on Netflix February 5.

“I thought, ‘This is music to my ears.’ I couldn’t believe what [Sam] was reading. But then I also started to get nervous because I just heard a lot of dialogue, no stage direction. I knew I had a lot to chew on, and I knew this was going to be a tremendous challenge. But at this stage in my life, that’s what excites me.”

But if he’s being honest (and really, he’s nothing but), there was one specific aspect of the shoot that was more of a trial something he really and truly had to endure. “I personally [hate] love scenes, kissing on set,” the actor admits. “I’m really uncomfortable with intimacy in front of the camera, for many different reasons. [I was like], ‘I can make this look good and sexy. Just watch — let me give you a take. I don’t even have to touch her.’” Basically, no nudity or heavy petting required.

Alas, he knew what the script dictated — just as much foreplay as fighting — and he knew what had to be done. (Even if that meant filming some awkward moments in front of his sister, Katia, who operated as the film’s health and safety warden, as well as a co-EP.) “Intimacy came from our desire to make this really as lived-in as possible. If [viewers] don’t believe us as a couple, then we’re going to lose all the connectivity of this story, and we’re done. We needed to make this work.”

And in the end, amorous anxiety aside, being the Malcolm to Zendaya’s Marie was a pretty enjoyable experience; he has nothing but good, glowing things to say about his co-star. “She’s such a beautiful individual,” he says. “She’s an incredible artist, and — I say this all the time — a generational talent. It was easy to just listen; a call and response, read and react, listen to your partner and she’ll show you the way. She and Sam are so simpatico. It was such an interesting experience to watch them create and talk and work together. I found myself constantly trying to catch up.”

He’s being humble. Washington and Zendaya were on equal footing: not only do they have equal billing, but both paid out of pocket to fund the project, serving as executive producers alongside Levinson and his wife, Ashley, Yariv Milchan and Michael Schafer (both of whom donated their proceeds to charity), Aaron L. Gilbert, Will Greenfield and Kid Cudi.

All took a big risk in name of the greater good: keeping Hollywood alive during the pandemic. At the time, in spring 2020, sets had been shut down. There were no real safety protocols in place; the future was uncertain. But their gamble paid off. Malcolm & Marie effectively became the first entirely Covid-free production — the first movie to be completely shot during the pandemic, as well as the first where none of the cast and crew contracted the novel coronavirus.

“It definitely felt like all eyes were on us,” Washington admits. “The industry was kind of looking to see if we were going to pull this off, so we felt a lot of pressure. [But] back against the wall is where I like to be. It brings out the best in me.”

So yet again, Washington tested his mettle and rose to the challenge. Failure was not an option. “Preparing for it, to me — where I was in my life — it felt like desperation. It felt like survival. Obviously, we were living in the unknown as a world, but in the industry specifically, I didn’t know if I’d ever get another chance at it. When I found out certain unions were on board and we were going to do this, putting down our own money and investing in ourselves, it felt like survival. So I prepared with this sort of desperate need and desire to get this [movie] as true and as correct as we could, to show the industry it’s possible to continue making films safely.”
This was a tight-knit crew, all with multiple duties outside of their norm. There was a mandatory two-week quarantine in Monterey, Calif., prior to filming, which took place between June 17 and July 2. Coronavirus testing was enforced before production began and again after it ended. Daily temperature checks were rigorous. Only one location was used — Carmel’s Caterpillar House, the first LEED Platinum custom home on the Central Coast — with the remote Hidden Valley Inn used as base camp. There were no more than 12 people on set at any time, and they wore protective gear. Craft services became a thing of the past; all food had to be individually wrapped. The stars were responsible for handling their own costumes. Without a movement coach, Washington had to choreograph his own opening-scene dance moves, digging “from many, many years of bar mitzvahs and weddings.” And he nails it.

They both do. It isn’t a surprise that the movie is already earning heaps of early Oscar buzz.

The Academy Award conversation is not one that Washington wants to have. He refuses to let himself get excited again. After all, early whispers also dictated a likely lock for 2018’s BlacKkKlansman, which did not result in a nomination for him. “I’ve been there before, and I’m good. I hope the proper people get recognized, and they usually do,” he says. “For me, the buzz is when, the day after I find out Spike Lee, Adam Driver and Barry Alexander Brown get nominated, I hear that Christopher Nolan wants to meet me and put me in his movie. It’s [when] you get that call from Sam Levinson, and he says he wants you to do [his film]. That’s what gets me going.”

And although L.A. was under lockdown at the time of our interview, in worse shape than the city he escaped, he stands by his choices — all of them. “The irony is, it’s now safer where my apartment is in Brooklyn than in Los Angeles. But I wouldn’t change the experience for anything, because if I was there, I wouldn’t have gotten to do Malcolm & Marie. I would never have been able to connect with people I consider to be good friends now: Sam Levinson, Ashley Levinson and [executive producer Kevin Turen]. I got to work with my sister, Katia, and my best friend [Dominic Miller, who incidentally also shot Washington for his Haute Living cover], who was a still photographer on [the film]. All of these things I’m a part of because I was in the right place at the right time.”

John David Washington
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So apparently, John David Washington is really good at making lemonade out of lemons. But mac and cheese? Not so much.
And that’s unfortunate, because what he wants more than anything in the world right now, at this very moment, is his mom Pauletta’s magic recipe. (He loves the dish so much that it even makes an unforgettable appearance in Malcolm & Marie.) There’s currently a batch chilling in the freezer of his rented L.A. digs, but there’s a big difference between reheating and the freshly made real deal.

“She makes the best mac and cheese on the planet, and I need to know how to make it. You would have thought I’d have picked up something living with her for two and a half months,” he laments. “2021 goals for real.”

Of course, he has loftier plans for the coming year, including maybe a girlfriend. Maybe. If he isn’t too busy working.
“It is totally vacant, my tree is totally empty. It’s bare. And maybe that’s a good thing. I think maybe it’s bringing out the best art in me,” he declares.

He’s worked so hard to defy the odds that Covid has forced into his career that we can understand why. And his ambitions are big. To start, he plans on crushing his next role (which he starts filming just days after our interview), in an untitled David O. Russell film co-starring Christian Bale and Margot Robbie. He’s also in the thriller Born to Be Murdered with Alicia Vikander, which releases later this year. And there’s possibly a play in his future. “There’s some stuff happening to make that dream come true,” he shares hesitantly, before adding with more conviction, “I have to get on stage. It’s a requirement. I will feel better about myself as an artist knowing that I’ve gotten up on stage. That’s my heart’s desire.” His fantasies include Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and Othello, as well as August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson.

But his real goal for 2021 is simple: “To continue to make films with people who love to make films; to be able to work with people who aren’t jerks. Because it is possible. With my last two projects, I worked with some people on the genius level, in my opinion, and they’re not jerks, they’re not mean, they’re not entitled — they were welcoming, inclusive and innovative. I’ve seen that it’s possible to be great and still work at a certain level, so that’s how I want to work now. That’s the goal. That, and, you know, maybe a girlfriend.”

Joking aside, when asked to expand, he does so willingly, continuing, “Just taking the arrogance out of a project or off a set really helps. Deflating this entitlement, this know-it-all thing with inclusion and the best idea in the room with humility, I think is what I’ve enjoyed the most. I’ve been very fortunate, between a Spike Lee, a Sam Levinson, a Christopher Nolan, a Reinaldo Marcus Green [Monsters and Men]; just good people making great work and creating an environment conducive to putting out the best product, telling the best truth we can. Because it’s important to me, what we do. We’re not as important as doctors or essential workers, people on the front lines, but I do feel there is importance in what we do: to provide entertainment and instill hope in people looking for an escape, looking for love, looking for mystery.”

If his intention is to entertain, he’s been doing so in spades since scoring his breakout role in HBO’s football-centric series Ballers, playing bad boy Ricky Jerret from 2015 to 2019 (though his film debut was actually alongside his father, Oscar winner Denzel Washington, in 1992’s Malcolm X). He returned to the big screen in 2017 in Lionsgate’s Love Beat Rhymes, opposite Common, and signed on to films such as Fox Searchlight’s The Old Man and the Gun with Casey Affleck and Robert Redford and All Rise with A$AP Rocky, Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson. Next, of course, came the film that started his grand ascension, BlacKkKlansman, which not only earned a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival (as well as the Grand Prix) but multiple nominations for Washington, including best actor nominations for both the Golden Globes and SAG Awards.

John David Washington
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Thus far, while he’s still ready to accept “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” he’s extremely grateful for the path he’s taken and doesn’t take it for granted — especially at this point in time. “I’m appreciative, and that’s why I work extremely hard and don’t rest until I get it right, because I know I’m so lucky to have these opportunities,” he says. “I know it doesn’t happen like this often, so I take it very seriously. I apply all that gratitude in the relentless pursuit of making things the best I can, making the best product I know how. I’m grateful that I get paid for this, that I can make a living doing it, but honestly, I would actually say I would pay to do this job, which I’ve actually done now with Malcolm & Marie.”

But then, he learned from the best. His mother (who reads each and every one of his scripts) has appeared in films like Philadelphia and series such as She’s Gotta Have It. And his dad is…well, he’s Denzel. In addition to helping John David land his earliest film roles — the aforementioned Malcolm X, 1995’s Devil in a Blue Dress and 2010’s The Book of Eli — he’s also provided some sage life and career advice: “‘Keep God first,’ and ‘If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.’”

He has taken both to heart. He respects and admires his father’s career, but will we see the two of them together on the big screen soon? Who knows? “Who’s refereeing?” Washington jokes. “No, obviously to be in any kind of production with Denzel Washington, who’s one of the greatest artists of all time and definitely my personal favorite, too, [would be incredible]. This is a man I highly revere. I’ve been watching him since I was a kid, of course, and he can do no wrong. He’s not into celebrity; he’s not into fame. He’s into what counts: the truth. I’m just a huge fan.”

That being said, he doesn’t want to ride on his father’s coattails. In fact, when he landed Ballers, he deliberately made a point of not capitalizing on the name Denzel Washington. He was doing it, and he was doing it on his own.

“You know, people are always going to associate me with my father, which is fine, but that’s why I didn’t do any press early during Ballers,” he confides. “I just wanted it to be about the work.” Viewers could make up their own mind about his character, Ricky; they could “love him or hate him, but whatever your opinions are, it has nothing to do with who the actor’s related to. Some people didn’t like it, some people connected with it. But at least they connected or didn’t for the performance, not the guy doing the performance.”
But as much as he can claim his adult acting career as his own, both his parents inspired the fantasy that would one day become his reality. “I daydreamed a lot as a kid. I remember my dad holding his [Oscar] statue up, shouting out his kids when he won during his speech, like ‘Kids, go to bed’ and things of that nature. I remember my mother and him dressing up to go to awards shows. I remember him coming home with red hair because he was getting ready for Malcolm X. I remember him walking me around New York spitting his Shakespeare lines and then seeing him with the mullet on stage, and it looked like a magic trick; he seemed like a different person. So I could always see myself wanting to do that, wanting to be an actor.”

His first aha moment came when working with Spike Lee…for the second time. “It hit me in a different way, because he had worked with my dad. At the table read in his office in Brooklyn — which is like a museum, really — there was this big poster behind me. It was from Mo’ Better Blues, which my dad starred in with Spike’s sister [Joie Lee]. I felt a lot of pressure, but I was also like, ‘Wow, this is kind of cool. I’m doing my dream. I’m kind of living it.’”

But it wasn’t until that Christopher Nolan call that he began to really believe in himself, really believe that his hard work had paid off.

“When Christopher Nolan asked me, ‘What do you think you’d like to do? Because we’ll adjust to you.’ When he said that to me, it was like, ‘Did Christopher Nolan just say he’ll adjust to me? Did that really just happen? I can’t believe it.’ That’s when I was like, ‘My wildest dreams are coming true.’ I could never see this specific thing happening, the dream I’m living happening. I didn’t dream this big.”

John David WashingtonPhoto Credit: Dominic Miller