As I enter the room, John David Washington is near the window seated comfortably on a lounger, and he’s quiet. The breakout star is staring introspectively out of the window onto the sunny street overlooking Central Park. As I step through the threshold of the room, Washington smiles and stands. Ever the gentleman, he greets me and gestures toward another chair waiting for me to be seated before he takes his seat once more. For someone who grew up on the sidelines of the entertainment industry, there’s no air of Hollywood entitlement about him.
At 34, Washington is ready to step into the spotlight; this is what he’s been working toward his entire life. In his role in the latest Spike Lee joint, BlacKkKlansman, the Morehouse College alum stars as Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan and thwarts a deadly attack on the city’s black community. The moment Lee called Washington for the role, the actor knew he would be in good hands. “Working with Spike definitely exceeded my expectations,” he said. “How inclusive he was as a director; how sharing he was; how much he trusted me — this is Spike Lee. He wants what he wants, but he also wants what you got. If he wants what you got, then he allows you to give it to him, and that kind of trust from a legend like that, I’ve never had before on set. That was super encouraging for me and made me feel so much more comfortable and confident to deliver for him. I was calling him Mr. Lee for a couple of weeks; he’s like, ‘Stop calling me that. I’m Spike.’ I was like, ‘Alright Mr. Lee. I’ll call you Spike, Mr. Lee. Sorry, Mr. Lee.'”
The pressure that came with working with Lee along with continually comparing Washington to his very famous father, another muse of the Do the Right Thing director, were just two aspects of this job with which the Ballers actor had to contend. Washington was also stepping into someone’s life. Ron Stallworth is real and very much alive. “The table read was when we really got to talk, and [Ron] passed around his KKK membership card,” Washington remembered. “We talked a lot there, but then every week we were on the phone. I was hounding him. He began telling me about what it’s like being a cop—what to look for, where to stand, how to know where the exits are, just all that tactical stuff. Then we started talking about the motivations and what he experienced in his life. We discussed where his beliefs came from, the foundation of who he was, and his family. I also shared some stuff about me with him, too. It became this counseling relationship between the two of us.”
With Lee leading him into the narrative and the real Ron Stallworth anchoring him in the story, Washington began to embrace the period. The 1970s were a dark and hopeful time for black folks in this country. It was a time for mourning, self-discovery and revolution; Washington was adamant about embracing it all, even the grim aspects. “I didn’t wanna shake it,” he said referring to the dark elements of BlacKkKlansman. “I needed it. However, I also believe that because I’m a man of God and I believe in human decency, that we can somehow overcome. At the moment, though, I needed the darkness because that’s what Ron did. He had to go to sleep with this. I was encouraged because I knew this performance would mean something. We were in the hands of Spike Lee and Jordan Peele; it was in responsible hands, creative hands. None of this stuff would be wasted or cheapened.”
In BlakKkKlansman, Washington also had to rely on his co-stars to make sure Stallworth’s story was told with all of its nuances and varied dimensions. In the film, Adam Driver plays Flip Zimmerman, a seasoned Jewish detective whom Ron wrangles into helping him with his investigation of the KKK. With a gleaming afro and dark brown skin, Ron works to infiltrate the organization over the phone, while Flip plays Ron in person. The pair would have to work to become two halves of the same coin. “I basically stalked him,” Washington laughed when discussing his bond with Driver. “I would call him all the time, and he was resisting; he didn’t want to be my best friend until later. Adam’s great. I think he’s a fantastic actor. He is one of the best, and he really pushed me to be my best at all times. I think he was trying to see what I do. I think that’s how the role was; I was the rookie in the film. That real trust that was happening day in and day out after rehearsals, and every day off set, just flowed naturally when they yelled ‘Action.’ So I think it worked out beautifully.”
Washington’s journey on to the silver screen was not an accident. In fact, this was his plan all along. After all, it’s in his blood. “I wanted to do it my whole life,” he said, pointing out of the window. “Shakespeare in the Park, right out there, I was five years old, or four. My dad did Richard the III, and I remember him reciting his lines. We’d walk around the city sometimes, and he’d recite his lines. In Harlem, my mother would play the piano. She could just play a Beethoven number or any one of the things people know to play without the music; she had it memorized. She had been doing it since she was eight years old. She was in pageants and competitions as a kid. She claims she can’t swim or rollerskate because she missed a lot of her youth since she always had to practice. So it was about the craft, and that’s what I related to. I loved how they prepared and how they interpreted music, and art, and film and theater. It was second nature to me. [My parents] didn’t force it on me; it’s just what I saw. Even getting together with family, how they told stories, and got loud and laughed, yelled.”
The fame and the constant glare of the spotlight are what caused Washington to detour off the acting path for a moment. His resentment of his father’s mega-fame led him to seek solace on the turf of the football field. “My dad started to get famous,” he reflected. “I never felt like he was trying to get famous. My mom never advocated fame or talked about being famous. He was just getting popular, and I saw we were getting treated differently, and I was getting treated differently. The anxiety, resentment and anger from that, I was able to put into football. I used it to show people that I’m my own man. I was able to withstand all these injuries that I had to play with because independence motivated me. When I grew out of that, I was able to grow into acting.”
With his NFL and UFL career in his rearview, Washington began stepping into the entertainment industry choosing roles in films like Monster, Monsters and Men and now BlacKkKlansman. He’s telling important stories through art, but he’s adamant that our elected officials, not entertainers, need to be doing the heavy lifting. “We need our politicians,” he said. “They’re responsible for being the voice of people, especially the people that look like us. They have to. As an artist, I just want to be able to tell the stories of the people that can’t tell their stories. So it’s an honor to be able to do it, but I can’t say that the goal is to talk for them. In the entertainment business, it’s not always truthful stuff. There’s some light stuff I like to do; I like to explore all kinds of things. But I want people to feel something from a performance, from a film or a show that I’m on. If I can inspire one person, I did my job. That’s what I do want.”
Now, standing in the midst of his destiny, Washington has some big plans for the future. “Definitely theater,” he declared when I asked him what he wants to conquer next. “I want to do The Taming of the Shrew, and I wanna make that a movie if I could. I also want to work with directors that are just as enthusiastic as I am. I want to work with visionary directors that are masters at filmmaking and believe in the process of filmmaking and creativity. That’s the goal for me because I’ve got so much more to learn. I’m here to learn. The last three movies I did, I learned so much from the directors, and that’s what I want to keep doing for now.”
BlacKkKlansman debuts in theaters August 10, 2018.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.