In Hollywood, it can often be a savvy career move for an actor to break bad. After all, the villains get to have all the fun, with supersize personae that toss out witty retorts slathered with evil relish. But there’s a difference between dastardly baddies like Calvin Candie or Silva and John Allen Muhammad, the real-life Beltway Sniper who terrorized suburban Washington, D.C., a year after 9/11, murdering at least 10 random people with the assistance of his young disciple, Lee Malvo. Their crimes were ruthless and indiscriminate, and after they were caught, convicted — and Muhammad was executed — the explanations only made their actions more horrific. This wasn’t a man who wanted redemption, and to play him on screen demanded a selfless surrender to a blanket of darkness.
Enter Isaiah Washington, most famous — and infamous — for playing Dr. Burke on Grey’s Anatomy. Since exiting the show in 2007 following some crude ill-conceived comments, he encountered what almost seemed like professional purgatory. “I’ve been in a world that is so far from Los Angeles that it’ll blow your socks off,” he says. But in Blue Caprice, which premieres at next week’s Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 19, Washington returns and resurrects the cold-blooded menace that he once demonstrated in Out of Sight, Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 jailbreak thriller in which he played Don Cheadle’s demented right-hand hatchet-man. His Muhammad, however, is much more nuanced and thus more unsettling. Informally adopting and manipulating the impressionable Malvo (Everybody Hates Chris‘ Tequan Richmond), Washington’s character’s boiling frustration cultivates a young killer who will do anything to please his “father.”
Below, in addition to an exclusive look at the film’s poster, the 49-year-old actor explains the challenge — and personal risk — of playing such a diabolical character.
What was your initial reaction when you were asked to play John Allen Muhammed?
I’ll be honest, it scared the bejesus out of me. But I wasn’t looking for it. The last thing I was looking for was Blue Caprice. They found me on Facebook. And through a stroke of luck and serendipity I happened to check my Facebook email and saw a last kind of reach-out email with a personal letter from Alexandre Moors insisting that they didn’t want to call anyone else but me to offer this role. And I didn’t know what they heck they were talking about. So I picked up the phone and called, and they said, “We’ve been trying to find you for a month. We have a script based on what we think led up to the attacks of the D.C. sniper attacks in 2002.” I went, “No. Oh no.” [Laughs] I don’t think so.
I had so many biases and prejudices, being an African-American. I remember when I found out the sniper was an African-American and had this young boy with him, and I was horrified and embarrassed to be an African-American father. It pissed me off! That this dude, who looked like a normal human being, could do this. I remember it like yesterday. You couldn’t have told me back in 2002 that I would be portraying this monster.
Well, what changed your mind?
I found myself very intrigued by the personal letter, the heartfelt letter that I received from Alexandre. So I googled his name and I found myself on his creative website. I saw the video that he — well, purportedly was just a creative consultant on but I think he had a lot to do with the direction of it — Kanye West’s “Runaway.” It just blew my mind. I showed it to my kids. I watched it all week. His other shorts, and videos, and commercials – one was so significantly different from the other. I just said to myself, “My God, this man has an extraordinary range and grasp of the art of filmmaking.” And I said yes, before I ever read the script, based on “Runaway.”
Next Page: ‘I went too deep.’
So they found you on Facebook… and you agreed to play a serial killer without reading the script. That’s pretty bold.
That’s how I’ve decided to run my life. This time around, let the right project find me. And I’m not going to judge people, I’m not going to question. I’m going to feel my way through it like a blind man this time around. If it’s right, it’s right. If it’s wrong, we’ll all know it in the end.
I imagine to play any character, even one as hideous as John Muhammad, an actor has to find an empathetic perspective. Where do you start?
What I thought was interesting was that this character actually believed that he was a superior father, and felt betrayed because the reality that, whether he admitted it or not, his shortcomings led to his children being taken away from him. Which essentially sent him on this killing spree eventually. But the cause of that, from what Alexandre and I could figure out, was some deep arrested development. He reaches a tipping point because he wasn’t suited to handle certain situations like a healthy adult would. I realized this guy didn’t start out being a monster. Something happened. That’s where I launched my connection to the character.
The guy was an illiterate. He was a sergeant in the Army for several years and was completely illiterate. He was married, he had children, and no one knew this man was illiterate. Now imagine this guy in the Persian Gulf War, being a combat engineer, at the top of his game, a pure leader, and the guy was illiterate. How did he do that? So like any other part, I became really interested in how a man could pull this off, could trick so many people.
And then tell his wife that he was inspired by 9/11 and that those attackers were basically idiots and he could do it better. One of the first things that got my attention after reading more about him was how he was torturing his wife by killing people within a 20-mile radius, a perfect circle around her home, and [her] knowing that he could have gotten to her but he just wanted to torture her for taking his kids? That’s insane.
Were you able to leave the character on the set, or was it difficult not to bring him home with you?
Unfortunately for Blue Caprice, I went too deep. The biggest fear in my life is not being credible, of someone looking up on screen or up on stage, pointing at my work, and going, “You know what? I don’t believe that guy.” That has been my driving force for 25 years. With this one, I didn’t fall in love with the character but I fell in love with the obsession of being authentic. So I kind of put myself in a Stockholm Syndrome. I would go on the Internet to read peoples’ comments, stories, and articles about the real John Allen Muhammad. It was a dark, dark world. I had to sit and talk to some people to get out of that.
You mentioned that you basically took the role because of Alexandre Moors, but this was his first film.
I was three quarters through the film before I realized I was working with this guy on his first feature! Alexandre is tough, and if he didn’t believe or if I wasn’t going to the right place that he wanted me to go, he’d have me do it over and over again. He took me on a scary, scary ride. It was heavy. In hindsight, I don’t think I would do it again. There were some places Alexandre wanted me to go, I said, “I absolutely refuse. I’m not going there.”
Where was that line you drew for yourself?
That’s something you’ll have to ask Alexandre. All I can say is, Alexandre put his heart and soul into this story, and honestly, he won. That’s really the bottom line. He trusted that I could handle it, and he didn’t think any other actor on the planet could pull it off but me, so I was honored by that. This was a test for me to see if I could drop into this soul, if I could try to mete out a miniscule amount of humanity out of a human being that the whole world knew the horrible deeds that this man did. If people walk out of the theater, scratching their heads, going, “Wow, how did he make me have empathy for this character?” If I can pull this off, then that would mean Alexandre was right.