One of John David Washington’s first credited film roles was in 1992’s Malcolm X, in which he plays a young student; his dad, Denzel Washington, plays the title character.
Twenty-six years later, John David is headlining his own Spike Lee joint, BlaKkKlansman (in theaters now), in which he spearheads as Ron Stallworth, a real-life Colorado Springs detective who infiltrates the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the ’70s. It’s one of three films this year in which he plays a law enforcement officer: he’s also Lieutenant Kelley in the Robert Redford-starrer The Old Man & the Gun and a Brooklyn policeman in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s drama Monsters and Men. ” I don’t know if God’s telling me something or if in another life I was in law enforcement, because it all worked out that way,” he says. “I have a deeper and more in-depth perspective of what the men and women of color who are serving their communities have to go through to protect strangers.”
Prior to BlacKkKlansman, Washington was perhaps best known as football player Ricky Jerret on Ballers, a role he slipped into as a former ‘baller himself: The 34-year-old was previously a running back for Morehouse College, signed with the St. Louis Rams as a free agent in 2006, and played four years with Sacramento Mountain Lions in the United Football League. Below, he expands on the NFL, on the guidance of Spike Lee and Jordan Peele, on the notion of “white voice,” and the parental advice he follows.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your first impression of the BlackKkKlansman script?
JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON: The writers, the team, I was impressed with them and how they stuck with the story, the core story, didn’t try to manipulate it in any way to sacrifice the integrity of what happened for extra boosts of cinematic experience. ‘Cause I read the book [Stallworth’s autobiographical Black Klansman] prior to reading the script and so seeing that how they adjusted, but didn’t go too far off, I really was impressed by that.
When you were auditioning for this, were you familiar with this story prior?
No. When I heard about it before even the book, I thought it’s similar to Dave Chapelle — I thought this is gonna be like a sort of fun comedy, make-believe sort of crazy scenario. But no, as I got to do my research, it was real, which made it even more exciting. And I had met Spike before — I think I was, what, 5 years old or something? He told me to call him Uncle Spike. So he’s been Uncle ever since to me. Uncle Spike Lee.
Was it still nerve-wracking figuring out if you were right for the part?
Well the audition went like this: I got a text from Spike Lee telling me to call him. I called him. He talked about the story covertly and then tells me to read the book and he sends me the book. I read it, I call him back like, “I was blown away. I couldn’t believe it.” And he said, “All right, see you this summer.” So you could say the audition process was the most relaxed I’ve ever been.
You’re in three films this fall, with BlackKkKlansman, Monsters and Men, and The Old Man & the Gun. They feel like such a shift from Ballers.
A shift that I had been praying for. An opportunity to open up the books a little bit. A chance to not only just be able to display diversity in my craft, but get to work with tremendous talent, extraordinary talent both from the acting side of it and the directors. It was almost like going to school.
With the past few years, with issues within law enforcement, police shootings, and with Black Lives Matter, did you get a different perspective of law enforcement within taking these roles?
Life changing. Life changing. You hear the term “stay woke.” Well that applies on that side of the law as well with African-Americans specifically, Latinos specifically. Protecting and serving. Like, we don’t often get to hear their side and what they’re going through. And knowing that they’re woke as well — that they care about community, their community and their culture as well. What I learned from them, I’ll never forget….So their perspective is out there to be seen and to be shared by those that have different experiences with the police. I mean, it’s a thankless job unfortunately. And a lot of the police officers that are not doing their job correctly actually get more print than the ones that are. But there is hope in the form of these police officers that I got to play in these films.
What would you say is the most emotional scene you shot in BlackKkKlansman?
I know the toughest day was the banquet scene, with the security detail for David Duke [played by Topher Grace]. I actually called [real-life] Ron Stallworth after that day of shooting and just thanked him and told him he’s a true American hero, to look at hate and death square in the eye with his badge. That was a hard day. It felt so authentic. All those hoods and the chanting and the ceremony and The Birth of a Nation showing. This really happened. People really feel this way. People are still practice these rituals.
This is kind of a bizarre question, but has Spike or anybody else heard from Klansmen or from any white supremacist saying to the public, “This is inaccurate?” Any kind of feedback like that?
Oh, if they try Spike, Spike is waiting on that. I don’t know if they want that with Spike Lee.
[This week, Ron Stallworth told NBC News that David Duke called him and expressed concern that he thought BlacKkKlansman would make him, the former Grand Wizard of the KKK, look like “buffoonish, cartoonish idiot…. But he was stupid in how this whole thing transpired 40 years ago…. To con him the way I did and make a fool up out of him, it was funny back then. It’s still funny to me now.”]
The theme of a black man having a “white voice” on the telephone was also a theme of Sorry To Bother You. I wondered if you had seen that film yet, and had you talked to Lakeith Stanfield or any of the filmmakers involved with that title about the theme?
Shout out to those guys. They made something that was innovative, that was different and it shook up the industry. And they should be proud of it. This is totally different. For one, it’s American history. Two, Ron didn’t use a “white voice”: He used his real voice. And he wasn’t necessarily trying to speak like a white man, but rather what hate sounded like in a white man’s organization. He wasn’t putting on a white voice — he actually used his real name in the initial phone conversation, [laughs] he had a brain freeze there. But that just goes to show you how much in it he was. He had to act like he was a white dude, but he didn’t use a “white voice.” As he said in the film, “I can speak King’s English and Jive.”
Me personally, John David, I attended private school. I also went to a black college, Morehouse College, a historically black college. I’ve spent summers in Italy; I spent all of my summers and springs in North Carolina where my mother’s from. I spent time with my mother and my grandmother, in Mount Vernon, New York. So, like, what am I supposed to sound like, you know? I just have all different experiences that are woven into the way I speak. And how I think and live.
And speaking of your family with your famous father, what have you gathered from his career that you want to apply to your own?
Have faith, pray every day. Put God in everything I do.
What have you learned from your mother [musician and actress Pauletta Washington]?
Have faith, pray every day. Put God in everything I do.
And know that this is a privilege what we get to do. The ability to tell stories and it’s a luxury. It’s a gift. And you should treat it as such. It’s precious. So leave your ego and leave your attitude at the door. Don’t bring that with you when it comes to this ’cause it’ll pollute the product. And it’s a divisive when on set. I mean, Spike Lee’s set was an environment of inclusion, family, and familiarity. And that kind of environment, that was so palpable; it made it so much easier to do your job.
Do you feel like faith has guided you or will continue to guide you in what parts you choose to do — as well as the ones that you don’t?
Absolutely. You gotta pray. I answer to God. And when I get my orders, usually it works out. Like last year worked out that way. I’m so happy it happened the way it did, but it comes from a higher power. I’m so thankful, grateful that He put me in that position to work with these people.
Did you have a lot of discussion with your costars about what this film meant to you? What were your discussions about race with your white colleagues?
Topher and I, we discussed it more, just because of the character he was playing, he wanted to do a great job for Spike, and not for David Duke. I love how he says that. And the impact, he said this film should be now. This film’s right now. Personally — because of the tone of it — I wasn’t sure how it would be received or the timing of it and all was great. But I didn’t know till I saw the finished product. And when I saw the finished product I was like, “Oh yeah, this has to come out right now.”
And those are such serious phone calls, the ones you had with Topher. What occurred within them was so serious. But half of this film feels like a real comedy, at the same time, because you can’t believe it. There’s a romance going on in the film as well. Did you feel a responsibility to balance a tone?
Yeah. The tone was an interesting. Spike Lee and [producer] Jordan Peele were the only ones responsible enough, with pedigree and skills to make the perfect balance. The nature of some of these scenarios was so ridiculous that you would think somebody made this up. But it wasn’t made up. Which gave us license to — for lack of a better term — keep it real. To be as honest as possible. To not play up any jokes or anecdotes, don’t hit the joke. But my God, I must say, Spike Lee, this legend, really trusted his actors and his instincts. I feel like he knew who he picked and why he picked them so that he could let us go.
Did you ever feel like, in your career in football, you were acting a part? Do you feel like football actually prepared you to become the actor that you are?
Here, here, you got it. That kind of got lost in the role, ’cause, I mean, I kept having success. I was like, “Alright, I’ll play in high school, but I won’t get a scholarship, so then I’ll start acting as an artist then. Oh wait, no, I’m getting scholarship offers, I’m ranked nationally as a high school player coming out. Alright, I guess I’ll take this free ride to Morehouse then. Alright, then I’ll just dominate at Morehouse. I’ll be the best I can be and retire. Wait a minute, the St. Louis Rams, they’re gonna draft me. Oh, bring you in. Alright, cool. So I probably won’t make camp. I’ll probably get cut at camp. No, actually we want you to be on the practice squad. You’re gonna be here for two years, Sir…” I mean, stuff kept happening and I kept getting opportunities. So and my ascension into in the NFL and in football, I would sort of bury the artist in me. But yeah, all those adversities, the trials and tribulations that come with being a football player in this country, all informed me into what to do in this business.
With all the controversies within the NFL — the discussion around black bodies, health conditions, paying college players, the National Anthem and all this kind of stuff — has your attitude about the sport changed within the last few years? What is your take on enjoying the sport and appreciating the sport as this all has come into play?
I commend the athlete. I am pro-athlete. I am for the player ’cause I was one. And most of us in the NFL started playing since we were 5 years old. So we’re sort of conditioned. We’re soldiers in a lot of ways. We’re obedient in a lot of ways. Because that’s what the sport demands. So I commend the ballplayers, the athletes for sort of for taking a knee, a peaceful protest. I support them in how they handle things. Yeah, it’s a very dangerous sport and looking at it now, I can’t believe I played it. I was like…I never…yeah, I can’t…I don’t know why I did that. I would encourage football players out there to have a contingency plan. This should almost be a side hustle and really prepare for what happens after football. ‘Cause NFL stands for Not For Long.