By Leah Greenblatt
July 01, 2020 at 04:05 PM EDT
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David Hume Kennerly via Bank of America/Getty Images

"Good trouble" is what John Lewis — rabble-rousing icon of the civil-rights movement and 17-term Georgia congressman  — has famously called his approach to activism over the past six-plus decades. Now it's also the name of a documentary on his life by filmmaker Dawn Porter (Bobby Kennedy for President), coming to streaming July 3.

Though he's currently undergoing treatment for stage IV pancreatic cancer, the 80-year-old Alabama native's energy hardly dimmed during a recent phone call from his home as he spoke to EW about making the film, his memories of Martin Luther King Jr., and why he still holds out hope for a more just (and more danceable) world.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I would guess that you’ve been approached many times about putting your life on screen. How did Dawn Porter convince you that she was the one to tell your story?

JOHN LEWIS: Well, in meeting her and getting to know her, she was so informed and so full of information about my role in the civil rights movement. she spent time with me and my sisters and brothers and cousins and people I have worked with in many parts of the South and all over the country, really, and I just knew she was the person.

Were you surprised by anything that was pulled up in the research for the film, or maybe even just in the stories your siblings told?

Some of the stories she brought forth, she jogged my memory, and my brothers' and sisters'. There were things that we laughed a great deal about, and some times I think we wanted to cry. And at times, it brought up some things that were a little embarrassing.

Like I was 5, 6, 7 years old, and a thunderstorm would come up and we had this old, old house. It was a huge old house, and we didn’t have power, just lamps and fireplaces, and my mother was not afraid of the storms so much, but some of us grew up as young children afraid of the storms — the thunder, the lightning — and my mother would say "Boys and girls, be quiet. God is doing his work now, and you must be quiet." And we got so quiet.

That’s also just a good trick for a mom with 10 kids probably, right? The actor Stephan James portrayed you in Ava DuVernay's Selma about five years ago, but have you been approached about a feature film or a biopic that would be maybe more directly centered on you?

From time to time people have suggested that such and such a person should play me. It takes a little time, but I would be very moved and be interested in seeing how they would do it.

I believe you’re the last living speaker from the 1963 March on Washington. When you revisit the footage of yourself, how vivid are those memories? You were so young, speaking in front of such an enormous audience.

I see the video, and I say to myself, 'That’s when I had most of my hair." I did! I look so young, so young. I was just a boy from rural Alabama who had heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak and had met Rosa Parks, and I was deeply inspired.

I didn’t like segregation and racial discrimination as a child. I had so many questions. And I would ask my mother "Why? Why?" I’d ask my uncles and aunts and they’d say "That’s just how it is, don’t get in trouble." But I was inspired to get in trouble. I wrote Dr. King this letter, he wrote me back and sent me a roundtrip Greyhound bus ticket to come to Montgomery Ala., to meet with him. And that changed my life – sent me on a different path, a better path.

I’m glad he said yes. But to meet Rosa Parks the year before I met Dr. King, it was amazing, it was just so moving to be in her presence, and then to meet Martin Luther King Jr., to get to know him and get to work with him, just lifted me, and helped make me the person I am today.

And at school in Nashville, Tennessee, I had wonderful teachers, wonderful teachers. These teachers, along with leaders of the movement, inspired me to get in what I call good trouble... and I’ve been getting in trouble ever since.

Certain names are so iconic to us that it's easy sometimes to forget they were real people, too. In your work with Martin Luther King Jr., did you feel like you got the chance to know the man behind the image that's been sort of cemented at this point by history?

Well, I was young but he was only about 11 years older, and we would talk and he would ask me sometimes, "John, do you still preach?"

As a little boy, as you know, I would get all the chickens on our farm together and I would preach to the chickens, and sometimes I would gather my brothers and sisters and first cousins together and we would have church. It was like a calling, I remember wanting to grow up and become a minister and get a church and baptize not just the chickens, but my brothers and sisters. [Laughs]

That means there’s some holy chickens out there somewhere, or at least their descendants.

Oh yeah [laughs]. I think about them from time to time.

How do you encourage young people in this moment, especially when they’re mostly stuck at home in quarantine, who want to feel that they’re contributing?

I say to young people — continue to read, continue to listen, watch the movies, the videos. Because another generation of people didn’t have what you have today, but they used what they had to help bring about a nonviolent revolution.

And be hopeful! Be optimistic. You may be arrested, you may be beaten, you may be thrown in jail, but be brave, be bold. And when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something. Do something. And just never never give up.

When we attempted to march across that bridge [in Selma in 1965], we didn’t know that we would make it across the bridge, but somehow, some way, we believed that there was a power within us, and a power on the other side.

And I still believe that today, that in spite of everything, in spite of all the difficulties, the setbacks, in spite of losing some of our leaders and some of our friends, our relatives in the storm. Whether it was during the sit-ins, during the freedom rides, during the marches, or in this struggle as a whole, we have to keep the faith, we have to keep our eyes on the prize.

I remember marching from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965, and there was a young man from Los Angeles, a young African American man who’d spent very little time in the South, and he had a guitar. He was playing his guitar as he walked along, singing this little song: “Pick ‘em up, lay ‘em down, all the way from Selma town.” So we kept singing, we kept marching, and we didn’t give up. I tell you, if it hadn’t been for music, I don’t know what would have happened to the movement.

Aside from more directly political acts like protest songs, what do you think the role of entertainment is in reaching people who maybe aren’t born activists, or just aren’t aware of certain injustices? You had your series of graphic novels on the movement, though a lot of young people may know you best from seeing you dance to Pharrell's "Happy."

I deeply believe and feel that there is power, great mighty power. It can be soul power, spiritual power — there’s something about marching with a group of people, even with young children, who hear you or see you and they pick up the beat.

We were being arrested, even kids eight and nine years old being taken to jail, and sometimes the parents or teachers have to discover "Where’s my teacher? Where’s my child?" But if it hadn’t been for music and drama, I sometimes say, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.

Can I ask about your health? I know you’re going through treatment, but how are you feeling?

I’m feeling okay, I’m feeling good. It’s one day at a time, you know, but I try to follow the doctor. I have a wonderful doctor, wonderful nurse. My staff tell me I don’t eat enough, but I’m trying to eat better and eat more. It’s a long haul, but I’m not giving up.

One last question. As crazy as the world feels right now, are you still hopeful for America, and for young people?

In spite of it all, I’m still hopeful. We must not lose. We have to save the planet for our children and their children. We must do what we can to leave this world, to leave this little piece of real estate we call earth a little better. A little more kind, a little more loving.

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