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How John David Washington Became The Protagonist

How John David Washington Became The Protagonist

John David Washington Tenet Christopher Nolan Chris Nolan Spike Lee

Movie News

Balance

At the 40th Sundance Film Festival in January 2018, he starred in two films, Anthony Mandler’s All Rise (originally titled Monster) and Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Monsters and Men. The latter won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Outstanding First Feature at Sundance, and was one of three films released in 2018 in which Washington played a police officer.

Monsters and Men opens with Washington’s character, Dennis, an NYPD officer in Brooklyn, in plainclothes. He is pulled over by a white officer and promptly reveals that he, too, is a cop. Green’s sensitive direction affords Washington the room to locate the different shades of his conflicted character. What in lesser hands might have been a one-note “message film” is elevated into a poignant portrait of our troubled times.

Washington wasn’t sure how audiences would feel about BlacKkKlansman, in which he plays a cop torn between spying on Black activist gatherings and supporting them. He orchestrates a sting operation on the KKK while helping expose racism in his own department. The film ambitiously swings between laughs — how did a Black man infiltrate the Klan? — and tense drama. It is based, after all, on a true story, and links the racism of the past with the racism of the present.

“Doing the research about the Ku Klux Klan and the history of the Klan in this country, and the resurgence that they’ve had, and the origins of it, and using religion as a part of their doctrine and this idea of what America should be in their eyes — learning all of that stuff, it really was painful to know…. what the underbelly of this country is at times,” he says. “So, all that kind of research, it’s stuck with me. It’s hard to shake afterwards. I didn’t shake it until we got to Cannes, and they started applauding.”

The film’s rapturous reception at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival proved it had connected.

“You make something, you’re trying to say something, especially with somebody who knows how to say something in Spike Lee. But you never know how people are going to take it, how people are going to handle it, how they are going to receive it. So the way they did at Cannes, there was some medicine in that,” says Washington. “There was some relief in that reaction for me. It showed me that people will listen; people will pay attention if you put something out there like that.”

John David Washington

(L-) Jack Cutmore-Scott, John David Washington, and Robert Pattinson in Tenet. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon

Tenet

Washington’s comfort with the unexpected couldn’t be more suited to Tenet, a film delayed by COVID-19 from July 17 to July 31 to August 12, and now playing in a few cities prior to its official U.S. opening date of September 3. He leads an all-star cast in Tenet that includes Robert Pattinson, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, and Michael Caine.

Nolan occasionally told him on set to “stop being so analytical, stop being so technical,” and to have faith.

“Elizabeth and I were working a scene, and after a couple of takes, he kind of floated away and threw this line to us. He said, ‘Trust the scene,’ and just smiled and floated away. I was like, ‘Oh, that is a bar right there,’ because it was so emblematic of the whole process — just trust it.”

A voiceover line from the first Tenet trailer would seem to apply: “Don’t try to understand it, feel it.”

The production went to seven countries, including Norway, Estonia, India, and Italy. India was hands-down his favorite.

“As a person, as a man, as a believer, my faith was reupholstered,” Washington says. In Mumbai, he was moved by “lovely, spirited, welcoming, accommodating people” who passed no judgment on him, a clear “fish out of water.”

Also read: I Saw Tenet in a Theater. Here’s How It Went

He remembers a FaceTime conversation with his sister, Katia: “‘Katia, look, at this view? How amazing is this? Look, this is our hotel. Look at these streets. Look at these people.’ And then a couple people walk by, and I just say, without thought, ‘Hey, people, look. This is my sister. She lives in L.A.’ They stop and smile and wave. ‘Her name is Katia.’ And they say her name perfectly. You can’t do that in Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, they’d tell you to ‘take a walk,’ or ‘take a hike.’ I don’t know what motivated me to do that. I don’t do that at all, ever. I think I just felt so comfortable.”

John David Washington Tenet

John David Washington (L) and director Christopher Nolan on the set of Tenet. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon

Tenet is filled with set pieces, involving practical stunts. The entire project appealed to his work ethic, one ingrained in him throughout his entire life.

“It’s football, it’s my grandparents. It’s my father; my father works hard. My mother works hard. That’s why I loved acting in the first place, because I saw the work they were doing was not about the accolades or the positioning of fame or power, it was about the hours they put into it. That almost makes it look easy on game day,” he says. “I learned that early, and I got meaty examples between my uncles, my grandfather, my father, my brothers, my aunties — I got a lot of examples of it. Behind the Oz curtain of a Spike Lee film and a Chris Nolan film, you see the similarities. It’s not a secret: these people work hard.”

He elaborates: “With Spike and Chris, they could shoot all day if they could. And it’s not for the sake of shooting, it’s to make sure they get it. It’s to make sure they’re putting the best product forward. Where they are in their careers, they don’t have anything to prove, but they work as if they’re slept on. They work as if they’re underdogs or something — it’s kind of crazy and encouraging to see that no matter where you are, or the success that you’re receiving, or if you are on an A-list, whatever that means, it comes down to the work.”

Washington concludes with what sounds like a pep talk to himself.

“I’ve got plenty of examples of that, so I know what I have to do,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Tenet, starring John David Washington, opens in select theaters on September 3, 2020.

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