PLAYBACK is a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. New episodes air every Thursday.
Football player-turned actor John David Washington grew a film fan like any other. From “Dances With Wolves” to Tim Burton’s “Batman” to comedies like “Clueless,” he absorbed movies of all genres. But he also grew up uniquely surrounded by the business; when you’re the son of a cinema legend like Denzel Washington, that comes with the territory. It’s fitting, then, that the star of HBO’s “Ballers” and Spike Lee’s latest, “BlacKkKlansman,” was slightly conflicted on his own journey to a career in front of the camera.
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“Seeing [my father] perform in Shakespeare in the Park, he did Richard III and I just loved the whole process,” Washington recalls. “He would take me around the city and recite his lines all the time. I got introduced to Shakespeare at four years old and I fell in love with the language. In his ascension into the business as he was starting to get more recognizable with ‘Malcolm X’ things, started to change. We needed more security. We started getting an answering service. Life changed for us and people started treating me different, so that resentment and anxiety I was getting, I needed to filter that into something positive or I was going to go off the rails. Football was what it was for me.”
Washington was a college football sensation at Morehouse and went on to be signed as an undrafted free agent by the St. Louis Rams in 2006. He still couldn’t shake the shadow, however. Headlines couldn’t help but play up his Hollywood association. “Denzel’s son sets new record,” that kind of thing. And in some ways, the screen was still calling him. When it came time for a big-screen transition, there was already some familiarity with Lee going back to his father’s collaborations with the filmmaker. (The younger Washington even had a small role in “Malcolm X.”) It didn’t take much to convince him.
“Spike Lee really gave us a platform, men and women of color,” Washington says of Lee’s rise in the industry. “We weren’t just the generic Gangster #5, Pimp #2 on the call sheet, but he was actually celebrating our differences and the nuances and behavior of different cultures within different neighborhoods as well. And he did it in such an extraordinary way.”
In “BlacKkKlansman,” Washington stars as Ron Stallworth, an African-American Colorado Springs police officer who successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. It’s an insane story; Washington still finds it shocking that Stallworth has an actual KKK membership card. But in the research, the actor came to really empathize with people of color who serve in the police ranks.
“It’s a thankless job for police officers, period, but specifically for men and women of color protecting and serving,” Washington says. “Because here, a lot of people think that they’re not for their people, for the cause. That they’re not aware or they’re not what they call ‘woke’ because they wear blue. And then they’re not blue enough for the department. So I want people out there that are protecting and serving, doing it the right way, I want you to be proud.”
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|John David Washington photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback Podcast.
Dan Doperalski for Variety