Jared Leto and John David Washington on ‘Tenet,’ ‘Little Things’ and ‘Malcolm and Marie’

Jared Leto (“The Little Things”) and John David Washington (“Malcolm & Marie”) sat down for a virtual chat for Variety‘s Actors on Actors, presented by Amazon Studios. For more, click here.

John David Washington made a major impression as the protagonist of Warner Bros.’ Christopher Nolan film “Tenet,” now available for home viewing, and continues his stellar run opposite Zendaya in Sam Levinson’s two-hander “Malcolm & Marie,” coming soon to Netflix. He follows in the footsteps of his leading-man father, Denzel Washington, who’s subverted at every turn by Jared Leto’s villainous Albert Sparma in John Lee Hancock’s upcoming “The Little Things,” a Warner-produced crime thriller to debut in theaters and on HBO Max. Washington the younger and Leto spoke about how they approached their latest movies and what led them here.

John David Washington: I’ve been watching you for so long. At what age did you decide to become an actor?

Jared Leto: I was studying to be a painter, an artist, a visual artist, and I was feeling limited, not finding my voice. I started getting interested in film. My big plan was, if I could get work as an actor, then I could probably get a job as a director.

I was always more of a musician, to be honest, and a visual artist. What about you? You were a professional football player? That’s an unusual route as well.

Washington: I was a jock — but really, I was huge into painting and drawing, especially in high school. A teacher of mine told me that I could get a scholarship for painting. I’ve always loved the arts. It calmed my angst. I lost it once I went to Morehouse. I really embraced the football player. As I started to gain notoriety in my abilities, making headway and breaking records — “I could make the NFL. Why not? I’ve made it this far.” I think I was deep in character. It all ultimately led me to what I’m doing now.

You came at acting from a directing aspect. And you’ve worked with some of the greatest filmmakers ever — [David] Fincher and Terrence Malick, to name a few. What do you look for when you look into work?

Leto: I think it depends. Best-laid plans, you know? Sometimes it turns out the way that you hoped, and sometimes it doesn’t. As I’ve gotten older, I consider being a little less precious about things. I remember in the beginning, I actually said no to quite a lot. I was maybe naive in some respects, but I said no to quite a lot for many years. Starring in movies was something I avoided for a really long time, because I felt like I wasn’t ready.

When I have a role and I start asking questions internally, that’s the right role to pursue. Because I’ve had the other thing happen, where I’ve taken on a project and it’s a dead end.

Washington: At what point did that realization come across? Is it in pre-production?

Leto: I’ve taken a couple in my life — I’m not going to name names — where I didn’t have that spark of imagination and creativity, and it was just stale. I’ve learned to listen to that voice. Sometimes there might be a good director, but you’re not feeling that spark and then you move forward anyway. What about you? How do you make those choices?

Washington: I connect totally to that feeling of “I’m not sure I’m ready for this leading man thing.” But this is a dream scenario to be able to work with Spike Lee or Christopher Nolan. They don’t have to prove anything, but they still feel like they do. That’s infectious. We all have something to prove, even though we’re sitting with a $200 million budget. That left quite an impression on me. Maybe because I was an athlete and I understand the team concept.

Leto: What was working with Christopher Nolan like?

Washington: It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in any team, football included. The fact that Christopher Nolan and Hoyte van Hoytema, our DP, were telling me, “Don’t worry about marks; we’re going to adjust to you.” Coming from both of them? I’m like, “Are you kidding me right now?” They were embracing a freedom, a performance, and letting us get after it, however we see it. There were no egos on that set. He’s a film enthusiast, man. He believes in the theatrical experience, and he stands by that, and I love him for it.

Leto: Speaking of DPs, “Malcolm & Marie,” I mean, that film is … First of all, you guys shot on film, it’s black and white, and I have to say maybe one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, black-and-white films I’ve ever seen. I mean, those shots are just gorgeous. It looks like it’s
a photograph.

Washington: When I found out they were shooting it in black and white, I got excited because I’m just thinking about the historical value for African Americans and black-and-white film, to really celebrate people that look like us in black and white, in a story like this. I leapt at the chance.

Given that we shot this in the middle of a pandemic, we were doing this for the industry, in a way, because we felt like a lot of the industry was looking at us — how were we even going to get this off? And that was the beauty of the entire bond, was knowing that we had to depend on each other.

In “Little Things,” there’s a particular scene, that’s coming to mind right now, in the interrogation room. And it seemed it was getting really contentious. Was that blocked? Was that something that just kind of happened?

Leto: I showed up ready for war. I knew I had to be on my A game, and I came in over-prepared. And what’s fun about playing a character like Albert Sparma is you can do anything you want, and it’s OK. This is a guy who doesn’t abide by conventional rules. On the first day, I should have worn a diaper because it was rather intimidating. And I was in my zone, but I noticed very quickly the smallest change or gesture or improvisation, and Mr. Washington — boom, he’s right there with me.

Washington: Wait. Hold on. You just arrived on set as the character and that was that?

Leto: That’s right.

Washington: Oh, wow.

Leto: But it was a blast. We had a lot of fun with it. There was a mutual respect.

Washington: I just automatically think, “I wonder what he did for research. Did he try some of this stuff out in real life?”

Leto: What about you guys? There was so much dialogue — did you guys do that in rehearsal?  I haven’t re­­hearsed in a movie in 10 years. I don’t have a rule against it, but usually I’m ready to go.

Washington: I was having trouble finding a way in. There was such a connection to his pains in this industry. I share the same frustration. That was exciting and extremely terrifying, because I’m getting to say something I actually want to say.

We quarantined at Carmel, at this beautiful resort, nobody in or out. With a great text like that, you don’t need to ad-lib too much. The text will lead you to the promised land, and I truly felt that way.

As I got the words in my bones, and I was hearing Zendaya more and more, I started getting information about my movement. He might move like a gorilla or this brooding Neanderthal, even though he’s speaking very succinctly. But he’s kind of sloppy in his physical presence. We were going to get to the truth because everybody was there for the same reason.

Leto: It did feel like a play, because the movement was pretty phenomenal. As soon as you started dancing around, it just clicks you into the character. You shot this early in the pandemic, right?

Washington: We shot it in June. Before getting approached to do it, I was really sitting with myself. I had this idea of what my year was going to be like, all mapped out, and obviously it just came to a halt. And there’s something about sitting with myself that helped me develop this character even more. You took like a five- or six-year — I don’t know if we’d call it a break, but you said no a lot [and focused on his music career with Thirty Seconds to Mars]. What was the motivation behind that?

Leto: I always remember reading Daniel Day-Lewis went off to learn how to make shoes in Italy for five years, which I thought was hilarious. Who knows if it’s even true or not. I don’t really have that much interest in shoes. I’m fortunate in the sense that I always have a creative outlet. So I’m not dependent on films to give me creative reward or to make a living.

Shooting the movie is the least enjoyable part for me. The two best  parts of making movies is getting the job and finishing the job. I like the character build, the discovery. I actually like the time that I spend investigating. I think I just put too much pressure on myself. What about you? You had so much pressure on this movie.

Washington: When you have your collaborators that you really trust, there’s no ego driving the thing; it is more enjoyable. I’ve been on sets where it’s not like that and you just have to protect yourself in so many ways.

I do like the back-and-forths in my own head about the character before going in. And then it’s all one big anxiety-driven tornado of an experience, putting pressure on myself. When it’s over, it’s like, “All right, I did that.” I have trouble watching myself too. Do you watch scenes?

Leto: I don’t watch myself at all. I saw still images from “Dallas Buyers Club,” but I’ve never seen a scene or a playback. I had a lot less anxiety when I didn’t do it. I never saw Albert Sparma. I just saw the poster, so that was the first time I’ve seen the character.

Making movies can be so stressful. I get worried a lot about being good enough. I’ve been trying to practice not being so attached to the outcome of things and really just doing the best I can. Not good enough? Well, tough shit. What are you going to do?