Esquire (USA)

THE BEST BARS IN AMER­ICA, 2020

- Celebrity Inventors · BDSM · Celebrities · Movies · Morehouse College · Washington · Arthur J. Finkelstein · HBO · NFL · The Rock · Miami · New York · Manhattan · Cincinnati · Zoe Kravitz · Regina King · David Duke · Amiri Baraka · Broadway · A Raisin in the Sun · Spike Lee · Ron Stallworth · Ku Klux Klan · Adam Driver · Topher Grace · Lisa Bonet · Lenny Kravitz · Lenny Kravitz · BlacKkKlansman

Twenty-seven drink­ing ex­pe­ri­ences for when we’ll re­ally need them.

use his so­ci­ol­ogy de­gree from More­house. He could coach. He’d be great!

“What he told me . . . it scared the hell out of me,” Wash­ing­ton says, tug­ging on the gold chain around his neck. It’s the same one his un­cle wore be­fore he died. “He was right. I could be a coach, I could be a teacher, I could do that. But it scared me be­cause that means you’ve been run­ning from this. You use foot­ball as an ex­cuse. You re­ally wanted to do this even be­fore foot­ball. It just so hap­pened foot­ball kept work­ing for you. But if you go and be a teacher, or work in the busi­ness field, you will for­ever re­gret this. That’s what was scar­ing me.”

On his birth­day, he’d been send­ing most of his calls to voice­mail. But a fam­ily friend, agent An­drew Finkel­stein, kept call­ing. Finkel­stein had heard from cast­ing di­rec­tor Sheila Jaffe, who re­mem­bered read­ing some­where that one of Den­zel’s sons played foot­ball, and she was won­der­ing if he was still play­ing—or if just maybe he’d be in­ter­ested in talk­ing about this role she had on an HBO show about pro foot­ball play­ers?

The show was Ballers, and Jaffe had seen more than a hun­dred men for the role of Ricky Jer­ret— for­mer col­lege ballplay­ers, ac­tors. He was en­vi­sioned as a line­backer, but at this point, she’d broad­ened her search: Any­one who could un­der­stand this char­ac­ter, that bal­ance of cocky and ob­nox­ious and vul­ner­a­ble, would do. Call­ing Finkel­stein was a Hail Mary.

“Now, granted, I’m on a heavy med­i­ca­tion,” Wash­ing­ton says. “I’m feel­ing very, very loosey­goosey, if you will. I don’t feel the most con­fi­dent. I’m pretty flammable at this point. I just felt very ex­posed. And he sends the script and I read it, and I’m like, well, ‘This is cool.’ ”

If he was go­ing to do act­ing, though, he wanted to do it right—take act­ing classes, learn the craft. Finkel­stein had a dif­fer­ent idea: Just go to the au­di­tion. Get used to re­jec­tion. Then start your classes.

Wash­ing­ton told only his mom he was go­ing out for the role, and the two of them got to work. They went over lines, and she quizzed him over meals.

“I was just so pleased that he had some­thing that would take his mind off his in­jury,” Pauletta says. She couldn’t help but rec­og­nize how happy it made him.

Wash­ing­ton couldn’t drive be­cause of the boot on his foot, so Pauletta dropped him off at the au­di­tion and he hob­bled up the steps, still loopy from pain meds. Nearly a dozen au­di­tions later, Wash­ing­ton got the role. It wasn’t un­til then that he told his dad he was go­ing to be an ac­tor.

“There was dis­be­lief,” Wash­ing­ton says. The re­ac­tion couldn’t have been fur­ther from that cel­e­bra­tion when he was signed by the NFL years ear­lier. His dad “kept ask­ing ques­tions like ‘For HBO? Like Home Box Of­fice Entertainm­ent? Who? Re­ally? But what’s it called? The Rock?’ He just kept ask­ing ques­tions like ‘Is this real?’ I guess he had to check it with his agents to make sure it was real, and he was happy for me, and then he said ex­actly what I was go­ing to do any­way, but ‘As soon as this is over, you gotta go learn. You gotta go learn how to do this.’ ”

Wash­ing­ton flew back and forth be­tween film­ing in Mi­ami and New York, where he took a scen­es­tudy class on Thurs­day nights at HB Stu­dio in down­town Man­hat­tan. When he was as­signed a scene from the Amiri Baraka play Dutch­man, he called an­other fam­ily friend for guid­ance. That sum­mer, vet­eran ac­tor Stephen McKin­ley Hen­der­son was on Broad­way with Wash­ing­ton’s fa­ther in A Raisin in the Sun, a few dozen blocks up from his act­ing class. Hen­der­son was friends with Baraka and had both starred in and di­rected the play, so a cou­ple times a week, he’d head down­town to help Wash­ing­ton and his scene part­ner with the class as­sign­ment.

When Hen­der­son went back up to Broad­way, Den­zel wanted up­dates.

“‘ Well, how’s it go­ing, man? How’s it go­ing? Does the guy got any chops? . . . I don’t want to en­cour­age him if he . . . ’ ” Hen­der­son re­mem­bers Den­zel want­ing to know. “And I said, ‘Well, man, I’ve got to tell you, he’s got some chops. He does. He def­i­nitely does.’ John David un­der­stood act­ing is not so much pre­tend­ing as re­ally do­ing and re­ally be­ing there with the other per­son. When he got it philo­soph­i­cally, he was off to the races. That was it. He was off to the races.”

He was in a ho­tel room when the phone buzzed. “Yo, this is Spike, call me.”

Spike Lee has known Wash­ing­ton since he was born. But it’s not as if they were on tex­ting terms when Wash­ing­ton got that mes­sage while in Cincin­nati film­ing the 2018 movie The Old Man & the Gun.

Any­way, Lee said there was this book he wanted Wash­ing­ton to read. It was the true story of Ron Stall­worth, an African-Amer­i­can po­lice of­fi­cer who in­fil­trated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. Wash­ing­ton read the book, not quite un­der­stand­ing why. Did Lee just want his opin­ion on it? A cou­ple days later, he called the di­rec­tor back.

Wash­ing­ton: “This is in­cred­i­ble.”

Lee: “So, you do like it?”

Wash­ing­ton: “Yes!”

Lee: “All right, see you this sum­mer.”

Lee told Wash­ing­ton he couldn’t tell any­one— not even his agent—un­til the script was done. But just like with Ballers, Wash­ing­ton told his mom.

In one of the first ta­ble reads, in Lee’s of­fice, he sat with costars Adam Driver and To­pher Grace to his left. Be­hind him hung an over­size poster for Mo’ Bet­ter Blues, of all movies. The fic­tional story of a jazz trum­peter had a cer­tain mys­tique to Wash­ing­ton as a kid. It came out when he was a first grader, but his par­ents didn’t let him watch it un­til he was twelve. And now here he was: a man in his thir­ties sit­ting in the seat his dad had sat in, a seat he’d avoided for decades, with his fa­ther star­ing down his neck.

“That’s when it hit me: ‘Okay, if I mess this up, my ca­reer is ba­si­cally over,’ ” he says with a hint of a smile at the mem­ory of it. “It hit there a lit­tle bit, I got to say. The pres­sure hit for a mo­ment, for those two hours, and then I was back. I was okay af­ter.”

When Wash­ing­ton talks about his first steps into the in­dus­try, it’s clear how heav­ily it all weighed on him then. But you get the sense he’s come out on the other side. There’s a dis­tance in his voice and a sense of pride—al­most like he’s dis­cussing an­other per­son.

“Ev­ery year that I see him, he’s more and more com­fort­able with him­self and he’s just ex­cited for what’s to come . . . . He’s just blos­somed, hon­estly, in the last five years,” says Zoë Kravitz, who has been friends with Wash­ing­ton for years. Each New Year’s Eve, their families travel to­gether for a va­ca­tion, and as some­one who knows what it’s like to be the child of icons (her mother is Lisa Bonet, and her fa­ther is Lenny Kravitz) and to find her own suc­cess, she says, “I al­ways say it kind of evens it­self out. You know what I mean? I wouldn’t say it’s harder. You get into a room ear­lier, eas­ier; you get an agent eas­ier; there are things about it that are def­i­nitely eas­ier. But then you have people say­ing, ‘This per­son doesn’t de­serve to be here,’ which just doesn’t feel good and can’t help your con­fi­dence. And then you have some­one say­ing, ‘Oh, this per­son isn’t as good as their par­ent.’ ”

Fel­low ac­tor and friend Regina King says, “I won’t name any par­tic­u­lar ac­tors, but some­times you’ll see a ca­reer take off quickly and it feels like it’s tak­ing off quickly be­cause of hype. With John David, it’s taken off quickly be­cause he’s re­ally good, and be­cause he stud­ies the art form, and be­cause he re­ally is sub­merg­ing him­self into the char­ac­ter.”

2018 saw the re­lease of BlacKkKlan­s­man, along with Mon­sters and Men, in which Wash­ing­ton plays a po­lice of­fi­cer whose col­league shoots and kills a black man. Both char­ac­ters are big de­par­tures from the sit­commy Ricky Jer­ret. Wash­ing­ton’s BlacKkKlan­s­man char­ac­ter, Stall­worth, is at turns earnest and snarky as he sits for long phone con­ver­sa­tions with To­pher Grace’s David Duke. In Mon­sters and Men, his Den­nis Wil­liams is a se­ri­ous fam­ily man who is try­ing as hard as he can to turn a blind eye to the racism of his fel­low cops out of self­p­reser­va­tion. Watch­ing him­self up there, see­ing his char­ac­ter lie about his col­leagues to pro­tect his son and wife, Wash­ing­ton was dis­turbed. He re­mem­bered that his act­ing teacher at HB Stu­dio had taught him never to judge the ac­tions of your char­ac­ter. And here he was, fu­ri­ous at Wil­liams as

he watched him­self in­habit the man on­screen. He left the screen­ing and cried for days. Then he called his old teacher Rochelle Oliver.

“I was pac­ing around my apart­ment in the dark. Why didn’t he do some­thing? Why did he make that de­ci­sion? Why did I make the de­ci­sion as an ac­tor? Was I sup­posed to do some­thing else?” he says.

“It makes me cry to talk about it,” Oliver tells me. “I said, ‘What hap­pened to you is a tes­ta­ment to how beau­ti­fully and how deeply you work. It was about your child, pro­tect­ing him, and it was so per­sonal to you, and that’s what you were cry­ing about.’ ”

Right around that time, BlacKkKlan­s­man pre­miered at Cannes. Spike Lee sat be­hind Christo­pher Nolan. Ev­ery so of­ten, Lee snuck a glance at the writer-di­rec­tor to see how he was re­act­ing to his film and his star. Lee re­counts this story and then tells me to take down a note to read to Nolan when I talk to him later in the week.

“Ask him, say, ‘Dear Chris, this is your cin­ema brother, Spike Lee. I’m look­ing for­ward to see­ing Tenet, star­ring the great, great John David Wash­ing­ton. Thank you for cast­ing him and mak­ing your­self look good. Thank you for cast­ing him, for hoist­ing him into the strato­sphere. My ques­tion for you is: Did you de­cide that you’re go­ing to cast John David Wash­ing­ton at the world pre­miere of BlacKkKlan­s­man?’ ”

So I ask.

Nolan laughs. “Oh, very much,” he says. “By the way, it was a pretty in­tense ex­pe­ri­ence to sit in front of Spike Lee at the pre­miere. And no, it very much sort of felt like des­tiny to me. That was an ex­tra­or­di­nary screen­ing, and the au­di­ence re­sponse to Spike’s movie was re­ally elec­tric in that room at Cannes; it was quite some­thing. And I just felt a sort of mag­netism there. It re­ally was an im­por­tant thing for me in terms of feel­ing like it was meant to be some­how.”

Nolan had first seen Wash­ing­ton in Ballers years be­fore. He had no idea who he was—didn’t know his name or who his dad was. He was just struck by his charisma on­screen. Nolan, who writes many of his films, in­clud­ing Tenet, gen­er­ally tries not to think about cast­ing while he’s writ­ing his scripts. But with Tenet, he sim­ply couldn’t get Wash­ing­ton out of his head. So he called the ac­tor, who was still film­ing Ballers at the time, into a meet­ing.

“In my first con­ver­sa­tion with him, he just felt like some­body on the cusp of re­ally great things. And so from a self­ish point of view as a film­maker, you im­me­di­ately think, I’d like to be a part of that ac­tor’s jour­ney. I’d like to har­ness that en­ergy that he has,” Nolan says. The role Wash­ing­ton has taken on is that of a prag­matic se­cret agent with a gen­uine warmth and hu­man­ity. Wash­ing­ton’s his­tory as an ath­lete helped con­vince Nolan as well.

“The film has more ac­tion than any film I’ve ever done. It has a plethora of ac­tion se­quences that he’s taken the lead in. So he gets to do all kinds of dif­fer­ent things. That ath­leti­cism also puts it­self into the way he walks down the street and the way he talks and the way he moves,” Nolan says. “I re­mem­ber years ago read­ing an ac­count of when [Bond fran­chise pro­ducer] Cubby Broccoli first saw Sean Con­nery and con­sid­ered him to play James Bond. He looked out the win­dow and watched him walk away at the end of the meet­ing and said, ‘He moves like a pan­ther, he moves like a cat, like a cat­like grace,’ and I think John David has his own ver­sion of that. In ev­ery move, there’s this ex­tra­or­di­nary ath­leti­cism and en­ergy. This kind of con­trolled en­ergy just fits this type of char­ac­ter so well. He’s just ex­traor­di­nar­ily grace­ful.”

Wash­ing­ton stars op­po­site Robert Pattinson, and the suc­cess of the film rides on the chem­istry be­tween the two, Nolan says. The ac­tors met shortly be­fore film­ing, when Pattinson in­vited his new cast­mates to his thirty-third-birth­day party in L. A.

“He turned up late, and by that point I was very much in a con­vivial spirit, and then it was him and Aaron Tay­lor-John­son turned up, and I think I was just scream­ing and shout­ing at them for like an hour, and I sud­denly re­gret­ted every­thing I said after­ward, and so I thought maybe we’re off to a re­ally bad start, but he was very sweet about it,” Pattinson says. “He’s so pos­i­tive and not pos­i­tive in a re­ally an­noy­ing way, like he’s def­i­nitely . . . you can def­i­nitely push him a lit­tle bit to be naughty. He doesn’t mind when other people are naughty.”

The cast trav­eled to seven coun­tries over sev­eral months to film the movie, which Nolan has called his most am­bi­tious yet. As with all of his films, the pub­lic knows nearly noth­ing about the premise of Tenet, be­yond the fact that it’s an es­pi­onage thriller.

“It’s an in­cred­i­bly com­pli­cated movie, like all of Chris’s movies. I mean, you have to watch them when they’re com­pletely fin­ished and edited three or four times to un­der­stand what the true mean­ing is,” Pattinson says. He pauses for a mo­ment, then con­tin­ues with a self-dep­re­cat­ing laugh. “When you’re do­ing them, I mean, there were months at a time where I’m like, ‘Am I . . . I ac­tu­ally, hon­estly, have no idea if I’m even vaguely un­der­stand­ing what’s hap­pen­ing.’ And yeah, I would def­i­nitely say that to John David. On the last day, I asked him a ques­tion about what was hap­pen­ing in a scene, and it was just so pro­foundly the wrong take on the char­ac­ter. And it was like, ‘Have you been think­ing this the en­tire time?’ . . . There’s def­i­nitely a bond in the end in kind of hid­ing the fact that maybe nei­ther one of us knew ex­actly what was go­ing on. But then I thought, Ah, but John David ac­tu­ally did know. He had to know what was go­ing on."

Nolan’s films of­ten have a com­plex ac­tion scene that fans end up ob­ses­sively dis­sect­ing. In Tenet,

the ac­tion is re­lent­less. Af­ter wrap­ping, Wash­ing­ton was phys­i­cally wrecked, un­able to run for more than a month.

“There were some times I couldn’t get up out of bed. A cou­ple weeks in, I was wor­ried, very con­cerned I wasn’t go­ing to be able to fin­ish this thing, and I didn’t want to tell any­body be­cause I was like, ‘Oh, I will die for this,’ ” Wash­ing­ton says. “It was like, in the NFL, I felt like I needed to be there ev­ery day to keep my job, and I felt the same way about this. This film de­serves it. Even if I break some­thing, I am not go­ing to say noth­ing to no­body un­til this thing gets done.”

We wrap up our Zoom call, an awk­ward thing to do with some­one with whom you’ve spent hours dis­cussing ev­ery de­tail of their life but whom you may never talk to again. He says he’s got to get ready for din­ner; it’s his twin sib­lings’ birth­day, and he’s get­ting dressed up in a suit and tie (and bare feet) to eat with them—they’re quar­an­tined to­gether—and they’ll be hav­ing Pauletta’s fa­mous mac and cheese.

As he heads off to his fam­ily din­ner, I think about movie stars. Not celebri­ties, who seem to pop up ev­ery day, but Movie Stars. The kinds of ac­tors who draw people to the­aters in droves, who in­spire di­rec­tors, whose names we shorten as if we know them per­son­ally: New­man, Ed­die, Cruise, Den­zel, Brad, J-Law. And I think about Wash­ing­ton, the Wash­ing­ton we’re talk­ing about today. I get the dis­tinct feel­ing from him, and dozens of people who know him, that he’s about to break into this strato­sphere. There’s a quiet con­fi­dence that ap­pears to show he knows it, too. What will we call him when he reaches this level of renown, when the rest of the world feel like they know him in the way all the people I in­ter­viewed do? John David? JD? JDW?

When we talked about the start of his sec­ond ca­reer, Wash­ing­ton de­scribed “chop­ping wood.” Yes, there would be head­lines in­vok­ing his dad. Yes, he booked a flashy HBO show af­ter his first time au­di­tion­ing. Yes, he could have coasted from there. But he con­tin­ued to chop wood, fly­ing back and forth to the act­ing stu­dio, spend­ing his off time study­ing with vet­eran ac­tor Hen­der­son.

It’s built up to this mo­ment. A mo­ment on pause. Tenet posters with Wash­ing­ton’s im­age are hang­ing in the­aters that are still and empty, time cap­sules re­mind­ing us what we looked for­ward to be­fore the pandemic struck. All of us are wait­ing for it to end, for some­thing that re­sem­bles nor­malcy to re­turn, when we can walk into a movie the­ater and al­low a Movie Star to trans­port us else­where for a cou­ple hours. When this does hap­pen, there will be Wash­ing­ton, our new movie star— John David, JD, JDW—fill­ing the screen.

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