THE BEST BARS IN AMERICA, 2020
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?”
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.