Esquire (USA) : 2020-06-01



ing at the moment. He rewrites the same words over and over and over. He has filled notebooks all over the house. Sometimes he writes horizontal­ly, in a circle, or in different colors. It helps with his dyslexia. Sometimes he writes out his prayers. Though we’re two strangers in different time zones staring at screens, it’s impossible not to notice that Washington is one hell of a storytelle­r. When he really gets into a memory, his iPad slips and I stare at the collar of his shirt and scruffy chin, not wanting to interrupt. “Oh, sorry!” he says when he notices, then he keeps talking. He learned to spin a yarn from his grandparen­ts, sitting around a fire in their North Carolina yard. It’s storytelli­ng that makes him love acting. But when I ask him about his dad, he sounds ever so slightly different. Rehearsed. People have been asking him the same questions about his dad his whole life. But now, this time, he’s telling John David’s story. CHAPTER ONE Washington went by JD in school—except to his three younger siblings. “He never let us call him that when we were kids, only his friends . . . . We weren’t cool enough, lol,” his younger sister Olivia says in an email. If you ask those who knew him best then, they’ll tell you JD was a sports fanatic. They’ll say they barely remember him mentioning acting at all. “He would literally have a football in his hand, just waiting for all the kids to show up, and then we’d start playing football every single morning,” says photograph­er and longtime friend Dominic Miller, who shot Washington for this story. “That was his love: sports.” When he began playing football at the end of elementary school, he fell in love with the competitio­n and the attention. Football felt like his own domain, though his father coached his teams, sometimes borrowing, at least in Washington’s mind, from his most famous monologues for inspiratio­n. It was Washington’s second year of tackle football, in seventh grade, when he started to hesitate before contact. His dad took him into the backyard of the house and had him hit a punching bag again and again. It felt like all night, even if it was probably only a few minutes. It was like a scene straight out of He Got Game, in which his dad played the father of a star basketball prospect. And when it came time to play, and his dad gathered the team around on the sidelines to give them an impassione­d speech to take them through the end of the game, the words sounded familiar. This is from the Malcolm X speech, right? Washington thought. That Malcolm X role was the one that propelled his dad into bona fide stardom. Washington was only a kid when it came out, so all he saw was the change in how people treated his dad. He was no longer the only one idolizing Denzel. As a child, Those who know Washington know his movie marathons. They’ve sat for hours, watching three, four, five films back to back. They’ve seen him study each movement onscreen and then recite back dialogue, practice accents. Within minutes of the start of our first conversati­on, he is giving me his take on The Sopranos and Sex and the City—both shows that we missed the first time around because we were in college. I’m a season into The Sopranos, watching it for the first time during quarantine. He got into SATC when he was in the NFL, buying the pink book with the full series on DVD. He tells me all about how that era of HBO made him fall in love with TV. “Charlotte [from SATC], that was my girl. I love her,” he says. “I love what they do with Carmela, Edie Falco’s [Sopranos] character, in the later seasons. I love what they allow her to do and where she goes, especially when . . . I don’t want to give it away, but I just think it’s some of the most brilliant acting I’ve ever seen.” Like everyone else, he’s been watching Tiger King lately: “I’m really curious about what happened to old girl’s husband . . . . Honestly, I don’t know if I should say this, but I want to know more informatio­n. They should reopen the case is what I think. Coincidenc­e? I don’t think so.” Washington has been analyzing—really studying— filmmaking since he was a kid. Perched with his mom in the video village, where key crew members sit on a movie set, he saw characters come to life on the small monitors, little snippets of the stories being created just feet away. When he was on set for Malcolm X, Spike Lee asked his parents if their six-yearold son could be part of the final scene, a flash-forward to decades after the civil-rights activist’s death, in which schoolchil­dren shout, “I am Malcolm X.” (“I didn’t have to be an Einstein to grab [Denzel’s] kid and put him in the movie,” Lee tells me. “That’s a good film to have as a first film on your résumé.”) 48 SUMMER 2020