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John David Washington on How He’s Not Just Denzel’s Son, His NFL Career, and New Movie ‘Tenet’
Shirt by Dior; Trousers, Washinton’s own.
The injury that set everything in motion started with a violent pop. To demonstrate the noise, John David Washington juts his two front teeth toward his iPad and balances the screen with one hand. He scrapes the bottom of his teeth with the nail of his thumb. Fliiiiick.
I’ve spent the past week talking with a dozen or so of the actor’s family members, friends, and colleagues. Under normal circumstances, I would spend many hours with Washington, over the course of days, soaking up as much as possible about this thirty-five-year-old who’s gone from NFL running-back hopeful to the world’s next great action star in just seven years. Because we’re both stuck inside weeks into the COVID-19 quarantine, we talk over Zoom. And I didn’t think I could tell the complete story of a man after just a couple video chats, so I reached out to everyone I could to help me understand him. But no one has told me this story yet. The story of the tendon.
It was 2013, and he was training outside L.A., getting ready for a workout with the New York Giants. After two years on the practice team for the St. Louis Rams and a stint in Germany with the NFL European league during the off-season, he was in the U. S. doing explosion drills when he felt that pop. He looked down to see something resembling a worm wriggling beneath the thin skin of his calf.
He knew it was his Achilles. And he knew his football days were over.
He’d worked so hard, through so many injuries, and now he was terrified about what would come next. As a kid, he’d harbored dreams of acting, and despite his dogged pursuit of a football career, the idea of becoming an actor was always in the background. It was a constant push and pull. Now that he could no longer play professionally, there was nothing stopping him.
All of that was fear based, of not knowing if what I thought was my destiny, if I’m even worthy enough to claim it,” he says. “It was time to go up onstage.”Jacket and sweatpants by Brunello Cucinelli; jewelery, Washington’s own.
“A part of me felt like it got shot and killed, it got assassinated. All of that was fear based, of not knowing if what I thought was my destiny, if I’m even worthy enough to claim it,” he says. “It was time to go up onstage.”
Those early years in a career are raw and painful and embarrassing and thrilling and magical as we begin to figure out what we’re good at. We fail and falter, and then, if we’re lucky, we start to succeed. But if you’re going into the family business, the success comes with second-guessing and constant comparisons—there’s an imaginary bar set before you even get started. Most of us would run like hell to avoid the shadow of our parents—and most of us don’t have Denzel Washington as a father. Or Pauletta Washington, actress, singer, and pianist, as our mom.
Washington had heard stories about his parents meeting on the set of the TV movie Wilma and of his mom performing on the soundtrack of Philadelphia. And he remembers his dad coming home with a horn from the set of Mo’ Better Blues, “playing all the time, all the time.” There was the time his father dyed his black hair a deep red and studied Islam to get into the character of Malcolm X for Spike Lee’s eponymous 1992 film. Washington (father) and Washington (son) walked down the streets of New York City in the summer of 1990 as the former rehearsed scenes from Richard III for a Shakespeare festival. The younger Washington sat in the theater in Central Park along with hundreds of others watching his dad recite those same lines onstage, hanging on his every word. There was no one cooler than his father. No one who could perform this magic trick, acting, quite like him.
It took Washington decades to start acting. And when he started, he did it in secret. Most of his family didn’t even know he was auditioning—until he’d already landed Ballers, which went on to become one of HBO’s most watched comedies.
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.
Somewhere along the way, he realized what it meant to be the son of an acting legend, to have those hundreds of strangers in Central Park and millions around the world idolizing your father. It meant making new friends, only to have them ask for your dad’s autograph. It meant having people listen for your dad’s voice when you spoke, look for his face in yours. So he pushed it down, focused on football, where a helmet covered his face and where nobody could accuse him of getting anything because of his last name.
And yet Washington, John David—the Washington we’re here to talk about today—will star in the most anticipated movie of the summer: Christopher Nolan’s top-secret and most ambitious project yet, Tenet. He’ll be playing a James Bond/Jason Bourne–type character. The men who lead Nolan’s films are superstars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Matthew McConaughey. And Washington is coming off a Golden Globe nomination for Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. He is now poised to become a household name, someone instantly recognizable, Hollywood’s next great leading man. This is John David Washington’s moment.
This article appears in the Summer 2020 issue of Esquire.subscribe
When we talk over Zoom in mid-April, he’s styled himself in gym shorts, a bandanna with white stars wrapped around his hair, and a long-sleeved black shirt with a sepia photo of his maternal great-grandmother silk-screened onto it. The entertainment industry, along with the rest of the world, has ground to a halt. I ask if he’s working on anything in self-isolation, and he holds a red notebook up to the camera. That’s where he writes his lines, or motivations for whatever character he’s playing 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.
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 [fromSATC], 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.”
Denzel and John David at a Los Angeles Lakers vs. San Antonio Spurs game at Staples Center on December 05, 2018.
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-year-old 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.”)
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.
Washington attends Mini-Camp in May 2006 during his stint with the St. Louis Rams.
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, Washington memorized every line in the 1989 film Glory so that he could act out the parts Morgan Freeman, Matthew Broderick, and his father played. One Christmas, his dad had his Glory costume, a Union Army Civil War uniform, recut to fit his young son. Washington almost never took it off. Now the whole damn world seemed to love his dad.
By the time he got to high school, Washington had become something of a “smart-ass” (his word). Nothing serious. He made jokes in class and got a little disruptive—enough that his high school art teacher, Elizabeth Tremante, sought the advice of another teacher, a friend of the Washingtons’. The friend recommended she try to connect with the teen over his family’s art collection. Didn’t go over well.
“When I suggested that he write about a favorite piece from this collection for a class assignment, he responded acidly, ‘Sure, maybe you can just come to my house so my father can give you a tour,’ ” Tremante remembers. “Even though it was hard to hear him say that, I felt like he was telling me something important.” In that moment, she had tremendous compassion for him; how is the teenage son of a great craftsman to carve out an identity for himself?
“JD was a star athlete in high school, but I always referred to him as a painter,” says his high school art teacher, Elizabeth Tremante.
Hoodie by Louis Vuitton; Jeans by Levi’s.
“He was raw, smart, and idiosyncratic; he had a lot to say as an artist, and I urged him to continue painting in college,” Tremante says. “JD was a star athlete in high school, but I always referred to him as a painter.”
As a high school art student, he focused on challenging stereotypes of young black men through his work. One piece—inspired by his own driver’s license but featuring a character with a full Afro, a gold tooth, a gold chain, and a big earring—stands out in his mind still. In the painting, Washington’s name is listed as “D’wan Nigg.” Race: “Negro,” and in the place of CALIFORNIA across the top it read AFRICALIFORNIAN. “I said every time we get pulled over, this is what the cop sees,” Washington says. “They don’t see an actual name; they don’t care that I’m a student or any of that. They see a D’wan Nigg. That’s not my name; my name is John David Washington.”
His colleagues said it was a worthless mission: No way was Morehouse athletic director Andre Pattillo going to get Washington to come play for the school. It wasn’t known as a football powerhouse, and Washington, a standout running back, had just played in the high school All-American game and was considering San Jose State, Grambling, maybe even a spot at UC Berkeley. But Pattillo was confident, flying to Los Angeles from Atlanta to meet Washington and watch him play. When Pattillo offered him a football scholarship, Washington took it; his cousin Rick, his “hero,” was at Morehouse, so that’s where he went.
It turned out Washington loved being at a historically black college. “I saw quite a bit of African-American prestige and upper-class elements mixed in with some people that really got lucky and worked hard and got out of their situations to try to make a better living for themselves by going to this school. So I got a well-balanced meal of experience and people from all different places of the United States that looked like me.”
As his senior year approached, the NFL was starting to seem out of reach. Washington hadn’t quite given up on that childhood acting dream, and he thought, This could be the time.
Shirt and trousers by Giorgio Armani.
And it was a place where people didn’t know who he was. At football camp the summer before his first semester, he made a pact with his new teammates: Don’t tell anyone who my dad is. “I just wanted to blend in. I would lie about my name sometimes. And we’d have this alias of Mikey that my teammates called me.”
It worked for a while. But after one of his first games, he woke up in his slim dorm-room bed to find his friends from the team howling with laughter. He opened his eyes to see a newspaper inches from his face. The headline began with his father’s name.
“You done got found out, bruh,” a friend shouted. “They found you; you ain’t never going to be yourself.”
As his senior year approached, the NFL was starting to seem out of reach. Washington hadn’t quite given up on that childhood acting dream, and he thought, This could be the time. He could give up football and switch to acting. He called his mom to confide that he didn’t think he was good enough to become a pro football player.
Washington attends a training session for NFL Europe team the Hamburg Sea Devils in April 2007.
Nope. “She said, ‘No, you can’t act. Don’t quit football,’ ” he remembers, adding quickly, “Now she swears she didn’t say it like that. She wanted me to see [football] through. And I’m glad she did. I’m glad she did.”
So he stuck with it, and by his last season, he’d set a career rushing record at the school. Pattillo began getting calls from pro scouts.
Just before graduation, in the spring of 2006, came the NFL draft. Washington was back home with his family in Los Angeles. His mom nervously cooked for two days straight: macaroni and cheese, ham, fried chicken, turkey, collard greens. Every kind of cake you could imagine. The draft came and went, and his name was never called. The next day, however, he heard from his agent: He’d been invited to the St. Louis Rams camp as an undrafted free agent. “You might as well have thought we were celebrating like I was the first-round draft pick. We went berserk,” he says. “We were all yelling, screaming, crazy, crazy, crazy.”
He’d made it on his own merits. But unlike in those early weeks at Morehouse, he couldn’t escape his last name. When his teammates were getting ready for practice, they’d request that Washington recite Training Day quotes in his dad’s voice. He was used to it, though, and he played his heart out.
“I love Denzel, though—I don’t want that to sound like whatever, I love Denzel—but what I got out of that relationship, that movie, was John David,” says The Book of Eli codirector Allen Hughes.
But Washington never made it off the practice team and kept getting hurt knocking into the enormous defensive players. He spent Tuesday nights watching movies in his teammate Steven Jackson’s home theater. “I will tell you this . . . . I’ve seen The Godfather several times,” Jackson says, “but he’s the one that actually got me to see the beauty in the storytelling of it.”
In between seasons, Washington accompanied his father to a meeting for the 2010 film The Book of Eli. Codirector Allen Hughes was struck by the young football player’s input and asked his father if he would mind if Washington joined the project. Denzel said he didn’t mind, and Washington gave it a shot. It was a chance to get back onto a movie set and to remain safely behind the camera. While being the child of a star has its drawbacks, an undeniable advantage is access. Getting onto that set was a first step into the business that most people could only dream of. But once he was there, he had to prove his worth.
“I always say, what I got out of the Denzel relationship was John David. I could care less if I ever work with Denzel again. I love Denzel, though—I don’t want that to sound like whatever, I love Denzel—but what I got out of that relationship, that movie, was John David,” Hughes says. “When we were doing the sound mixing, he was onstage for like two weeks, and he became quickly, just with those wily industry veterans in the sound department, everyone’s favorite person in the building. He has a really impeccable sense of a moment, and when something is happening, when something magical is happening . . . I call him a moment master.”
Then, in the summer of 2013, he tore his Achilles tendon. Pop.
“One night I get home from work, and he’s sitting in complete darkness at our kitchen table with crutches by his side, his head slumped,” says Washington’s younger brother, Malcolm, who’d just moved back home from college. “I’d watched my brother play football for twenty years: I’ve seen him win, I’ve seen him lose, I’ve seen him hurt, but never defeated. I walked over and saw medical information on the counter: He’d completely ruptured his Achilles. We sat there in silence, both thinking the same thing: It’s over. I’d never see my brother play football again.”
It was Washington’s twenty-ninth birthday. July 28, 2013. He’d just had surgery to repair his Achilles. He wouldn’t say he was depressed, but he was as down as he could be. He’d talked to his uncle, who told him he didn’t have to go into acting. There were plenty of other things he could do. He could 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.”
Washington as Ricky Jerret in an episode of HBO’s Ballers in 2015.
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 loosey-goosey, 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.’ ”
Alongside Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in an episode of Ballers.
Washington flew back and forth between filming in Miami and New York, where he took a scene-study 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 as undercover cop Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.
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.
Shirt and trousers by Giorgio Armani.
“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.”
Washington in a scene from BlacKkKlansman.
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 self-preservation. 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.
First Look: An Exclusive photo of Washington in Christopher Nolan’s upcoming TENET, in theaters July 17.
“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, BlacKkKlansmanpremiered 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.
Washington and Nolan discuss a scene in an exclusive behind-the-scenes photo from the set of TENET.
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 and co-star Robert Pattinson in an exclusive first-look photo from TENET.
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,” says TENET co-star Robert Pattinson.
“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.”
“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,” Washington says of filming action scenes in TENET.
Nolan’s films often have a complex action scene that fans end up obsessively dissecting. InTenet, 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?
“This film deserves it. Even if I break something, I am not going to say nothing to nobody until this thing gets done.”
Sweatshirt and jewelry, Washington’s own.
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.
Photography: Dominic Miller. Design: Rockwell Harwood, Mike Kim, and Elaine Chung. Editor: Kelly Stout. Styling: Nick Sullivan and Samantha McMillan. Visuals Director: Justin O’Neill. Executive Director of Talent: Randi Peck. Executive Producer, Video: Dorenna Newton.
Senior Staff Writer
Kate is a writer for Esquire covering culture, politics, style, and lifestyle.
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