John David Washington is much more than just the son of his famous father (namely Denzel, in case that wasn’t obvious), and his star is quickly rising. After he spent a few years playing professional football, he turned his attention to acting and promptly a landed a plum gig in 2015 starring alongside Dwayne Johnson in the HBO series Ballers, currently in the middle of its fourth season. Earlier this year, he helped Spike Lee — who collaborated several times with his father on movies like Malcolm X and Inside Man — score some of the best reviews of the acclaimed director’s career with a breakout role in BlacKkKlansman, potentially signalling a new era of Lee-Washington projects.
This week, he takes another step toward establishing himself as a talent to watch, as he stars in a provocative drama called Monsters and Men. Written and directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, the film revolves around an officer-involved shooting that affects the lives of three young men connected to the incident in very different ways. Washington, who plays a black cop torn between his professional responsibilities and the moral implications of the shooting, took some time to speak with Rotten Tomatoes about his Five Favorite Films, noting that “it’ll definitely change if you ask me this question next month.” He also talked about what it was like to grow up with a Hollywood dad and the key couple of his father’s performances that made him want to pursue acting,
The aesthetics of it, just the way the frontier looked. The way it was shot, it made it seem like it was the land of opportunity, this new frontier, this undiscovered territory for a certain culture. We were introduced to — which I didn’t know as a kid — the people that actually lived there, or are from there. We were introduced to their lives. They weren’t just Wild Bunch, killing people. It was very heartfelt, and it wasn’t just this white man coming to save the day. It was more along the lines of he was learning the ways, and he earned, from the audience and the tribe, their trust. I believed that our lead character, Kevin Costner, became a part of the tribe, because the movie takes its time to do so, which is risky, because you can lose us if you’re going too slow, if it’s paced like a snail.
But everything worked, and the flow of story wasn’t interrupted or sacrificed due to some cool moments, or movie moments that needed to keep the audience awake. They were unapologetic in that way, so I really appreciated it. There’s the whole coffee interaction, and “tatanka.” That was my s—, man. I used to love that. And the score. The score was incredible. I love the score.
So, Raging Bull. We got a young De Niro, who put the weight on and took it off. “I got no choice!” I mean again, its something very specific to a culture and neighborhood. A young Pesci, Scorsese, all the acting in it, I just connected with it. I laughed and I got uncomfortable at the same time. I felt every emotion every time I watch that film. That’s a great night at the cinema for me when I’ve laughed, when I’ve cried, when I was angry, and when I was turned on. All of those emotions are happening when I watch that film. It’s like putting my favorite audio book on. Sometimes I can just close my eyes and listen to them talk, and there’s such a rhythm. It just feels so authentic and this is just regular conversation. It was almost like they didn’t even have a script. I think that’s a testament to the acting and the writing.
What do you think of the other collaborations between Scorsese, De Niro, and Pesci?
Well you see, again, this is why this question isn’t fair, because next month it’s probably Mean Streats. I’ve been actually watching Casino a hell of a lot lately. This last month it was on repeat. But this month? It is Raging Bull this month, right now.
Man on Fire, I think what Tony Scott did was ahead of his time, revolutionary. I mean, as far as how he shot it and how he used and maximized his ability to shape a film with sound. He would loop in, like, tiger, animal noises with Lupita Ramos’ scream. He put in a foreshadowing scene, like when we first see Creasy in the cab with the beard, and he flashes to the end when he dies, and then he flashes back to the cab scene, and we didn’t even know. It took me like four times to realize, “Oh, that was at the end!” And just getting introduced to Mexico in that way, how he captured it. How he captured the performances of Christopher Walken and Mr. Washington. It was like an indie film, and then it turned into this beautiful action film in the same movie. To me it was the perfect film. It was the perfect balance of art and commerce.
You could sell this thing, but again, like Dances with Wolves, he didn’t compromise anything for the sake of story. Again, how he used language, too., When they’re speaking Spanish, but how he kind of had it where you can read the subtitles — how he did that, and how he mixed sounds and mixed music. I think it’s a perfect film. I love that film. I really do.
Coming to America. It kind of gave me the same feeling of pride and just feeling good about myself that Black Panther did, seeing this sort of regal, black royalty, excellence. Now, they had to hide it and disguise that in comedy which is so often in our culture and in the movie business for a long time. But there were so many lines that you can just quote and appearances from actors you didn’t even realize that were in it, like Cuba Gooding, Jr. to Jake Steinfeld. “The Queen to Be,” you know, there are so many lines. And the characters that Eddie Murphy played… They were caricatures, I guess, but it seemed like the performances were layered, actually. It was very much a comedy, but it wasn’t over the top. If they ever remade it, I would be opposed to it. That’s one of those movies that you have to leave alone.
I don’t think they can remake that, right? There’s no way they could do that.
I hope not. You never know in this business. It’s the day of remakes, and I ain’t mad at that at all, but that’s one of them I would take personally, because that movie halfway helped raise me man. [laughs] It’s like, when they even decided on whether to go to LA or New York, you know? “Where should we go? Queens!” It was great. I just loved everything about that movie. I thought the writing was so smart. I think that it is timeless I think it could survive and have life in any decade. I think the performances, I think there was some really good acting there. Not just the comedic performances and timing, but there are some moments that you have to have that are authentic and real to have the payoff when the funny stuff happens.
Glory. Mr. Ed Zwick. I believe the original story was more concentrated on the officers, and what Ed seemed to find was the movie — and I love when that happens, when he lets the movie dictate how he should cut it or lets the movie dictate how he should roll it out — and it became about those soldiers. And he didn’t seem to manipulate any of the greatness that was going on in that film. He wasn’t arrogant about having an understanding of the culture. He seemed to appreciate it and understand. They’re bringing these actors that are bringing out the culture and the stuff that I could never anticipate, I could never prepare for, that was not on the page.
It was transformative. The whole thing was. It was not only a history lesson, it was a meaningful time in the business of diversity and seeing characters that look like me — you know, that they were my color — in the business at the time have that sort of platform to embrace the inner workings, from the slave trade to the first soldiers, the emancipated men. I felt like that was such an important film. I knew every line for every character. I mean, I lived that movie. It was my upbringing. That was my school, basically. I literally knew every line. From Robert Gould Shaw to Frederick Douglass’ one scene. I knew that line too. It was kind of crazy. I wanted a blue suit for Christmas, and I broke the VHS tape and I wanted a new VHS tape for Christmas, too.
And also the score. Hearing that score with those black faces — you see it in Barry Jenkins’ films as well. I just felt like Ed Zwick deserved more credit than he got. He should get more recognition. He made, I think, a perfect film, too. I think it’s a perfect film.
Ryan Fujitani for Rotten Tomatoes: People may not know this, but you actually technically got your start acting as, what, a 10-year-old in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X?
John David Washington: I was six. Malcolm X. See, that’s on the list, too, by the way, but again, that was last month. If you asked me last month, I would’ve said Malcolm X. Yeah, I was six years old, man.
RT: Obviously, your father was the star of that film, and it made me wonder. Was your dad the type of Hollywood dad who would always take you on the set of his movies?
Washington: I did get to go on a couple sets. I got to go on the set of Glory, Malcolm X. I got to go on the set of Virtuosity. Yeah, he’d bring me around. I loved it. I wanted to be there. I got to get behind the tank in the movie Courage Under Fire, another Ed Zwick film. I got behind the tank that he fired, and I got to fire a 50-caliber or 60-caliber gun. It was amazing. I got the pictures in my room. Yeah, I was around sets like that, to be a part of it. I got to see it, and I loved it.
RT: Did that contribute to you picking up the acting bug?
Washington: The reason was Shakespeare in the Park, which my father did. He did Richard III. And then it was Glory. That’s when I saw him talk different from when he was reciting lines to being on that stage reciting those Shakespearean words, and then when I saw the whip marks on his back, and he’d come home. And when I saw him die in the film, and then we would play around and he would fake death in front of me as a kid. I thought that was the coolest magic trick ever. I was just into it. So I just wanted to do it after that.
It just seemed like magic, you know? Seeing those guys on screen. Even Dances with Wolves, some of those films I’ve named, that’s what it was. It just seemed like magic. You know, when you add the beautiful music, the score, to these beautiful scenes and these shots, the landscape, you just lose yourself in these worlds and in these people. I just wanted to make people feel the way I felt as a kid watching these films.
RT: In that case, it was probably a little too early, but did you feel like you experienced or learned anything from being on those sets that you were able to incorporate into your acting?
Washington: Then? Not so much. I just remember it all being everybody working so diligently. Everybody’s moving around, doing stuff, and I love that kind of activity. But there was a lot more that I learned in football, probably, that I’m applying to the craft now.
RT: You’re having a great year so far, with the success of BlacKkKlansman, and this week you’re in two movies: The Old Man & the Gun and Monsters and Men. Speaking specifically about the latter, did you get a chance to see the film Blindspotting earlier this year?
Washington: I haven’t yet. No, I need to.
RT: Like Monsters and Men, that film also revolves around a similar police shooting incident, but your film offers three perspectives from three different men connected to the shooting. With that in mind, being that Monsters and Men offers these three different perspectives, what, to you, is the most important message that audiences take away from the movie?
Washington: Understanding. Understanding and, I think, that word: perspective. There are a lot of people in this world that want the same thing, and they go on about ways to do it differently. So whatever the language of coexistence is, maybe they can find it after they see this film.
Monsters and Men opens in limited release on Friday, September 28.