When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? Maybe a professional athlete? What about a Hollywood movie star?
John David Washington is only 35 but, already, he’s been both.
The former NFL (American football) player who made the switch to acting around five years ago will already be recognisable to some. In Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman he played an immensely likeable, humorous police officer who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan – despite being black. The film was critically acclaimed and Washington picked up a Golden Globe for his performance.
He has also featured alongside Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in HBO series Ballers, but it is his role in Tenet – the hotly-anticipated, mega-budget, cinema-saving, mind-bending new blockbuster from British director Christopher Nolan – that could really make ‘JD Washington’ a household name around the world. In the words of Spike Lee, Nolan’s decision to cast Washington will “hoist him into the stratosphere.”
To British audiences, and compared to several members of Tenet’s superstar cast (which includes Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Caine, The Night Manager’s Elizabeth Debicki – and, incidentally, my own ten-year-old nephew Laurie Shepherd, of ITV’s Victoria), Washington might still seem like an unknown. But by taking on the lead in a Nolan film, he is joining a hall of fame which includes Hollywood heavyweights Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey and the late Heath Ledger.
So why did Nolan choose him? Washington’s athletic ability was an important factor. “The film has more action than any film I’ve ever done”, Nolan told Esquire. Recalling the famous casting of Sean Connery as Bond, where producer Cubby Broccoli said “he moves like a panther”, Nolan says “I think John David has his own version of that. This kind of controlled energy just fits this type of character so well”. Indeed, at 5’9”, Washington’s stocky, muscled physique is not dissimilar to that of another Bond, Daniel Craig.
Nolan says that the electric premiere of BlacKkKlansman in Cannes played a significant part in the casting. “It very much sort of felt like destiny to me,” Nolan said. “That was an extraordinary screening”. Indeed, it was followed by a ten-minute standing ovation, after which, Washington broke down in tears. “I held it together until I got in the car, then I cried like a baby,” he told the Times. “I’d never had that kind of triumph, not even in football. The winning. I think the tears represented what I wanted my whole life, [the time I had spent] hiding the artist in me”.
Destiny, stardom, tearful catharsis – so far, so Hollywood. But Washington’s path hasn’t always been obvious to him. He went to school in Los Angeles, where he was a star athlete. A football scholarship to the private Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia followed. By his own account he enjoyed his time at Morehouse, despite the occasional worry that he wasn’t good enough to be a professional football player. His mind was put to rest on that score when he was signed by NFL franchise, the St. Louis Rams. Washington remembers the moment he found out, with his family: “we were all yelling, screaming, crazy, crazy, crazy”.
In the years that followed however, he failed to make a bona fide NFL appearance and in 2013, after a spell playing in less auspicious leagues in Europe and elsewhere, he snapped his Achilles tendon. Overnight, aged 29, his career as a professional sportsman came to an end.
But when one door closes, another door opens. Especially, perhaps, when you are Denzel Washington’s son. It’s testament to JD Washington’s own talents and rich back story that it’s possible to get this far without mentioning the fact, but his father is acting royalty.
Washington Junior had always harboured dreams of acting, but he has described his football career as “an excuse” that he used – despite, or maybe because of, his Hollywood heritage. (His mother Pauletta is also an actor, and indeed first met Denzel at work, on the set of TV series Wilma.)
Technically speaking then, JD Washington’s first acting job – before HBO’s Ballers – was at the tender age of 6, when he accompanied his father to the set of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, and was given a tiny part in a classroom scene. At the age of 12, JD remembers his father giving him and his football teammates a motivational speech from the sidelines. It was only later that he realised his dad’s inspirational words were in fact lifted from the same film.
Stepping out of his father’s shadow can’t have been easy. At football camp, Washington tried to adopt the alias “Mikey”, until it inevitably failed. In the acting world, Washington has taken classes and worked hard to prove his commitment to the craft. And for any actor, no matter who your father is, a Nolan set is demanding. I remember it myself, having spent a few days working on the set of The Dark Knight Rises when it filmed in London. I was advised by a friend beforehand: this director runs a tight ship.
Washington’s discipline and teamwork skills from his NFL days will no doubt have come in handy on the Tenet set, especially given the gruelling action scenes and shooting schedule which ran across seven countries.
Thank god, given all of this, that he also has a personality. With no reports of a love-interest, he spent the Coronavirus lockdown barbequing and watching boxsets (the Sopranos and Sex and the City, specifically). In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Washington teased his co-star, Rob Pattinson, for his matinee idol looks: Rob “always finds his light”. According to Pattinson, Washington is also a positive person, and a laugh to work with: “you can definitely push him a little bit to be naughty”. The word that sticks out most though, in Pattinson’s descriptions of Washington, is this: “buoyant”. It seems fitting somehow, not just for his personality, but for his trajectory.
TENET is set to be released on the 12th August. Watch the trailer here:
Ellen Lister is on Twitter: @Ellen__Lister