L ike one of those bullets in Tenet, John David Washington is traveling backward through time. Standing on the 50-yard line of his old high school football field in Van Nuys, California, where he hasn’t set foot in 18 years, he starts replaying the game-day ritual. Washington’s alma mater, Campbell Hall, an Episcopal day school in Studio City, didn’t have its own field, so the team would bus over here to Birmingham High for battle. “So we get off there, come to that light, turn left,” he says, pointing beyond the southeast corner of the stadium to the intersection of Balboa and Victory boulevards. “That’s when the butterflies and the jitters started, because here we are.”
He points to where the band would stand, where the cheerleaders would do their thing, and then to the wooden bleachers, third row from the bottom. There, right in the middle, sat his parents, Pauletta and Denzel Washington, every week. They were die-hards, though his mom hated seeing him get hit. After games, over her home cooking, Dad would sit J.D. down for a little coaching, dishing out praise — and a few notes. “He would love when I was free out there and not thinking about stuff,” Washington says. “He would say stuff like, ‘Trust your block. You might have hesitated here or there. You see the hole, you go. Don’t hesitate.’ ”
He takes a deep inhale. “This is crazy being on this field right now, man,” he says. I can tell he’s smiling beneath his black KN95 mask. “I mean, this field represents freedom to me. I’ve bled on this very field. I’ve worked out a lot of issues through this field.”
How many issues could a handsome, athletic scion of Hollywood royalty have to work out? He was a black kid growing up in America, for starters. But beyond that, maybe it’s not so easy to be the son of one of the world’s greatest actors, whose films your friends can all quote by heart. Maybe it’s even harder if you sense deep inside that you’re an artist too, but you’re afraid you won’t come close to reaching the bar that guy set. Maybe it would make you angry if everyone assumed the world was yours for the taking, that you’d never have to earn anything. Maybe that would prompt you to take a detour away from the arts and into sports — first as a running back at Division II Morehouse College, then to the lower echelons of the NFL — where every yard you scrapped for was yours.
Washington, 36, tried all that, and for a while, it worked. But after a torn Achilles tendon laid him up, he realized football had served its purpose — the family business was calling, and it was time to pick up the phone. In 2015, he eased into acting with the role of mercurial wide receiver Ricky Jerret on Ballers, HBO’s brash football dramedy starring the Rock. Within three years, he was co-starring in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, based on the true story of a black cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in the Seventies. From there, it was a quick hop to Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi spy behemoth Tenet, followed by this year’s Malcolm & Marie, a combustible relationship drama that sees Washington bring the full force of his charisma to bear in an all-night fight with his girlfriend, played by Zendaya. And when we speak in February, he’s filming a David O. Russell movie with a murderers’ row of actors including Robert De Niro, Chris Rock, Margot Robbie, and Christian Bale, among others. In just a few short years, in other words, John David Washington has become a bona fide movie star. As for those issues? That part is a little more complicated.
“I don’t even know if [people] see me as John David yet,” he says later, tiptoeing into a question about how he handles celebrity. “I’m still ‘Denzel’s son.’ I’m always his son. So it’s like, the day that they start seeing just me is the day that I can maybe better answer that question about celebrity. ’Cause I’m still not out of his shadow.”
Growing up in Toluca Lake and then Beverly Hills, the oldest of the four Washington children (sister Katia is a producer who worked on Malcolm & Marie, Olivia is an actor, and her twin brother, Malcolm, is a filmmaker), John David showed an early passion for the arts. He was a movie obsessive who, Katia says, could recite the entirety of his father’s Civil War drama Glory by the time he was 10 years old. He drew and painted as a kid and all through high school, finding it a calming counterbalance to the more physical outlet of sports. (He was also a prankster who put his early acting instincts to work by imitating his father’s voice and scolding his siblings from another room in the house.) But as his talents on the field developed — in step with his father’s fame rocketing into the stratosphere — he leaned harder into football.
“Acting, I knew I always wanted to do,” Washington recalls as we stroll slowly from end zone to end zone. His easygoing manner belies the intensity of what comes next. “But I literally wanted to get some aggression out. The growing pains of being a teenager, the stuff I’ve experienced, being the son of someone. I could get that out here. I wanted to be productive with my anger. And I could use it as part of something positive.”
Because the Campbell Hall program was in its infancy, with a team of only 28 kids, Washington played on both sides of the ball, making tackles as a strong safety and racking up thousands of yards as a running back. With each passing year the team got better and drew bigger, starrier crowds. “We were like the Mighty Ducks,” he says. The Olsen twins were in the stands; NFL legend Jim Brown watched John David run for his longest touchdown, a 75-yarder in his final game. Not that Washington really cared about that stuff. “The football is pure,” as he puts it. “The truth is on the field. The story is what happens on the field.”
Washington emerged as a leader on the team, someone who wanted the ball with the game on the line. (“This is where things were about to happen,” he says as we cross the 40-yard line. “This is where they can turn to me, and I can turn it up.”) His name started appearing in the paper. His confidence grew with his success — though, ever the dutiful son and big brother, it was also tied up with his family’s approval. His parents instilled a work ethic in their kids, a fierce devotion to preparation. These were things he could showcase on the field. Football was a way for him to do right by all of them, but to do it his way, to have something that was his own.
“I just remember how good it felt, how proud I would make my parents, my family, after the games,” he says. “Even in losses, I was balling, and we would talk for hours about the game, analyzing, break every single thing down. And knowing they were right there . . . I’d get out from a hit or something, and I’d glance sometimes and see them, and just . . . it feels good. It feels like your work is rewarded when you make people that care about you feel proud.”
Proud might be an understatement. The whole family attended games: Malcolm was a ball boy, Pauletta was the family videographer for a while. Katia says they have a running gag about John David dominating anything he puts his mind to. “Watching him excel is something I’m used to, because he’s just annoyingly great at things,” she says. “We joke about it, but he’s great at things because he tries, he pushes himself, he doesn’t settle.”
He’s been known to hold the rest of the family to those exacting standards. Katia says that when they’d play basketball together as kids, “he would push my buttons, get in my face.” He took no pity on her just because she was his little sister. The point wasn’t to bully her, it was to make her better. “Nobody would believe me now, because he’s the sweetest person on Earth, but at the time I thought he was trying to end me on the court,” she says with a laugh. “There were real tears. I’d run away down the street. [Then he’d be] like, ‘But your jump shot was nice, wasn’t it? See?’ ”
When it came time for college, Washington had offers from a few schools but chose the historically black Morehouse in Atlanta, because he wanted to get out of Dodge. Two thousand miles away from L.A., he thought he could keep shaking off that cloak of privilege everyone else kept draping over him. (Even now, he makes his home far from Hollywood, in Brooklyn.) “I wanted out,” he says. “I wanted to be in my culture, to be with my people, because I felt like I had more to prove. I [wanted to] show my community that I can play ball against those Southern dudes, I can play with the best.” His mom grew up in North Carolina, so he had cousins in the area who’d come to games and surprise him afterward with Bojangles chicken. Once again, John David put their joy and their pride in his hands. “It was like family reunions,” he says. “I’d put a little pressure on myself, like, I have to ball to keep this family connection going. The better I play, the more connected we can all be.”
He dug deeper, ran harder. As he set individual-game and career records at the school, he began to believe the NFL might actually be within his grasp. At the same time, the injuries piled up. Broken clavicle. Torn meniscus. Concussions. He risked his body week after week to show people his heart.
“When I was playing, I was eyes closed, balls to the wall, man,” Washington says. “I did not care about injury. I welcomed the injuries, because I felt like if I could play through it, I’m proving more to people — to myself — that this isn’t a handout, this is for real. I’m not doing this because it’s recreational. I was doing it like my life depended on it.” Later, he’ll describe how breaking a rib made him feel like he was doing something right: “They didn’t break my rib because I’m Denzel’s son, they broke my rib because I’m balling on them, and I’m doing great.”
In 2006, after watching the draft for an entire weekend — his dad parked in front of the TV, obsessively analyzing the picks in each round (“My pops shoulda been working for ESPN, man”), his mom baking “about five cakes” to cook away her nerves — the Washington family learned that the then-St. Louis Rams wanted to sign John David as an undrafted free agent. They all “went berserk.” Though he never made the 53-man roster, he stayed on the practice squad for two seasons, grinding it out every day. That was followed by four seasons in the UFL. That is, until the final injury: the torn Achilles tendon that ended his playing days at 28.
Back in the Hollywood that John David Washington had been studiously avoiding, casting director Sheila Jaffe was going through her own kind of pain. She had been searching for an entire year to find the right person to play an egotistical yet likable wide receiver for the HBO drama that would come to be called Ballers. She’d auditioned somewhere around a thousand people, actors and former NFL players alike. No one fit. But she heard that, yes, “Denzel’s son” had played a little ball. She placed a call.
Which is how it came to be that Washington hobbled into his first audition on crutches, with lots of real-life experience, a little trepidation, and no formal training as an actor. He’d told no one about the opportunity but his mom, whom he calls “the most consistent person in my life.”
John David speaks with reverence about Pauletta — her experiences growing up in the segregated South, her perspective on the world, and especially her talents as a performer. She’s a pianist and a singer, a Juilliard alum who’s done Broadway, television, and film. He recalls seeing her in a one-woman show when he was a boy and being captivated in the same way he was when he watched his dad on the big screen: “I saw this person I saw every day at home turn into this other person. It was almost like she wasn’t even a person — she was this radiant energy that blasted through my spirit. It gave me a feeling I’ve been holding onto my whole life.”
What better person to become his new coach. As John David prepared to step into Ricky Jerret’s cleats, Pauletta ran lines with him. They rehearsed scenes. She drove him to the audition. And Jaffe found her man.
“I hadn’t been in Los Angeles in so long,” he says. “And I stayed around for the healing process. So I was seeing [my mom] more, and we just bonded over this rebirth of her son, coming into what I really wanted to do. Maybe she knew that already, but she was there for the birth of this person you see now.”
As Ballers took off, Washington was still angsty about the family name, adamant that no one assume he was coasting. For a while, he refused to do press for the show. The scars of his playing days were fresh in more ways than one: Despite his relentless effort and sacrifice, he’d never been able to convince all of the skeptics, even when he made it to the league. He still gets animated talking about it today. “I literally had situations where [people] think I don’t need my scholarship because I’m Denzel’s son,” he says. “Well, I feel like I earned the scholarship. I worked hard, I broke my ribs, I got concussions. I worked for that contract, even though I sat on the bench.
“I don’t operate like that anymore,” he continues, not entirely convincingly, “and some of them have a point — maybe you’re right! But at the time? I’m not going to be denied. I deserve it just like the next person, because I’m working my ass off for it. Just because I’m related to him doesn’t mean that I’m less deserving of something, especially when I’m putting in the work.” Even friends, Washington says, would sometimes casually suggest, “You don’t have to worry about anything,” or, “You’re going to be taken care of,” as if his whole life was predestined, would be handed to him stress-free.
If that’s how some people perceived him in his playing days, how would they feel when he stepped into his parents’ realm? “Honestly, the pressure, that’s what dictated a lot of my behavior,” he says. “This level of greatness [my parents have] as artists, both of them. So I gotta be in line. I gotta be in pocket.”
He handled it the only way he knows how: putting in the work. On breaks from shooting Ballers in Miami, he’d fly up to New York to train with acting coaches such as Rochelle Oliver. When I ask him why he’d bother taking classes when he was getting on-the-job training, he digs in: “I’m thinking long term. I want to be the best that I can be. What did I do in football? I worked on my game — strength coach, conditioning, drilling day in, day out. I need to know how to research the character. I have great instincts, but I need to marry that with an analytical approach, to throw out what I don’t need and keep what’s useful.”
Soon enough the press came to him. And then, after a couple of years and a couple of movies (Love Beats Rhymes, Monsters and Men), another very important call. Spike Lee had cast Washington in what was actually his first role: At six years old, he was one of the schoolchildren who stands up to shout, “I am Malcolm X!” at the end of the film that would earn his dad a third Oscar nomination. Lee always knew that wouldn’t be John David’s last time on film. Now, more than 20 years later, he was offering him a starring role in BlacKkKlansman.
“It was this circle route,” the director says, tossing off a football analogy. “I always [thought] that, sooner or later, he would come back to his love, besides sports. And that is film. But I have to tell you, because I know how hard it’s been for my son Jackson being the only son of Spike Lee, if you want to be an actor, and your father is Denzel Washington? That shit ain’t easy.”
That said, Lee felt he’d already seen all he needed to see to know he had the chops. “John David Washington did not ‘audition’ for BlacKkKlansman,” he reminds me. “All he had to do was say yes or no, and luckily he said yes. I had complete confidence that he could do what needed to be done to make the role successful and the film. I was not hesitant about it. I trust my instincts, and I was right.”
The role of Ron Stallworth, a real-life Colorado Springs cop who worked with his white colleagues to penetrate the ranks of the KKK, earned Washington Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominations for best actor — and the attention of Christopher Nolan. In their first meeting while he was casting Tenet, Nolan says the actor “felt like a rocket on a launchpad.” He was full of energy and ambition, Nolan says, as well as the physicality balanced with deep empathy that Nolan knew the lead role, Protagonist, would require. And if Washington still had any doubts about his abilities, Nolan was happy to erase them, constantly telling him to trust his instincts during filming: “It was a long shoot, and he was in every single scene, and had enormous pressures in terms of what he had to deliver. It was just wonderful to see him discovering all the things he could do.” Despite the pandemic spoiling its domestic theatrical release, the movie has grossed more than $360 million internationally — success that Nolan attributes directly to Washington’s appeal. “John David did an incredible job of carrying the movie,” he says, “because it rests very firmly on his shoulders and his charisma as a leading man.”
Washington gives the credit for much of his success to those two directors, who “really showed me time after time that I belong.” But his sister Katia has noticed a deeper driving force as his career has evolved: “The ability to say what he wanted is something that he’s definitely grown into, in a way that I’m super impressed by. To say, ‘I want to go after this dream of being an actor, and I want to do it my way, and I want to do the roles that make me feel fulfilled.’ And [to] stretch himself, and try things. That’s not easy. It’s been really inspiring.”
The biggest stretch, in some ways, has been the smallest movie. Malcolm & Marie is an intimate, black-and-white film written and shot during the pandemic on a shoestring budget, with no cast except its two stars. The story pits Washington’s Malcolm, a rising filmmaker struggling to find his voice in Hollywood, against Zendaya’s Marie, the girlfriend who helps propel him to a professional breakthrough, in a one-night exhibition of emotional violence. Malcolm rails about movie critics and the frustrations of being black in show business. He cuts Marie down when she accuses him of stealing her life story for his film. He storms off outside in the dark to vent his anger physically yet silently — kicking the grass, jousting an invisible sword, and swinging a bat that isn’t there. He crouches by her in the bathtub, tearfully professing his love. Tenet may have had Washington jumping from moving cars and scaling buildings, but this is by far his most dynamic role. And for once, it seems, he let some of that intense preparation and perfectionism fall away.
“I really had to get away from my process,” he says. “I had to let Malcolm in. I had to release myself of all of the actory questions, the who, what, when, why . . . I had to underprepare. When I stopped thinking about what I was researching, that’s when the guy came to me. It’s so weird. I just thought about my personal life, that’s when the truth started coming out.
“I’m being vague because I have to,” he continues, “but there’s a certain energy that I wanted to capture, an opportunity to carry the spirits of artists, and not just black artists, feeling like they’re in a box. This idea of identity, which I’m still trying to dispel, that can be very frustrating. Just me being related to who I am.” He brings it back to the Birmingham High turf: “This independence, why we’re standing on this field. This field represented a lot of moments that Malcolm was ranting [about].”
Katia saw the change in her brother on set: “Watching him act, it was so amazing up close, because of the openness and freedom that the role called for. Seeing it grow and build on itself as we were shooting was incredible. It was watching him be free, and be open, and be an artist. That was new.”
Washington is the only person writer-director Sam Levinson had in mind for the role, and the actor says Levinson gave him so much room to interpret Malcolm that, for the first time, he felt that the character was entirely his. That feeling, in turn, may have gotten him one step closer to his ultimate goal with the work: forging an unbreakable bond with the audience. “Selfishly, I pursue the feeling that I had when I watched my dad in Glory, when I watch Robert De Niro,” he says. “That I can make somebody feel hope, joy, pain, connect with the character as if they know them.
“Maybe they do know a piece of them,” he says, musing on that mysterious alchemy that takes place between actor and character. Just as football allowed him to reveal parts of himself he couldn’t express with words, so too does acting. “If they see something they connect with, they’re seeing pieces of me that I’m discovering when I’m doing the thing. They don’t know that they’re seeing pieces of me, but we’re connected in that way. . . . I hope that somebody can come up to me someday and say, ‘I saw a piece of you in me that was so real, so true, that has never left.’ ”
There is one area where Washington’s growing confidence fades somewhat, at least on film. “Kissing scenes, huge challenges for me,” he says later, as we sit outside at the Marmalade Cafe in Sherman Oaks. Even with the likes of Zendaya? “Love scenes? I hate them. I hate ’em, I hate ’em, I hate ’em.” We’re surrounded by couples enjoying their Valentine’s Day brunches in the restaurant’s back lot. “They make me so uncomfortable. Maybe just kissing in public. There’s a gaffer, there’s a cameraman, there’s the video village over there. I don’t know, it’s an intimate moment. It’s weird.”
When we start talking about intimacy offscreen, Washington unconsciously folds his arms across his chest. It’s a chilly day for L.A., but he’s got a denim jacket on. I don’t think he’s responding to the weather. “I’ve had a hard time trusting people because of my family, so my relationships have faltered because of that a bit,” Washington says. He adds almost immediately, “It’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m doing an interview.” We look at each other and laugh. “I’m still looking, I’m welcoming it all. I’m content, not forcing anything, just like in the work. I used to have this desperation to prove myself to so many people, prove that I’m my own man. But at what cost? That has subsided.”
I find this more persuasive than what he said earlier. “Now, I’m just more mature,” he adds. “If I believe in what I do, which is God, and that I’m serving a bigger purpose, and I want Him to move me and make my decisions, that means I can’t panic. I have to exemplify that faith by not panicking in my decisions with my significant other or a role that I think is going to change my career.”
Spirituality is a big part of what grounds him. His parents are devout Christians who always stressed the value of prayer. And there was a literal “come to Jesus” moment back in college that solidified the role of religion in his life. During his junior year, he made a pact with God to help propel him to the NFL: a full year with no drinking, no smoking, only clean living. “I wouldn’t even listen to rap music, no curse words,” he says. “I was a freaking nun.” He ended up having the worst season of his career. He lost faith but came out of that spiritual crisis the following year, once he adjusted his definition of success, and then, most crucially, handed over control: “I told God, ‘I’ll never leave you again. That’s my bad, man. I’ll never leave you again.’ ”
Pauletta, too, has been instrumental in this transition to someone who can let go, give himself over completely, and share his vulnerabilities. She keeps him honest, and reminds him all the time to “understand your power,” he says. “And that doesn’t mean covering up your insecurities, so you think you just have to be a commando all the time. Sometimes it’s about how you listen. Some people think authority is strength and kindness is weakness. [But] you’re not giving love to expect it back; you’re giving love because this is how you live.”
If God is at the wheel of Washington’s life these days, he’s a damn good driver. The actor’s next project, the untitled David O. Russell movie, has him marveling every day at his co-stars, soaking up advice from masters like Bale, Rock, “Mr. De Niro.” “This cast is bananas, man,” Washington says, without recognizing that he’s part of why it’s bananas. “It’s crazy. It feels like all-star weekend on that set every day.”
He can’t reveal anything about the plot, or even the period in which the film is set, which has him sporting an old-fashioned Vandyke beard both times we meet. But in probing the era and his character, Washington has been exploring bigger questions of race in America — and finding himself both surprised and distressed.
“I’m dealing with the spirits of our people and what we’ve gone through in this country,” he says. “What being American means, what being an African American means, and the issues are so antiquated. It’s ‘history repeats itself’ [in] this film, this character. Really, the research was kicking me down a little bit, because we talked about hearing the same thing over and over again, saying the same things over and over again. And this character’s dealing with it head-on. This stuff I’ve researched I will have for life now. I’m going to continue to dig deep into the whys of what was going on in this country.”
The topic springboards us to a discussion about the expansiveness of black identity, and how the public’s perception of what black people can do and be has broadened, thanks in part to the film and television being made today, which finally reflects the breadth and diversity of our experiences. It’s a growing body of work that Washington feels both called to and excited to be a part of. “We’ve been eccentric, we’ve been a lot of things, but we had to hide it,” he says. “Now it’s embraced. Mr. Spike Lee, to me, was one of the first to display our differences, that we’re not just this single black thought, this one black way of being. We’re weird, we’re quirky, we’re hilarious, obviously. We’re not all the same. And that’s why I do what I do, too. To get to the specifics of why we’re so different. I see Donald Glover doing it, LaKeith [Stanfield]. Now, it’s celebrated to be different and black.”
For now, though, he’s focused on the Russell film. While the job has him back on the preparation train, he also says he’s taking more chances with it. He compares the process to football, how the game slows down as you get more experience. You see the field better, read the coverage.
I ask how good he thinks he is at this point. At first, he misunderstands the question. “In life, or?” No, no, in the art. “Oh. I was like, ‘That’s a big question. Man, I’m terrible at life. I’m still working on this,’ ” he cracks. “‘How much time do you have,’ right?” There are still some things he’s working through. His sister Olivia has been encouraging him to paint again — bought him a canvas and some tools for Christmas a couple of years back that he has yet to use. “I don’t know what I’m running from,” he says.
But when it comes to acting, he knows he’s good and only getting better: “I’m not even close to maximizing my potential. And it’s taken people I’ve worked with to help me tap into that voice or that anger, whatever it is, to be able to display it through a character.”
And does he feel he’s changing people’s minds through the work? “I don’t care if I do,” he says. “I’m not worried about that. It doesn’t fuel me anymore.”
Thinking about his methods and looking back over his body of work, I’m reminded of something Katia said about watching John David play ball at Morehouse: “They separate backs sometimes into the workhorse and the other guy. But he was both. He was the guy running it for the dirty two or three yards, and then he was the guy who could break out and have a huge play.”
He can do whatever needs to be done, in other words, be it quiet or loud, subtle or flashy. He’s the ultimate team player who’s also a superstar. In this new phase of his life, all that youthful angst has finally burned off. And in his own way, in the long run, he ended up following his father’s advice: He trusted the block. He saw the hole, and he didn’t hesitate.
Now John David Washington is running full speed ahead, a crowd rising to its feet, nothing in front of him but the end zone.