The year 2018 will go down as the year that many saw Spike Lee return to form. With BlacKkKlansman, the acclaimed filmmaker did what he does best: provide an unapologetic commentary on today's society. He did so by giving us some historical insight on the Klan in America decades ago, which tied eerily into the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last year. Lee did so by introducing the film-watching community (who isn't up on HBO's Ballers) to John David Washington, who portrayed Ron Stallworth, the black detective who successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan.
While most of the BlacKkKlansman press was built around who John David's father is, 2018 will be seen as the year that he truly broke through. Washington got his first Golden Globe nomination (Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama) for his role in BlacKkKlansman, as well as getting the Breakout Performance Award at this year's Hollywood Film Awards Ceremony. Couple that with the critical praise both for this film and his performance, as well as the Oscar buzz surrounding the movie, and 2019 could turn into another joyous year for John David Washington.
We recently caught up with John David during a press run for the home release of BlacKkKlansman. He took the time out to speak on how he got the role of Ron Stallworth, what he learned working with Spike, and his thoughts on the year in (and the future of) black creatives in Hollywood.
Earlier this year, you received the Hollywood Breakout Performance Award at the Hollywood Film Awards Ceremony. You got the Hollywood Breakout Performance Award. Is it fair to say that 2018 is one of the best years of your life?
You know, it's probably a 1A/1B because 2017 was as well because I was filming all this stuff, and I really enjoyed the process. I don't do it for awards, because you never know how people will receive the work you do, if they even get to see it. I really enjoy and invest in the process of creating and making this stuff. So, 1A/1B, because obviously, people seem to be connecting with the work, it's such a great feeling.
Is it weird for you to be up in front of your peers, like at the Cannes Film Festival, with the 10-minute ovation? Is that a weird feeling for you, seeing people receiving your work so well?
It's definitely unfamiliar territory for me. I'm not used to being received in such grand and respected ways like that. I don't know if it's weird, but it's definitely unfamiliar. That being said, I'm fans of a lot of people I've been able to be around and meet as of late, so the fact that they seem to, some of them, seem to be positive about the response, I'm like a little kid. I mean, Spike Lee, the fact that this legend thought enough of me to be in it, and thought I did a good job. That kind of validation, I'll take that to the grave, man.
I imagine you've known Spike for years, but I read that he called you with the idea for you to play this role. Was there a specific audition process that went in with this, or was it understood that you had the role and it was your time to get into Ron Stallworth's head?
There was no audition, it was sort of an elevator pitch. It didn't even feel like a pitch. Honestly, from the phone call we had, it felt like we were already working. Like I had no choice but to do it. "You're not doing anything, I don't care what's on your schedule—clear it!" You know what I'm saying? And I appreciated that; I didn't believe it at first. Is this really happening? [It was] top secret, you can't tell agents, he doesn't work with different agents. It's me and you. So I couldn't tell anybody. It's one of those things, I didn't even know for sure, I can't tell anybody if it is. I told my mom, of course, 'cause she's got to know. But, yeah. We just kind of rolled with it from April (2017), when we started shooting, into December.
The way Spike has worked throughout his career, there's always been core actors or a core group of people that he seems to work with on multiple projects. Do you hope you could become one of those guys who can have, not just BlacKkKlansman, but a string of Spike Lee films on your filmography?
I could only be so lucky. I will take this one, and know that this was a pivotal moment in my life that I really got to witness actual change. That's on my inside, not how the world perceives me, or sees me, but, really internally and how I work and who I am as a man because of that experience. I will forever be indebted to him, but yeah, God willing, he calls me again.
Talk about that change more. This was really the first time many saw you as the lead role in a film. What was that process like compared to some of the smaller projects, you're working on Ballers, where you're a character in the project, but not the main guy.
For me, I have a sports background, I'm just a part of the team, man. I'm one of the guys. I'm just a teammate. So, I don't have any sort of extra pressure on myself, personally, about what number I am on the call sheet. It's the same amount of pressure when I did Malcolm X as a kid as I did football. Obviously, there's more responsibility, but I love what I do. I love this job, I truly do.
So, the process, what I mean by this transformation of self, I guess, is the process of how I got to work. Spike introduced me to a way of working that I didn't know existed, understanding that Santa Claus really does exist. What I mean by that is, he's a big proponent of process and steps, and I think that we got to rehearse, we discussed, he trusted, and I never had that kind of trust from anybody I've ever worked with. It was like complete trust fall, like, "just do it, kid. Just do it. Just do the work. I picked you for a reason." It was almost like his confidence was in who he cast, it was everybody's. He just took a step down, stepped away from working, some stuff here and there, but I never got any notes, which I've gotten many a time.
So, that experience, that's what I mean by I was able to grow and really see what I can really do, because I had to, because it was on me to do it. He didn't coach me up at all, it was great.
Well his process worked, because you did the damn thing. I remember being in awe watching the film at the first screening I went to. It was an amazing experience and I think it's a really important one. Especially in a year full of black cinema, whether it's blockbuster stuff, like Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, The Hate U Give, or even Monsters and Men, which you also starred in. Are there conversations you've been having both in and outside the industry about how black stories and, just black filmmakers in general, are really achieving this year? Not different from other years, but it definitely feels like it's more. Are you feeling this way as well?
Maybe it could be happening because of the social climate of our country, maybe it's more highlighted now, it's like a megaphone now with this industry and people of color, to celebrate. We as a community, have been making films, but like, not for the masses. I think the industry now is putting money behind the promotions of such films and celebrations of such films. So, that's great, but honestly what I'd like to see is, you know, the men and women of color in those executive seats. More men and women of color in the PR department, more men and women of color at other points of occupancy that are behind the camera, that are in the industry. Producers, studio execs, that kind of thing. That's when I think we can truly measure what kind of change, the evolution we've made in the industry in this business.
BlacKkKlansman is available on Blu-ray and DVD.