John David Washington is one of Hollywood’s hottest rising stars, but he was reluctant to follow in his famous father’s footsteps. The 36-year-old son of Denzel Washington opened up to Mr. Porter about why he initially turned away from acting.
“I was related to Denzel Washington,” he explained. “I saw how people changed when they found out who my father was. I used to lie, saying he was a construction worker or in jail, just to have some sense of normalcy. I felt like there was no way people would take me seriously, even if I was good. They would always judge me. So I hid who my father was. I guess I was protecting myself.”
John David wanted to be an actor at a young age as he was particularly inspired by his father’s performance in Glory. One Christmas, Denzel gave him a costume from the movie, a Union Army Civil War jacket. He rarely took it off. John David explained why he was moved by the film.
“The brotherhood for one,” he said of the 1989 film, which was based on a true story about one of the first Black volunteer units in the Union Army.
“And we see [their white commanding officer] Robert Gould Shaw ripping up his paycheck in solidarity. He saw how wrong their treatment was,” John David continued. “He saw their human qualities. As a six-year-old going to a private school, surrounded by people who looked like Robert Gould Shaw, there was great medicine in that film. Not everybody is what you think. There are some people who will see the human in me, the good in me, the person that I am. I just loved that. And I loved my father’s performance.”
Despite having the acting bug, he pursued a career in football instead, hoping to escape his father’s shadow. After college, John David found success as a running back in the NFL. “And I kept getting jobs,” he recalled. “So, I was like, I’ll keep going. I’ll stay in character.”
An achilles tendon injury ended his football career in 2013, so John David finally gave into his passion. He landed his first major role in Dwayne Johnson’s HBO sports comedy Ballers. He went on to star in Spike Lee’s 2018 film BlacKkKlansman, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination. Now, he’s patiently waiting for his latest flick — Christopher Nolan’s super-secretive blockbuster Tenet — to be released. Through it all, Denzel’s advice has remained the same: work hard. “It doesn’t even guarantee you will make it, but if you don’t, you can almost guarantee that you won’t.”
John David is riding out the coronavirus pandemic at his parents’ home in Los Angeles. “I’ve been loving it,” he said of having this family time. “My folks are good housemates. They’re fun. I actually feel like the parent sometimes.”
When it comes to his career, John David hopes to inspire a younger generation, and that when kids see “an African-American man in a movie” they’re “not looking at color,” but at what inspires them.
“There’s so much medicine in these films,” he shared. “Hopefully, my work will speak for itself, like the early De Niros and Leonardo DiCaprios. Their work speaks for itself. That’s how I’d like to live.”
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