Former American football running back — he was briefly with the then-St. Louis Rams as an undrafted free agent—John David Washington is breaking out on the big screen in a major way this year. The co-star of HBO’s Ballers had two movies at Sundance and will be seen in Fox Searchlight’s upcoming crime-drama Old Man and the Gun. His biggest coup to date was landing the title role in Spike Lee’s Cannes competition entry BlacKkKlansman, the true story of Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer from Colorado, who in the 1970s successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and became the head of the local chapter. Adam Driver and Topher Grace co-star in the Focus biopic whose producers include Jordan Peele and Jason Blum. We spoke to Washington about working with Lee, racial prejudice and what acting advice he gets from his dad Denzel.
You were in Sundance, and now you’re in Cannes. That’s pretty exciting.
It feels like the international Super Bowl. It’s very exciting. I can’t believe it. I’m very proud. The pressure’s on. I worked very hard, and it was such a liberating experience given who was at the helm. It has instilled a confidence in me to be able to tell truth in these characters. It has been an amazing experience.
The story behind BlacKkKlansman is remarkable. What attracted you to it?
The fact that this happened, that somebody actually did it. It was unfathomable. And the director. I don’t know whether anybody else could have been trusted with this. It’s a very sensitive subject.
What were the main challenges for you?
Spike said to me about Ron Stallworth, “He’s not the Bible, you don’t have to be so technical.” You do your prep and then you let it go and trust that it’s in your DNA and your spirit. It was a turbulent take-off but once I got confidence from Spike and the extremely talented cast, that made it easier. You need to be on your game, working with all these people. It was an ensemble piece in many ways.
Has your background in sports helped you with the acting transition?
Without a doubt. The nature of a football team means you’re relying on 10 other guys. Even then, that doesn’t guarantee a win. In football I learned about trust, handling failure, embracing discomfort, and rejection, which has helped with the auditions. NFL stands for Not For Long, as we know. The other thing is about checking in your ego. When players do that in the locker room or on the field, and actors and crew do that on set, that’s when you have success. It’s a beautiful thing when you serve the team. But one of my great games, at whatever level, doesn’t compare to a great day on a Spike Lee set. That’s the ultimate high.
Did you audition for the role?
No. It was on trust. Spike sent me the book in the first place… I’m not sure if you’re familiar with how Spike works but it’s one sentence or a couple of words and then he hangs up. He was cryptic. But it was clear he wanted me, even if my agent and I didn’t believe it at first.
This movie has racial prejudice at its core. Is that something you’ve encountered?
I have. While in sports, too. My mother is from a small town in South Carolina—I’ve seen it first-hand. I’ve met Caucasians who are racist but I’ve also heard black people say racist things. This movie is about what people say behind closed doors. It will spark conversation.
This is the first film by an African-American director to screen at Cannes in four years. You can count on one hand the number of black directors to have had films in competition in the last decade—more than 200 movies. What do you make of that?
Wow. I have mixed feelings. That’s a tremendous honor. It’s exciting. Spike is a great filmmaker no matter his color, so it shouldn’t be the headline. But it also gives me pause. Have we not been making great films? People will be affected by the movie either way.
Has your dad given you any acting advice?
The kind of advice he gives me is, “Get better, continue building your craft, you ain’t done nothing yet.” But he phrases it differently.
So he’s pretty hard?
What’s next for you?
I’m in talks about doing a play at the Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn. I’m auditioning for some other things. I want to keep working with great creatives.
Is Ballers Season 5 a thing?
I hear it is. You never know until you get the call sheet. If they invite me back, I’ll be there. I hope so.