When the lights came up on an early screening of BlacKkKlansman in Los Angeles last August, a few keen-eyed moviegoers were stunned to see John David Washington, the film’s dashing star, fumbling for his car keys and cellphone like everybody else. This wasn’t some cushy private room at a Hollywood studio or producer’s home somewhere. The location was Rave Cinemas in the hardworking, predominantly African-American core where Baldwin Hills meets Crenshaw. Two giddy high school girls approached the actor as one pointed to the screen saying, “Aren’t you…?” To which Washington replied, with the broadest of smiles, “Guilty as charged.”
Washington, 34, grew up across town in the San Fernando Valley, and still lives there, but he used to come to this cineplex for the excitement. “It was the Magic Johnson Theatre back then, and people would laugh and holler and talk to the screen,” Washington says. “I was curious if the same thing would happen now.”
Curiosity satisfied. You could even hear a few “amens” during the film directed by Spike Lee about a real-life black detective who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan in 1970s Colorado. Movie Twitter is already using the word “Oscar” around Washington’s breakout lead performance. Washington drove home that night with yet another surreal indicator that he’s no longer a ticket-paying nobody—as if “nobody” was ever a possibility. You’ve probably heard by now that Washington is the eldest of four children to two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington. BlacKkKlansman isn’t even his first Spike Lee film. At age 8, John David (he has no middle name and usually goes by J.D.) appeared with his dad in Malcolm X. “I only had one line, but I had to deliver it,” Washington says. “It had to be good.”
Lest you rush to judgment that Washington is just another case of the famous getting more so, and that it’s who you know that counts, consider how hard he’s worked to distance himself from his fortuitous DNA. Talking to him, you get a sense that he genuinely struggles to avoid being ushered to the front of the line. The signs are large and small. There’s nothing showy about his delivery. He shops for clothing at Zara and vintage clothing store Wasteland (“The stylists I work with would kill me for saying that,” he says). He also built an entire career outside show business. The more people suggested that Washington go into the family business, the more he built himself up as an athlete. Football in particular offered the appeal of being anonymous under a helmet. Washington was a standout running back at Studio City private school Campbell Hall in Los Angeles, and later at Morehouse College, before getting drafted by the St. Louis Rams as a free agent in 2006.
“My goal was always to create my own narrative,” he says, “and it nearly destroyed me physically.” Washington likes to say his “parting gifts” from football included five concussions, a torn meniscus, an Achilles heel injury, broken ribs and a sports hernia. “I wanted to prove myself so badly that no pain was going to deny me. At a certain point, you realize that’s toxic fuel to run on.”
He was still on pain meds from Achilles heel surgery when HBO tapped him to play hotheaded wide receiver Ricky Jerret opposite Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson on the gridiron comedy Ballers. The production wanted real athletes for the series, and veteran casting director Sheila Jaffe remembered Denzel had a son playing pro ball. Even when he got the role, Washington minimized his connections, hiding behind a bushy beard and refusing most media requests to avoid questions about big Daddy D. He didn’t even tell his father about Ballers until after he got the part. (Interestingly, Washington counts being single as another casualty to his fear of fame by association. “I have a trust issue because people can Google you and see your relations,” he says. “That’s something I’ve got to work on.”
But the success of Ballers, now in its fourth season, and the consistent raves for Washington finally helped him glimpse a world in which being himself was enough. He stopped running from the fact that he’d always loved acting (as a child, he nearly wore out the VHS copy of Glory trying to memorize every line his father and Morgan Freeman uttered) and was OK—exhilarated, even—getting rejections after going out for new parts. “Auditions may be the best way to say, ‘Hey, dude, you’re really not that special. Just keep working.’”
This fall, Washington has supporting roles in The Old Man & the Gun, a crime comedy alongside Robert Redford, and Monsters and Men, a drama about police brutality. Those jobs wrapped months ago, so the actor is taking time to chill after a year of nonstop doing. He’s catching up on movies—“Black Panther and Sorry to Bother You. It’s been a fascinating and important year for people of color in Hollywood,” he says—and he’s gearing up for what looks like a new golden age of sports in Southern California. “I love that LeBron’s coming to town, and now we’ve got football again, so it’s definitely showtime!”
Not that Washington has much time for games. In the wake of BlacKkKlansman, he is swimming in movie offers and considering dream projects of his own. “If there was a [Black Panther Party co-founder] Bobby Seale project, that would be wonderful,” he says. “That being said, I would love to be James Bond. I would love to play a Ninja Turtle. I would love to give voice to the tribes that were here before the ships arrived. I’m happy for my whole life to be movies, since it’s been part of me for so long.”
The child is the father of the man, as the saying goes. Fortunately, in this case, the man’s father is fully supportive. Washington’s voice cracks a little when he’s asked about his dad’s reaction to seeing BlacKkKlansman for the first time.
“I gotta say he was proud,” he says, and here Washington needs to collect himself for a moment. “Everybody has a different way of communicating their feelings, but Dad verbalized his very directly to me. He said, ‘You did good, son. Real good.’ And that was a big moment for me.”