John David Washington first appeared in Malcolm X as a six-year-old boy saying “I am Malcolm X.” Fifteen years later, Washington would appear as Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s latest film BlacKkKlansman. I caught up with the actor to talk about working with the legendary director and the confidence Lee helped him craft as an actor. Washington also talks about how meeting the real-life Stallworth helped him with his research, and how he came to understand Stallworth’s heroism as the man who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan.
What was it like reading the script to BlacKkKlansman for the first time?
I got to read the book first so I had a great amount of context leading up to the script. I was also anxious about the script just because of what we could fit into two hours. I was really impressed with how they stuck with the story and that took a lot of courage and humility in that too and they felt like they didn’t need to manipulate the whole thing to make it more entertaining because the foundation of the story is truthful, but it’s so absurd that it can work for the actors. There was plenty to use and plenty to play from.
I was excited because where do you start?
You knew the story before you came in?
Spike sent me the book and that’s when I read it. Then he said, “I’ll see you this Summer.” That’s how I got the job. He just knew. He didn’t let me meet Ron until the day before the table read. We had a conversation and then I got to meet him the day of the table read. We communicated every week until the movie was done.
What was it like reading the story and seeing all of that and knowing it really happened as absurd as it seemed?
I was thinking about how heroic this man was. I’d seen the story and the support he got from his department, a bunch of white officers and detectives and I found hope in that. I found beginnings of answers of some social issues that have been plaguing us for decades.
I thought about how successful his mission was. There were no cross burnings. He redefined what success means when it comes to this subject matter which was no violent acts and no acts of terrorism in this town while this whole investigation as going on. It was a huge accomplishment for them to prevent that. I thought about the phone calls and how close he got to David Duke. He was making this guy look like a fool but he wasn’t doing it for entertainment value which was so entertaining for us, but he was doing it for intel and trying to get to the source of why this man was like that and how to prevent violence.
He wasn’t even thinking nationally or how to save the planet, he was thinking about protecting and serving his community. I loved that.
It’s great you put it that way because he’s such a hero. He pulled off so much. You talk about meeting him. What was that like for you?
When he passed around his membership card signed by David Duke, for some reason holding that card in my hand based on all that information I had gathered prior to that meeting, really helped give it a sense of reality that demystified it and I mean that positively. He was almost a superhero, but he was a human being and he actually did this.
This wasn’t made up by Spike. It’s true American history. I felt a sense of purpose that I was able to use while playing him. He’s a funny guy with a dry sense of humor and he’s also really witty. He often talked about how being an undercover detective, you have to be an actor in a sense, you have to ad-lib and think on your toes when you’re on the clock and that was really helpful.
Aside from your speaking to Ron, I read that you watched the CNN documentary series The 70s. What else did you do to get into that 70s vibe?
Because of Spike not allowing me to meet or talk to Ron until we started, I was left to my own devices for two months. That documentary, the Black Panther mix tape documentary, was outstanding. I watched a lot of Soul Train. I spoke to some uncles who gave me playlists. Alan Hughes was a mentor of mine. I outsourced all over the place and asked about stories. One thing that kept coming up was how this country was affected by the assassination of JFK and Martin Luther King, and there was Vietnam and the scabs of that. That’s what I think influenced a lot of the visual transitions in the clothes and the hairstyles, even in the social activities and most definitely in the music. That really informed me, at least where I would have been in those times and then combining that with research Stallworth and combining that into Ron’s story.
When Spike works with his actors, he lets actors ad-lib, talk about those scenes and how that helped you grow as an actor?
We got to rehearse for two weeks. There was a lot of re-writing. On the day, he understands momentum. We knew not to go for the low hanging fruit and go for jokes, we weren’t going for that anyway. We could be rooted in reality and find solace and comfort in the fact that this really happened.
We were so comfortable with the ad-libbing because he really let us work it out. That trust, especially from a legend like that really gave me confidence. I’ve never been directed like that. He would strip aspects of the performance down and go over blocking. I was so surprised with what he kept, so many times if you feel comfortable with who you’re working with and feel like you can go for it and change stuff up, it doesn’t even make the film. But with Spike, there’s a line “With the right white man you can do anything” and that was ad-libbed and he kept it. It was really encouraging and moving forward and with the right people, you feel like you have the courage to fall and you can try stuff.
Ron was your third officer.
It was. [laughs]. It was a great learning experience. I wasn’t really aware of the African-American experience as a detective. They’re humans and they’re people too. These people of color who are protecting their own community and the blue community, they’re not blue enough and not black enough and once I did my research, I realized how tricky and sometimes how tragic that is. It gave me a moment to be more specific with my contentions.
How did playing Ron change you?
It really highlighted how much of a thankless job law enforcement can be, especially for the African-American cop. You might have saved a life and you’re still getting lumped in. It taught me to be more specific in my issues with some people who are doing their jobs wrong.
There are people in our industry that are swarmed by controversy, it doesn’t mean that you or I are abusing our power. There are police officers that really do care. Ron Stallworth is one of them. He was a man of integrity. He was patriotic and took a lot of stuff on the chin. He had to endure a lot of criticism from his own community.
At the end of it all, were you able to go on and separate from him or did he stay with you?
Definitely not my playlist. I have over 40 hours of music from the 70s that I’ve still yet been unable to separate from. I listened to old school stuff before, there’s no way and it’s a part of me for life.
I’m kind of growing my hair out right now, maybe that’s a part of it now. I was able to walk away from it but definitely not the music. More so the experience of a Spike Lee set, I’ll never forget. To be able to experience that egoless environment and one that embraces ideas and collaboration to better the project, to tell the best story possible, that’s contagious and the work I’d want to be involved with the rest of my career.