A quarter century ago, Spike Lee directed “Malcolm X,” with Denzel Washington in top form as the slain civil rights leader. It featured the actor’s son in his first movie appearance at age 7, a cameo as “Student in Harlem Classroom.”
“I was a background artiste,” John David Washington said by phone. “I’ll never forget it. And the seven takes it took.”
Now 34, he makes his debut in a leading role in Lee’s latest, “BlacKkKlansman,” an audacious blend of crime thriller, racist history lesson, romance and buddy comedy. His film has already topped his father’s in the awards category, winning the Grand Prize in Cannes.
Before coming to major league acting, the younger Washington spent six years at the fringe of professional football. From 2006 to 2012, he was on the practice squad for the St. Louis Rams, played offseason in NFL Europe and signed with the California Redwoods in the short-lived United Football League.
At 28, after five concussions and a torn Achilles’ tendon, he felt it was time for a change. His first recurring role required 10 casting auditions that he kept hush-hush from his father. He was cast opposite Dwayne Johnson in HBO’s NFL comedy drama “Ballers.”
His first significant film work followed in “Monster,” a not-yet-released 2017 crime and courtroom thriller focused on racial politics. Produced by Lee’s wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, it prompted the director to cast him — without an audition — in “BlacKkKlansman.”
“He just was confident and believed in me,” Washington said.
He plays Ron Stallworth, a real-life Colorado police detective who went undercover in the 1970s to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. When Lee sent him a copy of Stallworth’s 2014 memoir “Black Klansman,” Washington “called Lee and said, ‘I can’t believe this happened.’ And he said, ‘It did happen, J.D. I’ll send you the script in a couple of months.’ ”
He’s happy for the opportunity to lead a cast including Alec Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Adam Driver and Topher Grace. His time on the football field notwithstanding, he has wanted to act his entire life.
“It goes back as far as I remember, seeing my father do Shakespeare in the Park when I was five years old. Watching ‘Glory’ on the set” as his father did his big death scene was another influential childhood event. “Knowing every line in that movie, that’s when I knew I wanted to do it.”
His perspective shifted as his father’s celebrity started to infringe on the family’s privacy. That’s what led him to sports.
“Seeing how life changed, I wanted to protect myself and it seemed like football was the way to do it. I mean literally, you wear a helmet so it’s like I’m in disguise.”
Being self-sufficient was far better than being famous. “What it did was feed my ego. I was able to create my own man. I was on my own, independent.”
Because he got a football scholarship, his parents didn’t have to pay for his schooling, he noted. “I felt good inside about doing this on my own. I’m grateful for people who believe in me, John David, and not who I’m related to.”
He stayed in contact with Stallworth during filming.
“We developed a nice relationship. He let me know a lot of things, stuff that I could never share publicly, but that really helped me for the character, which I really appreciate. Stuff that wasn’t in the book but really helped me in stepping into his shoes and playing this guy.”
His focus wasn’t to reach for laughs in the film’s comic sections or overplay his romantic motives with co-star Laura Harrier, but to deliver a dose of reality to the story’s unlikely actual events.
“With a delicate script like this that has so many layers to it, you need that kind of freedom. You can’t be thinking about attitudes or stuff like that. You’re fully contributing not just by saying your lines but being able to discuss and work together. It’s makes it easier to tell the truth and be comfortable when you’re with that cast.”
“It was a free-flowing collaborative environment and such an enjoyable experience. It’s an egoless environment of creativity and truth telling. They made it like your ideas will be heard. You’re in good hands with these actors and great hands with Spike Lee. If the top guy doesn’t have an ego, you don’t want to be the one that does.”