For “Malcolm and Marie” star John David Washington, he knew there would be no problem exploring the emotional depths of a fraught relationship on-screen with Zendaya once the two stars realized they had a shared interest: an acceptance of Beyoncé as the greatest artist of all time.
“That was our common ground,” Washington says in a new interview with Gold Derby. “Beyoncé really was the glue. All of the chemistry you spoke of, we have to credit ‘Lemonade.’”
Set in the wee hours of the morning, when a first-time filmmaker (Washington) and a struggling actress (Zendaya) untangle the truths about their long-time relationship while also debating the merits of film criticism and what counts as authenticity in art, “Malcolm and Marie” began its life last summer during coronavirus quarantine. That’s when Sam Levinson, a breakout filmmaker behind HBO’s “Euphoria,” called Washington with the idea of the film and read off pages of dialogue to the awestruck star. Washington was immediately hooked, especially because the project afforded him an opportunity that seemed out of reach due to the pandemic.
“The times that we were living in, I found myself in desperate dire need to perform. I didn’t know if I was ever going to act again,” he says. “I had this whole idea I would be traveling the world selling ‘Tenet.’ Now I didn’t even know at the time if it was even going to come out.”
So began a collaborative process with Levinson and Zendaya that Washington calls an “opportunity of a lifetime.”
“What was really cool and a lot of fun — and which makes me love it even more and love Sam for this for forever — is the collaborative factor,” Washington, who is also a producer on the film, says. “So we were exchanging basically our experiences in the industry and where we are in our careers and what we like about films and what we like about characters. I’m personally drawn to characters who are sort of contradictory or multilayered, sometimes being able to mask that pain or whatever they’re going through; sometimes able to unleash it in a comedic manner. All those kinds of discussions were put into the shaping of Malcolm.”
“Malcolm and Marie” shot on location in Carmel, California this summer, making it the first major project to go before cameras during the coronavirus pandemic. The added pressure of being out in front as the industry sought to restart, Washington says, helped invigorate his performance.
“That energy was put into what the circumstances were in the film, in these characters,” Washington says. The result is that Malcolm is prone to hyperbolic rants, all of which Washington handles with a verbal dexterity that might surprise audiences who know him from “BlacKkKlansman” and “Tenet.”
“I didn’t want to be yelling all day. I was very careful and conscious and cognizant about the ‘angry black artist’ [trope],” he says. “I’m not going for that necessarily. It was just more about the passion he has for what he loves to do. Universally, everyone — as far as creatives go — can relate to that.”
Washington’s performance has already generated awards buzz (he continues to rise on the Gold Derby Best Actor charts) and further establishes the 36-year-old as one of Hollywood’s most exciting leading men following his work with Spike Lee and Christopher Nolan.
“What I found similar were directors who were really open to the process and really trust their actors,” he says of what the last few years have taught him as an actor. “As a performer, you love that. You feel like you’re not an actor for hire, that you’re a teammate. To me, that felt really good.”
“Malcolm and Marie” is out February 5 on Netflix.
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