John David Washington stars as Malcolm, a filmmaker, in the new Netflix movie “Malcolm and Marie.” He also starred in the latest Christopher Nolan film, “Tenet,” over the summer.
Washington recently spoke with Gold Derby’s Christopher Rosen about inhabiting the role of Malcolm, the film’s lengthy monologues and his experience working on “Tenet.” Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: I wanted to start talking to you about, I know Sam Levinson, the writer and director of “Malcolm and Marie,” approached you last summer with the script. Can I talk to you a little about once you decide you want to do it, how much input you had with the character and the role? Because it felt like maybe a “Before Midnight” kind of situation where you guys are all throwing ideas in. But what was that like for you? How much collaboration did you have on the character in the script?
John David Washington: Well, I was extremely excited. I didn’t even get to read it first. He was reading me pages over the phone of what he’s written, and I remember feeling a bit of anxiety and definitely nervous. I was nervous as hell because I keep hearing him and I’m not hearing really any stage directions. It’s all dialogue. So these are like lengthy speeches back and forth, but what was being said was so beautiful and so visceral and energetic and passionate and seems very specific. So what was on the page I was excited to do already. What was really cool and a lot of fun and which makes me love it even more and I love Sam for this forever is the collaborative factor. We were exchanging basically our experiences in the industry and where we are in our careers and what we like about films, what we like about characters. I personally am drawn to characters that are contradictory and are multilayered and sometimes being able to mask that pain or whatever they’re going through and sometimes being able to unleash it in a calm manner. So all those kinds of discussions were put into the shaping of Malcolm, so it felt like a universal experience and character.
GD: I know you guys shot this during the summer with coronavirus rules and stuff so you would be all safe. Can you talk a little about the prep, though? Because one of the things I was struck by in the film is in a relationship. I think an argument between your significant other is a super intimate thing and you and Zendaya have such great chemistry on that front. I was wondering how much time you were able to prep with that and get that relationship. It felt so authentic, I guess, so can you talk about being able to create that in what I imagine was not a great amount of time?
JDW: That’s funny when you say, I laughed to myself, you just said the word “authentic” and every time I hear the word “authenticity,” now because of this film, I’m like, “Ugh, I gotta choose another word!” I love that word because it does display and it really captures what it means. It applies to a lot of these things. But anyway, like I was saying before, it felt like a camp. We were in a group together, like we were in Carmel at this beautiful resort and we were all just quarantining together. So we got about 13 days before we even shot. We were rehearsing in a parking lot, discussing in a parking lot, taking hikes, Kevin Turen and his wife, Sam, myself, we’d take hikes. We’d discuss all of our experiences and our relationships in the industry and really our relationship with this artistry. So the chemistry was happening through that and honestly, between Zendaya and I, once we found out we were in the Beyhive, we love Beyoncé, it was all good from there. That was our common ground, like “Beyoncé is one of the greatest. OK, good. We’re going to get along just fine. There’s nowhere else to go up in this case.” So Beyoncé really was the glue. So all of the chemistry that you spoke of, we have to credit “Lemonade.”
GD: I was gonna say, what album was it? “Lemonade’s” a good one, actually, and I think aesthetically it kind of goes with the film, too. You mentioned the authenticity. I mean, I think that’s a fascinating thing and what I really liked about the film is both the characters do strive for a discussion of authenticity, right? Her take is who should tell their own stories? And I think a lot of your character’s contention with the industry is also the idea of false authenticity among the film critics in the film discourse and Film Twitter, I guess. I was fascinated by the movie coming so hard for that space. Can you talk a little about your relationship to the online Film Twitter discourse, which I like that this movie is talking about that in a way that maybe a lot of movies haven’t yet, because it’s like a new-ish type of arena to exchange ideas, let’s say?
JDW: I like that. The exchanging of ideas is what, I think, is at the heart of at least one of the parts of the movie that rant is about, I think he’s just bringing up questions. I think he’s talking about who gets to say what, who gets to comment on what’s being said. The movie is not taking a point of view. The movie is displaying points of views, plural. I think the point is to have these open discussions, let’s get it out and talk about it, and if you miss on a film that should be talked about. If you nail something, that should be celebrated. But the point is to give it a shot, and don’t let anybody define you. We’re seeing Malcolm on what’s supposed to be the best night of his life, him really try to define himself and trying to find his identity as a filmmaker and that’s what some of the passionate discussions are about and also trying to define or getting told who he is in the relationship with his woman, with Marie. He thought it was one thing and he finds out it’s another. Or maybe he always knew that and it’s unfortunate this conversation has to happen tonight, but it’s something that had to happen. So I think it’s what I loved about it. I connect to that identity discussion just coming from where I came from, and by that I mean who I’m related to. I was trying to find my own identity. So everything he’s yelling about or talking about, trying to find, I related to deeply.
GD: The other thing I really liked, the movie mentions real-life filmmakers. So obviously Malcolm is discussing Spike Lee, who you obviously have worked with, which I just think is a great meta thing. But one of the things that he says about “Do the Right Thing” is that it wasn’t cool to be political when he made “Do the Right Thing,” and now it is maybe cooler to be political. That idea I thought was so fascinating. You know Spike. Is that something you would have talked to Spike about? Did your real-life relationship inform maybe some of those thoughts about Spike? Because I just found that really interesting.
JDW: Well, it depends on what story you’re telling. I mean, you can politicize anything. What Malcolm is saying, you can make a Lego movie and it can still be political because it’s an African-American’s perspective or the lens is through an African-American filmmaker about Legos or it could be about Barbie. So I think the point is, don’t put me in a box, which many artists, writers, I think everybody can relate to on some level, not to be put in the box, the ones that are the creators, the ones that want to display their versatility. I think that’s what Sam has been doing throughout the years from “Assassination Nation” to this. I’m thinking he’s doing that beautifully. I’m trying to do that. I mean, Zendaya, from Disney to now, she’s showing her versatility. That’s what we all yearn for and that’s what Malcolm is talking about, simply.
GD: You mentioned working with Sam and you guys had that time to talk about this. The other thing I really loved about it is that it’s basically a real-time movie. So you’re getting to build these characters, build their emotions throughout. Can you talk a little about being able to sustain such a level of emotion? Because it kind of builds and builds and builds and you get so many different layers of Malcolm throughout and it a little bit reminded me of, it’s a weird comp, but “No Country for Old Men,” how in “No Country for Old Men,” in the beginning it’s very violent and they’re showing the violence and by the end it’s kind of like, as you get in it kind of levels out and there isn’t as much visualized violence. Just the way Malcolm starts on such a house on fire and by the end, it’s a little bit laid bare. Can you talk about having to do that and sustain that kind of performance throughout, when you’re not moving in different sets, let’s say? It’s all the same house and everything like that. It’s a great performance and I just want to hear you talk about how you guys were able to sustain that, basically.
JDW: Well, thank you. For one, the times that we were living in, actually, I found myself in desperate, dire need to perform. I didn’t know if I was ever going to act again. So a lot of my real life was, “This is the opportunity of a lifetime,” for one, just to work with Sam and Zendaya, that strong team, to say these words, another, and to do what I love to do. I had this whole idea I’d be traveling the world selling “Tenet” and now I didn’t even know at the time if it was even going to come out. So I’m like, “I don’t know what sets will look like, I don’t know if there would be such thing as sets, PGA, DGA, SAG-AFTRA. I don’t know if any of those will even matter anymore.” So here we are getting it cleared, kind of knowing Hollywood is watching us very intently. We had to deliver. So that energy also was put into what the circumstances were in the film and these characters. I didn’t want to be yelling all day. I’m very careful and cautious, cognizant about angry Black artists. I’m not going for that, necessarily. It was just more about the passion that he has for what he loves to do and universally, everybody, as far as that are creatives, can relate to that. I think what he’s receiving from her is what the response is energetically.
And it’s funny, though, some of the most devastating, harsh words that he spews, I think he’s very quiet in that moment. It’s very still and something about that means to me, like when somebody is telling you that and they’re not even showing any emotion, it’s a little more frightening because it’s coming from a different, deeper, darker place. It’s almost like you’re not fighting fair. So those levels were fun to try to find, using the space, the Caterpillar home was a big deal. That was a character in its own right. So we were able to occupy and use and maximize all that space and opportunity to live in it because it is two people on the night of his life. He is drunk. He has been drinking at the premiere already. So he’s on level 10 right now, ready for his mac and cheese and, “Hey, let’s talk about and discuss the night,” and obviously it takes a turn, so what does that mean emotionally? What does that mean physically for him? All of that was up for discussion and was fertile ground to build on.
GD: You’re so physical, too, like you were saying. He moves around a lot. How choreographed was that? Was Sam like, “Be as natural as possible and just kind of feel what’s going on,” or were you guys discussing how you want him to move and stuff and move around the house? Because a lot of the movie, I think is like you said, he has so many different layers and he’s just very, very heightened, through a lot of it. Like, he’s very up. Can you talk a little about how you played his physicality?
JDW: Have you ever heard the term liquid courage? Because he says it in the film, “I’m a little wavy.” That’s what he says, his first words. So that liquid courage got him to jump on that counter in front of the mirror, in front of the window, the dancing. He might dance when he has a good shot. He might dance when he thought a take was great. So that’s his kind of thing. I know Sam actually does it when he’s happy. He does this little foot dance he does when he’s happy with the take. So you take that all in and use it for the character. But yeah, I just think Sam, and credit to Marcell [Rév], our DP, who really embraced naturalism. They didn’t really block us too much. We had to figure some stuff out to make it cool and keep it moving and make it look interesting cinematically. But it was how we wanted to get there, get to a certain spot at a certain time, but how you wanted to get there is up to you. That’s what’s interesting and I really appreciate what Marcell did, capturing our rhythms. I mean, he captured beautiful Black love in this and how regal it is and the look of it and the feel of it and the mannerisms, the rhythms were all in there and you can read them. So I really appreciated how they set it up for us.
GD: You mentioned the coolness factor. For lack of a better word, I’m not super eloquent, but I think it’s a cool movie, too. Like you said, the visual flair and everything, it feels very modern, very timely, not using timely as a crutch, but it feels modern. What was it like for you getting to see it completed? Obviously, you’re a producer on it, too. Can you talk a little about knowing that you’re making something that’s cool, basically? I think that’s kind of cool (laughs).
JDW: Yeah, I agree. I think it’s kind of cool, too. It’s hard for me to watch myself in things. It’s hard for me to watch movies I’m in. But with the producer hat, I had certain responsibilities, so I had to watch them more than I usually do. But it felt really good. It felt good when we were making it but when you do see it, it felt just as natural. It looked just as natural as it felt making. It felt just as organic. It looked just as organic as it felt making it. We were truly in sync, all of us and you said timely. I think it’s timeless. You’re not sure what year we’re in. We say we’re at a party, so it can’t be a pandemic, but this gives it legs, to me. This film can have the same feel in 10 years because of the black and white factor, because of the subject matter, and unfortunately, because of the subject matter. So I think all of that is what makes it really cool and you know what it does for me, the black and white aspect and how Marcell moved the camera? It really puts the onus on the performances. They put us on a stage, a platform to go, show it, do it. No hand acting, no necessarily, “I need you to look here, shoulders left, right.” It was like, “However you move, this is going to happen. But if you’re wrong, we’re all going to see that you’re wrong.” We’d talk about stuff that wasn’t feeling as right, we’d fix it. But for the most part, those choices were going to be front and center. So it’s an actor’s dream to be shot like that, personally.
GD: Yeah, and your monologues, the dexterity of your vocal, Malcolm is speaking so quickly and he’s saying so many complex things. Watching it, it’s so entertaining to watch him. I feel like you also get to do a lot of these really great, like what we were talking about before, the one about if you’re gonna take your shot at a film, his take on criticism, that scene is just so memorable and really well done and your performance there is so great.
JDW: I was dying to say these words. I was dying to say any words, honestly, because of the pandemic, but to say these and just to let it go, I didn’t want to be too precious about it because we’re not trying to tell the audience what to feel about it. We’re trying to tell the audience to feel something about it, not what to feel, but to actually feel. Whether you disagree, whether you agree, to feel it and react to it. We’re looking for a reaction and discussing what you do agree with, what you feel, what you don’t feel. It’s funny hearing when couples watch it to where somebody watches it by themselves. You find different feedback from that. That’s what it’s about. That’s what also makes it so much fun.
GD: The movie comes out on February 5th so we have some time here before reviews come out but in the early going, I mean, both of you guys have been very lauded already, and you as well for this. When “BlacKkKlansman” came out, you were very close, in theory, to an Oscar nomination. Have you thought about the award buzz? I know it’s probably weird to think about but is that gratifying to you to get that kind of response, especially for this so far?
JDW: Well, I’ve been through, like with “BlacKkKlansman” and seeing how that all works and campaign and all of that and I was just so happy that Spike and Adam Driver and our editor and who did our score, Terrence [Blanchard], that they got nominated. And it was like, “Yes.” It felt like it was a team win. But honestly, for me, I’m working right now, I just hope people like the movie, or they react to the movie emotionally. That’s all I can think about more than anything else.
GD: And you mentioned earlier, “Tenet,” we haven’t even talked about it, really. It’s a great movie. I loved it so much. Even under the circumstances, I think people saw it. I feel like that’s a movie that people will, because of the circumstances of the release and this fraught time, people will be finding that a lot more as it goes on and now that it’s on home video and stuff. I think that’s a great performance. What did you learn on “Tenet,” if anything, as a performer, that you maybe brought to this project, too?
JDW: Well, it’s totally different (laughs). I think I want to be The Protagonist in my real life more than Malcolm. I definitely agree with The Protagonist’s tactics more than Malcolm’s tactics. That being said, though, what I found similar was directors that were really open to the process and really trust their actors. 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, and I didn’t expect that from Christopher Nolan. I was ready to, “Yes, sir. No, sir. Whatever you need, sir.” I still am. But he was like, “What do you need?” When he and Hoyte von Hoytema, our great DP on that, said, “We’ll adjust to you,” they said that to me, I couldn’t believe that these two guys, I call them the brain trust, when they’re figuring out shots telling me, “We’ll adjust to you. Don’t worry about it.” I’m like, “Are you kidding me right now? Did these two legends just tell me that?” Spike, too. Spike was like, “Is that what you’re going to do? Do it.” Sometimes he’d roll and I didn’t even realize yet. So that felt alive and it got me very excited to know that whatever I bring to it can make the film and they’re not trying to manipulate me into something that they want. If something isn’t working, obviously they communicate that, all three of these directors. But I’d say that was what was in common, that they trusted me with the material.
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