From writer/director Reinaldo Marcus Green, the indie drama Monsters and Men takes the all too familiar story of the shooting of an unarmed black man during an altercation with police officers and divides the narrative into three sections – a witness to the incident who captured the violent act on camera (Anthony Ramos), a conflicted cop who is a witness to racism on his own force (John David Washington), and a high school athlete who is inspired to activism by the shooting (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). While the three men don’t know each other, this one incident affects them all so deeply, pushing them to ask questions about truth, justice and the consequences of life-altering actions.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, actor John David Washington spoke to Collider for this 1-on-1 interview about why he wanted to tell this important story, the journey he went on before he was officially cast in Monsters and Men, what most deeply spoke to him with this story, his own experience with being pulled over by a cop, going on ride-alongs, what he loves about the craft of acting, where he’d like to take his career next, whether he’s interested in directing, and which TV series he’d love to do a guest spot on.
Collider: We spoke on the phone for Blackkklansman, which I still think is one of the best performances this year. You were so terrific in that!
JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON: Thank you!
And this is a very different story, but also an important one to tell.
WASHINGTON: Yeah, I agree.
This was the first full-length feature that Reinaldo Marcus Green has done, so what sold you on him and made you trust that he would guide this right, knowing that it’s such a important story to tell?
WASHINGTON: It was more him having to sign off on me. It was a lengthy process to get the job. It went from a Skype session to what I thought was gonna be a table reading, but turned out to be a stage reading. My nerves were crazy. I walked in and was like, “Wait, what are we doing? There are chairs here. Is this a rehearsal? I thought this was a table read? Where’s the table at?” I didn’t even have the job yet, so you could imagine my panic. And then, Sundance Labs is where we really connected and bonded. I still didn’t even have the job after that, but I knew the kind of man he was, from that experience. The work that we got to do in those labs was life-changing, at least for me. That bond was forever, no matter what happened, and no matter if I got the job or not. So, when I did get it, I was obviously excited, but I knew what to do because of those experiences that I had with him before. It was just about execution, and I had no doubt in my mind that he was going to be able to execute. We’re both from a sports backgrounds, so we understand routine, the discipline, the consistency of performance, and the everyday grind. All of that was in the DNA of this project. I was able to be comfortable because I knew we were in great hands, thanks to those experiences.
Were you ever just like, “Guys, you’ve got to tell me if I’ve actually got this role or not”?
WASHINGTON: Yeah. I was like, “Guys, what’s up?” At the same time, that would’ve taken away from the experiences I had, leading up to the Sundance Labs. Those were great experiences, regardless of what ultimately happened. Even the auditions I do now, I’m not trying to go in to get the roles. I’m trying to do the best I can and take the opportunity to exercise the muscle in that particular moment. That’s all it was. I got a master class. Ed Harris was one of the counselors, and so was Octavia Spencer. My goodness, that was the job, as far as I was concerned. It was great.
How do you feel about the whole audition process?
WASHINGTON: It’s weird. Spike Lee told me once that making a film is the hardest job you can do. It’s damn near impossible, even making a bad one, because so many things have to come together the right way. What’s been interesting about my year, with these projects that I’ve been on, is the stuff that you can’t really explain. It’s the energy, or the spiritual aspect of it. The way it came together felt like it was meant to be. It’s hard to plan and prepare for that stuff. You read the script and you like the script, and then you meet the director and you like or don’t like the director, but there are a lot of elements, beyond our control, that have to happen. The timing of these films coming out and where we are in society, you can’t plan for that. I understand that I’m the luckiest man on the freaking planet, to be honest, to be able to be a part of these stories.
At this point in your career, what do you love about the craft of acting?
WASHINGTON: The ability to explore and to give voices to people that don’t have them. I love to read a great script that brings awareness to something. Even if it’s fiction, someone can still draw from their experiences and make me go, “I didn’t know that. I wonder if this person really went through that.” I’m curious by nature. How it brings people together can actually spark dialogue. As a country, we are very divided right now, and we’re seeing it more than ever, but a good film or a sports event can bring people together. Two people that might not agree on the same politics or religion still have a common vernacular. There is a language that they can both speak and that’s bridging the gap. They can co-exist, through cinema or sports, in a way that brings people together. That’s what I love about film and the process of it, with the research and getting to meet people that I might not ever get to meet. I don’t know if I would have ever gotten to be around or meet so many African-American police officers, if it weren’t for this film, and I’m a better person for it now. I understand, more than ever, what they have to go through, and I want the people who are doing the job the right way to stand up and be proud of what they’re doing, by serving their communities the right way. It’s very American of them to do that, and I appreciate it.
It seems that it only takes one bad cop for people to look at all cops as bad, but that doesn’t seem to work in the reverse, when there are good cops.
WASHINGTON: We’re getting to see way more examples of what’s been going on, for years and for decades, with people abusing their powers in law enforcement. But that being said, hopefully they don’t become desensitized to it. I need just as many visual examples of ones that are doing the job the right way. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Officer Tommy Norman on Instagram. I follow him, and he’s in the neighborhoods. His page is about talking to kids, giving toys to kids, and being in the community. They trust and love him, and he’s a white officer with the black kids in the black community. It’s a beautiful example of what human beings are capable of. Cinema can sometimes sensationalize things, but that’s okay when it comes to positivity and connectability. I’m like, “Please, romanticize it up and make us feel good.” That can inspire us to actually do some good out there.
This is a familiar story that’s told from perspectives that aren’t necessarily familiar. When you read those perspectives in this script, what were the things that most struck you?
WASHINGTON: I love how you put that. I agree that it’s a very familiar subject matter, but the execution, point of view, and perspective was a bit unique. What happens to the man or woman or kid that records these heinous acts? Whatever happened to the guy that caught the Rodney King beating? Was he threatened, if that tape ever got released? What happens to a kid that has an opportunity to get a baseball scholarship, but he chooses to be an activist? I love those approaches. Playing an African-American police officer in this country, I wanna know what those feelings are and what that’s like. If people see a white cop, they automatically think that he hates black people, but that’s not necessarily true. You can’t generalize that way. We’ve gotta be more specific. There’s no excuse now ‘cause in the information age and the internet era, we can find more outreach programs. I didn’t know there are communities of police officers that go into the neighborhoods and play basketball with kids. I didn’t know that, it’s in the movie but my first ride-along, we went from playing basketball with kids. I was having sleepless nights, after about a month worth of ride-alongs that I did. I even noticed, in the film, that I looked beat up, but it worked. I was telling my mom that I was stressed out, doing all this research, but at the same time, imagine what they go through and the stress that they have. That was the beauty of making the film.
You also then have to put on a police uniform. How did that help you with the character?
WASHINGTON: Shout out to Brooklyn team North. Those are my go-tos. I still keep in touch with them. I wore a real vest on those ride-alongs, and they allowed me to wear it during the film. Every time I put that vest on, coming from a football background, it felt like game day, putting on my pads and helmet. It gets real. It gets super real. There’s also human nature, in this era, where there’s the feeling of somebody that’s here to save his community and his people. When you put that gear on, there’s a feeling to that. Now, some are irresponsible with that and think that it’s authoritative, and they can just dictate what’s going on and abuse their power. Unfortunately, there are a lot out there like that. But there are also some out there who are not like that, at all, and that are here for us.
I loved the first scene with you driving around in the car, singing along with the radio. Do you have your own go-to playlist of songs that you like to sing to when you’re driving around?
WASHINGTON: Yeah, I do. I had a whole playlist for Blackkklansman that was nothing but ‘60s and ‘70s music. It’s interesting, I’ve been pulled over a couple of times in my life. I remember I was a teenager when I got pulled over and I was listening to some hip-hop – I think it might have been Tupac – and when the cop approached the car, I switched it to indie rock, like The Cranberries, which was on the same CD, by the way, ‘cause I like all kinds of music, but my instincts told me to do that. Now, I feel like that’s sad because, why would I turn the hip-hop off and put The Cranberries on, thinking that maybe would save me or make him think that I’m okay. That’s crazy! There’s nothing wrong with the fact that I love The Cranberries – they were all on the mix tape – but the fact that I had to do that, looking back on it now, in my 30s, seems crazy that I felt like that. But to give you perspective, I love all kinds of music. I listen to scores sometimes, whether it’s the Star Wars scores from John Williams, or Hans Zimmer, or all of the Christopher Nolan scores, which are great. I listen to all kinds of music. Sometimes it’s hip-hop, other times maybe it’s some classical, or some Enya. I love it all.
Clearly, you’ve really been lining up some pretty great projects and working with some great filmmakers. What’s next for you? Where do you want to go from here?
WASHINGTON: I wanna continue that narrative, working with people that seem to wanna do this and that really wanna be here to tell stories. I wanna get on stage. I gotta get better in this acting thing, so I wanna keep working on my craft, and I feel like the stage is the best way to do it, whether it be an actual off-Broadway project or back where I studied at HB Studios with Rochelle Oliver. I need to work on my craft and hopefully work with people that really believe in storytelling, in an inclusive way, where the best idea in the room wins and you check your ego at the door. That’s what I wanna be a part of right now.
Are you reading a lot of stuff right now and trying to figure out what that next thing is?
WASHINGTON: The team is very active right now. We’re looking for the right thing. I gotta heal up, too. I had some surgery recently, so I’ve gotta heal up, as well. I’ve gotta get physically right, to be able to get back to it.