With BlacKkKlansman, visionary filmmaker Spike Lee is telling the in-your-face, fearless story of real-life American hero Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African American detective to service in the Colorado Springs Police Department in the early 1970s. Set on making a name for himself, Stallworth devises a mission to infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan, sending his more seasoned colleague (Adam Driver) right into the middle of the investigation, to help take down the extremist hate group as they attempt to go mainstream.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor John David Washington (in a truly masterful, stand-out performance that will have audiences talking and leave them excited to see what’s next from him) talked about getting to meet the real Ron Stallworth and the feeling he had holding his Ku Klux Klan membership card, learning to trust his instincts while making this film, what Spike Lee means to him, as a filmmaker and artist, his path from professional football to the family business of acting (his father is Academy Award winner Denzel Washington), what he’s looking for in a project, and whether he’d like to direct, at some point.
Collider: I have to tell you that I loved this movie and I thought you were really tremendous in it. I feel like, with the world that we’re currently living in, with endless things to feel mad, sad and anxious about, this was the movie that I needed to see, right now. So, thank you!
JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON: Wow, thank you! Thank you so much for those words. I appreciate that.
This seems like one of those stories that you can only tell because it’s based in truth, otherwise people just wouldn’t believe it. What were the craziest aspects of this story to you? What were the times that you were like, “I cannot believe this actually happened!”?
WASHINGTON: The real-life moment was when I first got to meet Ron [Stallworth] in person and he passed around his Ku Klux Klan membership card. You read the stories and you read the book, and you do your research, then getting to not just meet him, but holding that card made all of this ridiculous stuff that I learned about and heard about that much truer. It just brought it home to me. This man really accomplished this mission and he was successful. There’s a whole bunch of ridiculous moments, but the security detail that they would do was just crazy. I don’t want to give away any of the movie away, but because it’s grounded, it’s from truth and it really happened, we were able to be as true as we wanted to be. This is a piece of American history.
You’ve talked about the confidence being a part of this film gave you, as an artist. What were you most scared of, going into this, and how different do you feel, as an actor, after having had this experience?
WASHINGTON: I felt a little anxious/nervous representing a real person in a Spike Lee film. The history that comes along with this, it was exciting, too, at the same token. Spike Lee wanted me for a reason, and because of how collaborative the process was and how much teamwork was involved, and how there were no egos, he really respected my choices and my opinions. He literally told me one day, “Just trust your instincts. Ron Stallworth is not the bible. There’s a lot that I want you to give to it, as much as you are receiving from it. Trust that, and go with it.” So, when you have a legendary director like that telling you, “I chose you because of your abilities,” I’ll never be the same. I’m good to go now.
What has Spike Lee meant to you? Seeing his work, as a filmmaker and artist, and then working with him, what has he meant to you, throughout your life?
WASHINGTON: He’s given men and women of color a platform. We’re not just in this industry. Both in front and behind the cameras. So many people – DPs, writers, and the assistants that go on to be directors and writers – come from the School of Spike Lee. He’s almost set up an Institution of Spike Lee. We’re all like his children. He’s just so encouraging about that and he’s so supportive. So, I just feel like I’m a part of this huge family, and a part of history. I’m connected to a Wesley Snipes and I’m connected to Giancarlo Esposito because of the history of films that we’ve all been a part of with Spike Lee.
A big portion of your performance in this is through conversations on the phone. What’s it like to have a phone receiver as a scene partner, and what are the challenges of making all of that work?
WASHINGTON: The challenges were presented as they were in the story that we were telling. It was really an art imitating life moment, where I got to use these words. They’re hateful words because that’s the language they recognize and speak. Topher Grace was so incredible. Ryan [Eggold] was so incredible. As artists and actors, that it made it easier to do that. I could just trust who I was talking to. We were in the same uncomfortable bubble together, for the good of storytelling, for the betterment of the craft, and for truth-telling, so I felt comfortable because of who I was opposite of.