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‘Tenet’ star talks about exiting famous actor-father’s shadow

John David Washington is having a moment. He’s no longer just “Denzel’s son.”

Not that it’s bad to share DNA with an Oscar-winning legend. It’s just hard to break out unless you’re intensely motivated, which describes the younger Washington to a T.

He’s the star of Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi thriller “Tenet,” which continues to play in theaters. He’s also the male lead, alongside Zendaya, in the much-awaited film “Malcolm & Marie,” impossibly filmed during the pandemic. And his name will be above the title in “Born to Be Murdered,” a conspiracy film with Alicia Vikander.

What’s next? James Bond? (It has been mentioned.) “Now that would be fun,” the 36-year-old Washington says in a Zoom call from his Los Angeles home. “I can dig those suits.”

Where does he go for career advice when all of these projects become a bit overwhelming?

Where else? “When I talk to my dad and mom, we cover everything — career, life,” says Washington, who has starred in the HBO series “Ballers” and the Spike Lee film “BlacKkKlansman.”

“I wanted to do this because of them,” he adds, “and now it feels like a dream come true.”

Review-Journal: Tell me about your life during the pandemic? Is it true that you moved back in with your folks?

John David Washington: Well, when the pandemic first hit, I did move from New York back to Los Angeles where I grew up. I stayed with my parents for a while. I don’t regret it for a second. That time was so full of life and it was so much fun. Plus, I really did feel like a kid again. There I was taking out the garbage! I moved out later, but it was nice to spend that time with them.

How did it feel when you heard that director Christopher Nolan wanted to meet to talk about starring in his new film “Tenet”?

Frankly, I was surprised that Christopher Nolan knew who I was. But I was also excited that he wanted to meet me, although I had no idea what the movie was or even the plot. We got together and didn’t even talk about the film at first. We talked about personal stuff and how much we both loved movies. This went on for about 2½ hours. The cool thing was he was so down to earth and regular. When I left that meeting, I thought, “Well, at least I can say that I met Christopher Nolan.” Cut to a little bit of time later and he hired me — I felt like a first-round draft pick. And, yes, I got pretty emotional about it.

Describe your character Protagonist in “Tenet.”

I admire the guy. I wish I could be him. You have a man who is willing to sacrifice. Plus, the guy has great style and wears these amazing suits. Add to that a sense of humor. Chris and I worked on bringing out the human quality in him. In this genre, you don’t always see characters as human beings.

Why is it important to view “Tenet” on a big screen?

It’s an event film. And especially during this unique time, there is nothing more eventful for most people than going to a movie theater with other people and enjoying a big, ambitious film directed by Christopher Nolan. It’s the perfect movie to get back to the theaters for, because there is nothing like seeing it larger than life in Imax.

Spike Lee. Christopher Nolan. Did anything about either surprise you?

What surprised me about both was how enthusiastic they were on a set. And they also believed in me. They would tell me to trust my instincts and we’ll adjust to you. When that comes from the legends, it gives you great confidence.

What was it like growing up in the house of Washington? Did it inspire you to look at a career in the arts?

My mom was always playing the piano and singing for me when I was growing up. And then there was my dad. I remember going to see my dad onstage doing “Richard III.” I was this little kid who knew that his father didn’t talk like that in real life, but it was just so cool. I wanted to learn how to talk like that in my real life.

So you did go to your father’s sets?

Yes. Spike was the best because he put me in “Malcolm X.” Towards the end of the film, there is a sequence where this kid says, “I’m Malcolm X.” That was a big moment for me.

You wanted to become a professional football player and did play at Morehouse College and signed with the Rams as an undrafted free agent in 2006. How did you segue from football to acting?

I always had an artistic side. In middle school, I’d write, direct and edit my own films, plus I painted in high school. But I did become this huge jock and had some success on the football field. I was even able to go to the NFL, and during that time, I buried my love for the arts. When football was over and I was wondering what to do next, I found myself in 2013 auditioning for the HBO series “Ballers.” I ended up booking it and moved to New York to study acting when I wasn’t filming.

I know it’s highly secretive, but what can you say about “Malcolm & Marie”?

I’m really proud of it. Sam Levinson, who created “Euphoria,” wrote and directed it. His relationship with Zendaya reminds you of Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino. They’re perfect for each other. I get to play a little part. I can’t wait for people to see it.

What are you looking for in future roles?

I’m looking for something a little bit simpler. What I did with “Tenet” was super complicated. Next time out, if I’m in a chair and talking to the camera, then that would be just fine.

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