Christopher Nolan only casts movie stars as his leading men. From Leonardo DiCaprio and Hugh Jackman to Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey, Nolan’s actors are larger-than-life, capital “S” stars.
So it was more than a little exciting for John David Washington when Nolan hand-picked him to anchor his most ambitious film to date, “ Tenet,” as a glamorous and cool spy known only as The Protagonist. The 36-year-old may be the eldest son of another capital “S” star, Denzel Washington, but lineage is hardly a guarantee in Hollywood at this level. Besides, he’s only recently gotten started. He spent his 20s in a different career: professional football.
Technically, Washington started acting when he was 7, in a small role alongside his father in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” and again a few years later in “Devil in a Blue Dress.”
Just over five years ago, he started quietly auditioning for projects on his own, and landed the role of Ricky Jerret in HBO’s “Ballers.” But it wasn’t until 2018 that he broke out in a big way, starring in Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.”
Washington might have Lee to thank for “Tenet” too. The director invited Nolan to the premiere of “BlacKkKlansman” at the Cannes Film Festival, and the charismatic newcomer made an impression.
“I try not to have specific actors in mind when I’m writing because it would limit the character,” Nolan said. “(But) seeing John David on screen, seeing how Spike had been able to open up the film to the audience through this character and through the way John David draws the audience in, it was very hard for me to get him out of my head after that when I was writing the script. He kept intruding.”
Nolan arranged a meeting with Washington, found they shared a “common creative language,” and soon enough they were embarking on what would be an arduous, six-month, seven-country shoot that would push Washington to his physical limits. Among the challenges were learning how to fight backwards and bungee-jump up a building in Mumbai (or at least the first 20 feet of it before the stunt team took over).
“The heights thing was really tough,” Washington laughed. “But once I got over it, I felt very confident the rest of the film. No problem.”
They decided early on that Washington’s protagonist would be a different kind of spy than we’re used to seeing.
“These characters are often portrayed with a lot of cynicism,” Nolan said. “I just felt he could bring a generosity of spirit to the character, who is somebody who cares about what he is doing, cares about the people around him.”
Washington found in his writer-director a surprisingly supportive collaborator who was just as concerned about the acting as he was the massive set pieces.
“Chris was very accommodating to the actor’s process,” Washington said. “There are some days where it felt like it had an indie movie quality to it. We were concentrating so much on why we’re here and the motivations and the performance. .. He would say words like, ‘Just take it for a spin.’ I love that. I love hearing that. Falling flat on your face wasn’t scary because of the environment he set.”
Despite the stress and the physical and mental tolls of leading a $200 million film, Washington was unflappable. Those who work with him compliment his positivity.
“He’s a very generous person and a very warm presence on set,” Nolan said. “That counts for a lot when you’re in the long haul.
That warmth is also part of the reason his character works, according to producer Emma Thomas.
“John David really does bring the audience along with him,” she said. “He does this incredible thing where he’s incredibly cool and incredibly fun to watch and at the same time somehow relatable. It’s not an off-putting cool. It’s a cool that pulls you in.”
Washington is humbled by his relatively quick and massive success so far, working with two of Hollywood’s most exciting directors in just a few years.
“I’m just grateful, and thank God every day for the opportunity to work, to be in this industry, to be able to create with my betters and learn,” Washington said.
And while he won’t get the big red-carpet premiere that would be standard in pre-pandemic times, he was able to screen the movie with his extended family in a safe, socially-distanced way.
“I remember my uncle shouting out after one of the fight sequences, like, ‘OK, John David!’ which in uncle language means, ‘You’re doing good,’” Washington beamed. “And at the end, they cheered like we just won the Super Bowl.”
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr