Mahershala Ali, John David Washington on Pushing Past Stereotypes in Hollywood

Mahershala Ali and John David Washington sat down for a chat for Variety’s Actors on Actors. For more, click here. 

Mahershala Ali (“Green Book”) and John David Washington (“BlacKkKlansman”) have catapulted into the awards season conversation with two searing films about race in America. Both movies are based on true stories. Ali, who won the supporting actor Oscar in 2017 for “Moonlight,” portrays Dr. Don Shirley, an acclaimed black pianist embarking on a tour of the Deep South at the height of Jim Crow. Washington, the son of Denzel, plays Ron Stallworth, a black detective tasked with infiltrating the KKK. Their turns, alternately fiery and funny, have received rave reviews. The two men had an honest and raw conversation about what drew them to the projects.

Mahershala Ali: How did “BlacKkKlansman” come your way?

John David Washington: I got a text message from Spike Lee. Now, I don’t have his number. Our families know each other; they got a little history, but I never had or established any kind of cell-phone communication with him. So I get a text saying, “This is Spike — call me.” I’m like, “All right, this is probably a prank, but I’m definitely going to investigate.” I call him, like, “Hello.” He’s like, “It’s Spike. I got this story. The first African-American detective in Colorado Springs infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan.” I’m thinking maybe this is a Dave Chappelle skit.

Ali: What’s he like as a director?

Washington: I felt the most freedom I’ve ever had. This legend that trusted me with this material, this very important material, this piece of history that needs to be shown, displayed correctly, he trusted me with it. So we rehearsed; we discussed about two and a half weeks. I tried to get in touch with Ron Stallworth, and [Spike] would not let me talk to him.

Ali: Was this so you had a moment to really develop your own thoughts and think about him separate from the real gentleman?

Washington: Yeah. I went deeper, so I rid myself of all hip-hop, R&B, EDM. And the Cranberries as well, I love them. Steady diets of War, of Sly & the Family Stone, Led Zeppelin. This was for three months. I would go to bed to “Soul Train” every night, I would watch “Super Fly” weekly and saw what that was doing to my spirit. What that was going to my psyche, how I was talking, maybe even how I was posturing. And that was all prior to talking to Ron. I’ve never experienced anything like that, the kind of preparation that Spike introduced me to. Tell me how you found “Green Book.”

Ali: “Green Book” came, and the characters really popped off the page. I thought there’s a chemistry in the writing that was there. I thought the story was important. What I thought was amazing about Don Shirley was that he was an archetype, a person that I had never seen before on-screen. Usually when we go back pre-1975 or especially pre-civil rights, we are clearly in this place of oppression. That exists in this film, but I think my character is the most empowered you could be in that time. This is a guy who is the boss in that car. Because he didn’t even have to go on the tour. He could go to Europe, make his money, have his career. He could stay up North, but him going down into the South was a choice. He wanted to put himself on the front lines in his own unique way and allow people to be exposed to the type of man, the type of black man, that he was in order to sort of pierce the consciousness so that they couldn’t just think of us as sharecroppers.

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Washington: A wise man told me, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” So once you saw it on the page, how did you start coming into everything?

Ali: I feel like the experience, specifically speaking of actors of color, you are kind of tasked with turning water into wine. I’ve always felt like I had to try to elevate something, even if it didn’t need to be. I always felt like I had to find something else that is not even on the page to bring to it because I was only going to be in it for three scenes anyway, right? With this, I understood that it existed in broad space; this is a film that a lot of people could be attracted to. Sometimes those get dubbed “commercial.” So what I wanted to do with this character that existed in a broader space was make sure that he had the complexity, the necessary complexity, for him to resonate as being truthful. Your grandfather was a preacher, correct?

Washington: Yeah.

Ali: My grandmother was a preacher. My mom’s an ordained minister. How does that inform your work? Do you feel like your spiritual consciousness dictates that you draw lines for yourself?

Washington: It directly impacts basically everything I do — especially this arts and crafts. That being said, when I think about boundaries, I’m bounding Him as well, bounding God. His possibilities are limitless, so should be the explorative freedoms of creativity.

Ali: Spike is interesting, man. And what’s so amazing about him is that he really is a genre in a real way.

Washington: Spike Lee is a master of cinematic tone. I think he really understands how to display real life, finding the humor and tragedy, and finding the darkest, harshest moments kind of funny. You know what I mean?

Ali: Did it ever feel like borderline inappropriate to you?

Washington: Never. And I couldn’t do this role for anybody else because I know [Lee’s] in his fourth decade.This is right up his alley. We weren’t playing for jokes.

Ali: For me going into finishing the Oscar season a couple of years ago [with “Moonlight”], I was like, “Do I finally get to get a lead shot?” Because I didn’t feel fulfilled. There’s a difference between gratitude and fulfillment. Grateful for the work but not fulfilled by it. I went home wanting to work some more. I wasn’t tired when I went home. And so “Green Book” and “True Detective” happened within days of each other in terms of booking them. “True Detective” was written different. The lead was white, and the other cop was black. And once you see the show, you’ll see that is different from the other seasons, in that the lead character, he’s at the point of the arrowhead. I read the scripts. I was blown away. I got to read the first four, and I could have played that second lead, the supporting character. But in my mind I was like, “I’ve done this my entire career. I’ve never done that.” And I’m 40 at that time. And if it don’t happen now, it really may not happen. My grandfather was a state police officer, and these are two state police officers. So I went on my phone; I’m hitting up some cousins and whatnot. And they send me some pictures of my grandfather in the state police officer uniform. So I texted them to Nic Pizzolatto, the show runner. And I was like, “See, we existed in this space in the ’60s, in the ’70s, [as] state police officers. This is in Arkansas.”

Washington: Just in case he doesn’t know.

Ali: And I was like, “I think your story would be served. I think the story would improve in this case if this lead character is black.” We don’t have to beat them over the head with the race element, but let’s write it. I’m encouraging him to think of it from the standpoint of how it’s experienced. Racism is not experienced as the N-word all the time, right? It’s more like, he wouldn’t even look me in the eye. Or like I said, thank you — he just brushed me off. And so I came back to [Nic] and I was like, “I want to play that part.” And he thought about it a couple of days, got back to me, and he was like, “Yo, let’s do this. I’m down.”

Watch the full interview below:

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