Actor John David Washington is making his Broadway debut as Boy Willie in August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson.”
“Sunday Morning” contributor Kelefa Sanneh asked Washington, “When you look up and you see your name on the marquee, are you shocked, or are you used to it by now?”
“It makes me nervous every time,” Washington laughed. “I’m like, ‘Oh, my God.’ But they also see, like, my chain, that’s my uncle’s chain, my Uncle Woodson. I also feel like a part of my family is with me.”
Some would say the 38-year-old was born to act. His mom, Pauletta, is an actor. And so is his dad, a guy named Denzel. “My father, he walked me around these streets when he was getting ready for Shakespeare in the Park, you know, ‘Richard III.’ And I used to love when he would recite his lines.”
At first, John David did not follow in his father’s footsteps. He went to Morehouse, the historically Black college in Atlanta, on a football scholarship. “What motivated it really was independence, was my own name, was being able to carry my own weight in my life. Even though I was hiding what I really wanted to do, it gave me an identity.”
“You were hiding what you really wanted to do?” asked Sanneh.
“Because of whom I’m related to. My mother is an extremely talented artist, and my father is one of the greatest of all time. He’s my favorite actor. That was intimidating. When we’re in the comforts of my own home and with the family, I felt comfortable. But then when I get to the outside world, it didn’t seem as simple to just pursue it; and I felt football would change that narrative when they saw me play ball.”
It didn’t quite work out that way. “That’s what I thought was gonna happen, until I read the Atlanta Journal Constitution,” he said. “I think it was my freshman year, and I had a great game, and [they wrote], ‘Denzel’s son runs for as many yards and as many touchdowns.’ I realized then it was inescapable.”
After college, he played football in a start-up league, the UFL. Then, in 2013 he ruptured his Achilles tendon. He decided to make a career change.
Sanneh asked, “How do you make that turn? Start taking headshots?”
“I would recommend taking some good headshots!” he laughed. “But it was an open-call audition for a story about football players.”
Still injured and on pain medication, he went to his first audition for a new HBO series called “Ballers.” “The plan was get comfortable with auditioning. get told, ‘No,’ and to come out here to New York and study,” Washington said.
Again, it didn’t go as he’d expected. After a series of follow-up auditions, he got the part of Ricky Jerret. “It was a life-changing moment for me,” he said. “I felt good after, like, maybe the fifth or sixth audition, like, ‘I can do this.'”
Sanneh asked, “What did you learn about yourself as you started to become a professional actor?”
“I learned what happiness really is,” he replied.
He went on to star in “BlacKkKlansman,” directed by Spike Lee; then “Tenet,” directed by Christopher Nolan; and now, “Amsterdam,” directed by David O. Russell.
Sanneh asked, “You’ve worked with, you know, legendary directors; now, you’re working with director who’s known you since you were a baby.”
That’s LaTanya Richardson Jackson, director of “The Piano Lesson,” which co-stars her husband, Samuel L. Jackson. The Jacksons and the Washingtons are old friends.
“What’s it like being on set with a partnership like that?” asked Sanneh.
“The attention’s off me!” Washington laughed. “So, you sit back, and you shut up and learn something, John David!”
“So, does your co-star Samuel take direction from your director, LaTanya?”
“Well, define take direction,” he laughed. “I feel like they speak another language in the subtext.”
At the Yale Repertory Theater, 35 years ago, Samuel L. Jackson originated the role Washington is playing on Broadway today. “I’m on stage, seeing Sam Jackson, and I’m delivering some lines, knowing he delivered these, you know, in 1987. I’m like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ So, yeah, I guess God is saying, ‘Yeah. It’s time. Just grow up, you know? Put up or shut up, man!'”
“Have your parents come to see the play?”
“My mother, it’s like the question is, how many times has she seen it?” Washington laughed. “And I get notes from them, too. I get notes.”
But John David Washington says he’s done trying to prove himself: “I have to understand that I can have the best game, career – the headline’s always gonna be what it is. So, to try to prove something to somebody is a fool’s errand.”
Sanneh asked, “Do you ever think about that day happening when people say, ‘Oh, yeah, Denzel Washington. That’s John David’s dad’?”
“Naah,” he sighed. “I don’t see it as a reality for me. He’s larger than life. So, no. I don’t think of it that way. I can’t.”
“Maybe one day, you’ll have a kid and people will say …”
“Right. I hope so. I hope so!” he laughed.
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Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Mike Levine.