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Isaiah Washington (Q&A): 2014 PAFF

By Ural Garrett · February 15, 2014

It’s been quite a successful time for Isaiah Washington past a particular 2007 controversy that almost derailed his time in Hollywood. Several years later, he’s back better than ever. For this year’s Pan African Film Festival, Washington’s production company CoalHouse Productions is showing off two films: Blue Caprice and BlackBird. Much has been said about Blue Caprice since it made it’s premiere last year at Sundance. A narrative inspired by the true events of the 2002 DC Sniper Attacks orchestrated by John Muhammad and Lee Malvo, Washington has earned critical praise for his role as the twisted father figure.

Then there’s BlackBird. Focused on the trials of an adolescence coming to terms with his homosexuality in the rural south, the film also marks the return of Academy Award winner Mo’Nique (Precious) to the silver screen after a long hiatus. Washington also co-stars. The Houston native hasn’t abandoned television however. Next March has Washington starring in CW Sci-fi drama The 100.

Between the many screenings shown at PAFF, Washington talks with The Script Lab about the reaction toward his performance in Blue Caprice, BlackBird’s message and how he prepared for life behind the scenes as a producer. 

TSL: You did a phenomenal job in Blue Caprice.

Washington: Well first of all thank you! I’m assuming you got a chance to see it?

TSL: Yes I did; an amazing film.

Washington: Well, what were your impression on it? I know what I did.

TSL: To me, Blue Caprice felt like a story of mentorship gone wrong outside of it being based around the DC Sniper.

Washington: You got it!

TSL: In an interview with NPR late last year, you mentioned your goal with Blue Caprice wasn’t necessarily to make a typical reenactment story. What were your initial original thoughts on the 2002 attacks before coming on to the film as an actor and producer?

Washington: Well I didn’t have a script when I agreed to do the film. I had already had two conversations with the director Alexandre Moors and he asked me the question of where was I during the horrific events. I could remember it like yesterday, I knew exactly where I was and I remember exactly what I had on that day; some sweats, t-shirt and some sneakers. I went down to my mailbox area at my condominium in West Hollywood to pick up my mail and my neighbors mail because they were traveling abroad.

It was their Newsweek magazine in which I saw in a rubber-band folded in half. That’s where I saw this picture of a smiling man with an afro, looking like someone’s father from the seventies or something. I wasn’t sure about what was going on. As I took the rubber-band off and opened up the Newsweek which belonged to my neighbor, unfortunately they never got that one, I was just floored. I purposely turned off of the story story; not because I didn’t care but when the news broke out, I was under the impressions that it was some crazy white man like Tedd Bundy and all the other serial killers. I just wasn’t interested in following that horrible, horrible time. I turned my back to it. By the time it was all over and I saw these two African Americans on the cover, I was floored. I was angry, embarrassed and couldn’t wrap my head around it. They seemed like a beautiful father and son but when you read more about the fact that weren’t along with everything else, I was in shock. I’ll never forget it and I couldn’t forget it.

Around nine years later, I’m confronted with portraying a character inspired by this human being. It was at that point, everything that I’ve gone through I was prepared to remove my biases, concerns and fears as an artist. Although we’re making a film inspired by the DC sniper, we’re really making a film in a metaphorical way about what happens when father and son are together but the father is toxic. That leader or guardian is toxic and corrupt. So that’s what we did.

TSL: The bond between your portrayal of John Allen Mohammad and Tequan Richmond’s role as Lee Malvo felt engrossingly authentic. How was that chemistry built?

Washington: I found out that he accepted the role and I congratulated him on Twitter. Wasn’t really familiar with his work until I went on Google. Then I found out that he was a child actor who was in Ray and Everybody Hates Chris. With that in mind, it wasn’t a question about his resume but about what I saw in him. I saw a young man who looked younger than he [Malvo] did but I saw a sense of maturity and intelligence that really brought Malvo to life. That’s when I told the director that he was perfect for the role. And I wasn’t wrong. The respect I had for him was immediate before I had ben met him. When I family met him, we didn’t have time to get to know each other and figure each other out because we had a job to do. We had a short amount of time so we had to shoot hard and fast all over Staten Island, New York then to Puerto Rico, which became the West Indies for us.

TSL: You’ve gotten a lot of critical praise for your role in the film; many calling it a comeback. Do you see it as such?

Washington: No. Comeback from what? This isn’t a studio film, they tried to kill me. I’m suppose to be dead. Now you have people calling me like I’m Jesus Christ resurrected. You know?

TSL: I understand.

Washington:  You know the reviews from publications like the LA Times and such have not mentioned something they got wrong in the first place. So this is their opportunity to get it right. I’m merely a talent who has no history of domestic violence, no history of DUI, no history of drug addiction, no history of speeding, no history of physical violence, no arrest, no tax evasion. Not even a ticket for Jaywalking. All of a sudden you couldn’t find that I played a gay guy in Spike Lee’s Get On The Bus in 1996. At the same time Perez Hilton was calling that same slur because “it would hurt him more than calling him the n-word.” You can go on YouTube and see footage of clock him in the eye. All you have is me stepping to the mic after T.R. Knight. I thought he was my friend and family and I had been drinking for four hours that night like everybody else. So I felt like it was OK to go to the mic and say I did not call T.R. Knight a such and such. That was a mistake; I had been drinking at the Golden Globes. That’s what everybody does. They want you to act a fool at the Golden Globes but you can’t be black and act a fool at the Golden Globes. So the next time I go to the Golden Globes, your brother right here will not be drinking, but I will be winning awards for the film’s I’m producing now because they know I wasn’t like that in the first place. They got it all wrong. 

TSL: You’re also closing out this year’s Pan African Film Festival alongside Mo’Nique in BlackBird.

Washington: Yes, it’s the world premiere. BlackBird is a black film about black people and for black people. It’s for white people too if they’re not afraid to come to the hood. People are going to like it not because of the subject matter but because it’s good quality film making.  All I want to do is be an alternative African American producer that can give you some viewings  that is different than what you have been accustomed to in the last ten or fifteen years.

TSL: Talk about your character of Lance Rousseau in BlackBird and his place within the film’s themes.

Washington: I play the Randy Rousseau’s [Julian Walker] father. His mother Monique and I are separated because of her depression, our daughter gets abducted and the films take on the themes of why we blue-eyed blond girl who gets kidnapped and everybody is taken to task in making sure she is found. When it comes to a little African American, Latino or Asian girl, no one is to be found. We take on the fact that there is nowhere in the state of Mississippi where one can get an abortion no matter what the situation is. We take on the theme of same gender love specifically within the African American community and the taboos there.

And there’s the fact that you have a black man who takes care of his children regardless of the situation. My character isn’t really concerned whether or not he’s gay or straight but what kind of man he’s going to be.  Everything that’ll put out as a producer is to challenge all levels of ignorance and bring back humanity through my art. They killed the actor off June 7, 2007 so all the acting I do is for free. I get paid as a producer now. So the acting I do now is coming from love and my heart. The acting you see in Blue Caprice is from my heart but I have to get paid as an executive producer now.

TSL: Was there a learning curve for your transition to producing?

Washington: No! I’ve been writing and producing my whole career. All the lines you see on Get On The Bus with Harvey Keitel, I wrote those lines. The speech I did in Crooklyn, I wrote that. Some of the things I did with Ebony Magazine in Girl 6, I wrote it. I’ve been producing and writing for my whole career, I just wasn’t getting paid. I was barely getting paid as an actor.  After Gray’s Anatomy it went, “Whoo, this has to stop.” And it did; God made it stop. God stopped it so I can sit down, write a book, travel with my family, become a better husband and become a better father. Then I thought about the films I wanted to see and then that’s how it happened.