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John David Washington talks starring in 'Tenet,' meeting Chadwick Boseman at photo shoot

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John David Washington, star of the new movie "Tenet," may have inherited more than acting talent from dad Denzel — he also has his father's sense of proportion when it comes to show business and social justice.

The younger Washington, who rose to prominence via his title role in Spike Lee's Oscar-nominated "BlacKkKlansman," was in the middle of a press blitz for his new movie "Tenet" when the Jacob Blake shooting occurred, and he joined NBA players and others by taking a professional pause to focus attention on the incident, and on the wider movement of Black Lives Matter.

We talked to Washington about that decision, about his career and about his new movie.

Q: We were going to do this interview a week ago, but police in Kenosha shot Jacob Blake, protests erupted, and you decided that business as usual was not appropriate. Why?

A: I really thought the NBA showed leadership. You know we serve our purpose in what we do, through our occupations, but seeing what they did, and thinking about it, I thought personally that I wanted to follow suit. That this wasn't the time to celebrate. And doing press these last couple weeks has been an occasion of celebration and positivity. We were celebrating a return of the event film, a return to theaters. And again, that wasn't the time to celebrate.

Q: You say one of the things you are celebrating with "Tenet" is a return to theaters. The movie has done pretty well — it's on its way to making $100 million worldwide already in areas where the virus is reasonably suppressed — indicating that mask-wearing movie fans want to get back to theaters, provided it can be done safely. Do you think the communal experience of moviegoing can bring people together, in some useful way?

A: Yes. I may be a bit biased because I'm in the movie business, because I wanted to be an actor my entire life, because I have a special relationship with seeing movies in theaters, Being a kid, seeing these movie projected on the big screen and thinking I wanted to be just like (those actors).

I loved being totally lost, suspending reality because I'm just absorbed into the story. I think if I have that experience many other kids and young adults and adults can as well, especially because of the times and what we're living through.

Q: You made "BlacKkKlansman" with Spike Lee, a nonfiction movie about white supremacy, which by the way looks more relevant than ever.

A: Unfortunately.

Q: And now you've made an entirely different kind of movie with Christopher Nolan (the director of the "Dark Knight Rises," "Inception," "Dunkirk," "The Prestige"), a fantasy thriller in which your character, a U.S. intelligence agent, confronts an existential threat by sinister forces that have found a way to "invert" time, skipping among the future and past and present, sometimes invading individual moments in time with ability to move forward or backward as they choose. The movies and directors seem wildly different, but is there anything those Nolan and Lee share?

A: I think Chris and Spike are obviously different in terms of their styles but they are both provocateurs. They really challenge audiences, each in his own way. Spike might have a more direct approach, and you always know exactly who and what he's challenging. But what you see right away is that they both absolutely love movies. They love what they do, love the craft, the production, creating something from the ground up.

Q: Nolan also works social commentary into his movies, but he is sneaky about it. In "The Dark Knight Rises," there's a scene of armed people preventing a group of refugees from crossing a bridge to safety, which invoked an ugly incident that happened after Hurricane Katrina.

A: Whoa, really?

Q: Yes, I asked him about it specifically.

A: What did he say?

Q: He said yes! And there are provocative elements in "Tenet" as well. We all know that things we've done in the past inform the present, but "Tenet" — without giving too much away — asks us to consider the ramifications of the person we might become, the impact of things we do down the line, the moral dimensions of our future selves.

A: Well this is very difficult to discuss without getting into spoilers, but I'll put it this way: It's about how point of view can change, how time changes motivation. How time can put you on the wrong side of history. How time can make you the antagonist, not the protagonist, even if you think you are the protagonist.

Q: It's a mind-bender, for sure. And reviewers and fans are understandably fixating on the complexity and implications of time inversion in "Tenet." But the movie also turns out be a gloriously weird and complex buddy movie, between your character and the agent played by Robert Pattinson. Also there is a substantial storyline built around your character's effort to protect an abused woman (Elizabeth Debicki) from her husband (Kenneth Branagh).

A: (Laughs) Yes! Thanks you. That's a great compliment. Unfortunately we can't really get into specifics, but I didn't realize how heavily Chris leans on that — performances and chemistry — to help take the audience along, even if they are not understanding the rules of inversion or the intricacies of the sci-fi element. They can be entertained by the explosions and the big set pieces, which is why we are all there and eating our popcorn, but ultimately we have to invest in the characters in order to care about the other stuff.

Q: At the same time, "Tenet" IS quintessential Nolan, like "Inception," or "The Prestige" or "Memento," the kind of feast that is difficult to consume and digest in just one sitting.

A: It's worth seeing more than once just to see Kenneth Branagh speak backwards in a Russian accent. The movie is definitely intended to be viewed more than one time. And the fact that it's being released now may be a blessing. It's the kind of movie people can sit in a theater and enjoy on a second and third viewing, because there will be discussions, and they will be a lot of fun.

Q: You're also doing press for the movie right in the middle of the terrible news about Chadwick Boseman. Did you know him, and how did the news hit you?

A: It was kind of the same way I took the Kobe Bryant news. It was devastating. I couldn't believe it. He stood for so many great things — historically black colleges, the historical figures he played so well. And T'Challa. An exceptional talent, a humanitarian, a kind and decent man. I got to know him at a Vanity Fair shoot, and he was so warm and lovely. It makes you appreciate life, the need to take care of ourselves and the people around us. Watch what we say to people. Tell them we love them more often. It's a reminder of that. My prayers go out to his friends and family.


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