John David Washington's first big acting job is a decidedly funny one.

Not just "funny haha," but funny in the sense that it's somewhere on the spectrum between curious and bizarre.

That's fine, because so is the movie "BlacKkKlansman." Director Spike Lee's latest is an electric, buzzed-about dramedy set in late-1970s Colorado Springs that's based on real-life detective Ron Stallworth, who ran a risky, undercover investigation into the Ku Klux Klan despite being a black man. (Stallworth was the voice in phone conversations while his partner, played in the movie by Adam Driver, was the face.)

Ron Stallworth, right, with his "movie alter-ego," John David Washington.
Ron Stallworth, right, with his "movie alter-ego," John David Washington. (Courtesy Ron Stallworth)

What's really funny is that when the real-life Stallworth — now retired and living in his hometown of El Paso — was asked who he wanted to portray him in the adaption of his memoir, he immediately named Denzel Washington, who is John David's father.

"Denzel would have given instant star-quality to the movie by virtue of his presence," Stallworth told The Denver Post in an interview last month, noting that Denzel is his favorite actor. "But he's 63 years old. I was 25 back then, so that was out. But it's ironic how things swung full-circle and his son ended up getting cast as me. I'm honored and proud that he's my movie alter-ego."

We talked to John David, 34, over the phone from Atlanta recently while he was promoting "BlacKkKlansman," which opened nationally Aug. 10.


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Q: Ron Stallworth tells me that you first heard about the project when Spike Lee called you up and just said, "You have to read this book." Is that true?

A: That is true. It wasn't like, "Do you want to come in and talk more about it?" It was that! We had half of a conversation after I got the book and read it, but it was almost like (Lee) was already prepping me for it. It was a microcosm of the whole experience. He assumed I was into it, but he really just forced me to trust my own instincts as an actor.

Q: Which is a new thing for you. You appeared briefly with your dad in (Lee's 1992 movie) "Malcolm X," but this is your first marquee acting role, yes?

A: Right. Spike would strip stuff down from my performance or we'd do some blocking and technical stuff. He would come over sometimes and tell me to "put some peace" in my voice, but mostly he didn't give me a lot of notes. He laughed a little bit, but I was the one cracking up on set. It was like in football when I got my first hit: "That hurt, but I'm in the game now. Let's play."

Q: Having interviewed the real Ron Stallworth, I was pleased and a little surprised when I saw the film and heard how much you two sound alike. Is that kismet, or a certain miracle of mimicry?

A: I did a whole bunch of research and talked to him a lot, but I didn't want to fall into that hole of trying to emulate him exactly, because then I would be missing all the stuff that drove him to do what he did. Just because he sounded like he had a "white voice" doesn't mean that was his intention, you know? He was a man put in that position. Why did he want to be a cop? Why did he move to Colorado? There were all kinds of questions I needed to know from him, and they weren't about his voice. I knew I'd find the voice at some point. It was really about knowing what this man was going through, and who he really was at the core. And he was so accommodating when it came to those kinds of questions.

Q: He told me he'd get calls from you sometimes just before filming a scene ... .

A: I was genuinely curious about his experiences, and not just for work purposes. I can't believe what this man did. I just love hearing stories from men and women of a certain age who have been able to experience the civil rights movement, who knew Martin Luther King Jr., or who heard Kwame Ture speak. When you can get it from the source, my goodness ... that's intriguing stuff, just to know that and to be able to pass it on. And all that, in a crazy way, goes back into the performance.

Q: Why is that crazy?

A: Because I don't think like that. I just have to trust that it's in there, that I've absorbed it and that it'll be manifested through the performance. Spike is a genius and he recognizes these moments of energy and momentum when they're happening on set. I've never been in such a group of people who were so trusting and had so much freedom. I mean, Spike Lee trusted me with this character. It was very collaborative environment and it made it that much more fluid in doing my job.

Q: As with many Spike Lee films, this one is mix of politics and entertainment. Which side does "BlacKkKlansman" fall on for you?

A: For me, it's an entertaining way to get out a social-issues narrative. It's not a comedy, and I never got instructed to say lines a certain way so the jokes can hit, because that would be a disservice to what the story is about. In France, watching this at Cannes (where the film debuted this spring), they were laughing at and responding to things that I found so interesting — stuff I wouldn't think they would. I've seen it with a couple different crowds now and the quiet moments have been consistent. But what people seem to laugh at changes.

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