Today marks the wide US release (where theaters are open) of Christopher Nolan‘s newest film Tenet, the brand new action-based techno-thriller from the master of the cinematic puzzle box. We’ve already talked to Himesh Patel, who is a key part of the cast, and if you haven’t already read it, our review of the film hit the site yesterday.
But today, we’re unveiling our new interview with Tenet’s star John David Washington who plays the film’s central character, The Protagonist – a Bond-esque hero who, after a near-death experience, is trying to unravel the mystery of a secret organization called Tenet. John David graciously spent a little time with me to discuss his experience working with Nolan, shooting such a complex script and facing his biggest phobia on set.
Kyle: Hey John David, thanks so much for the time. So when you get cast in the lead of Christopher Nolan movie, how did you celebrate?
John David: As if we already shot and wrapped the film and we got the best film of all time! It was a celebration. It was like winning the Super Bowl. There were several dinners, there was some toasting involved, it was great. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
Kyle: You know, it’s an incredibly dense script. I’m sure you’ve had that conversation a few times with people. But I’m wondering, were there times when you’re on set in front of the camera or behind the camera, you say, well, hold on, hold on, Chris, what’s going on?
John David: Absolutely. Every day! Every day. Yeah. Simple as that. Every day I said those exact words.
Kyle: I’m sure he had a very solid answer every time.
John David: Every time. I don’t think there was a day where I was like, yeah, I got it. No problem. Don’t worry about it. Good morning. Let’s just do this. Line me up, you know? No, actually, I take that back. There were some days where it was it was pretty linear, where we were telling a traditional story. So not every day, but most days. If there were 90 days of shooting, I’d say 60 of them.
Kyle: So having seen the actual movie maybe multiple times now, have you hit that point, as one kind of tends to with Nolan films, where new elements have unlocked for you?
John David: Absolutely. I actually do need to see it at least one more time. It’s been a while since I have, but I definitely need to see it like two more times to be more confident about talking about it. But that being said, yeah, on the second viewing I discovered something. On the first viewing I discovered a whole bunch, because it’s different – I was in it, you know, and working on it, and not knowing what he was going to use and how it was going to come together. So it was quite a discovery, and an amazing and exciting and entertaining one.
Kyle: One of the pitches kind of early on in the promotional cycle of the film was that your character is going to be a different kind of protagonist. And so getting the thematics in how that plays in the script out of the way, what is it you think that sets your character apart from the pantheon of these Nolan leads that we’ve seen before?
John David: Man, I know the pantheon, right? I mean, I was going to say I think my beard, you know? I want to say I think Christian had one for some of The Dark Knight, but the beard throughout, it’s what separates me from the rest of them (laughs).
No, I mean, I think when you see these films, these spy thrillers and these action genre films, that they can lack humanity sometimes. I really embraced, and Christopher Nolan did as well, bringing the human being to the character. And I think some of his vulnerability, his quest for human freedom in the way they live and just being able to be themselves, I think what he was willing to die for and fight for might separate them. And it separates them because of how he goes about doing things in the film.
Kyle: I know you’ve done your own sort of biographical work behind the scenes on this character. In your private notes, you don’t have to tell me what the answer is, but does he have a name?
John David: He might. It was interesting, though, because every time I would do that, it would take me out of it a little bit. You know what it felt like? Every time I would try to name him, I felt like I was in a box. There was something about him being The Protagonist that made it feel like anything is possible, just like the film, in a way. Anything is possible because all the genres that are being sort of combined. It’s a super ambitious film. So all of the things that he’s combining and then he kind of Nolan-izes it. It’s right on par with what I’m trying to do. There’s all kinds of things I can pull from, just doing my real research on what operatives like this do. But then, you know, be open to the limitless possibilities of who this guy is, because there’s never been a guy like this before.
So I wanted to stay away from, “Oh, that’s who he is.” I always want to discover, especially the way this film goes, because it’s kind of about self-discovery, this film. And the character’s relationship to the film. It’s about, oh, that’s who he is. It’s kind of constant throughout. So I wanted to keep that in mind and keep that in my spirit throughout the film.
Kyle: One thing it’s really notable about him is that he’s quite funny. And I think Chris tends to get a little underrated for his wit. How much of that was inherent in the script and how much of that is something that he sort of allowed you some latitude with the dialogue?
John David: I think was a healthy combination. And I say that because I was ready to look, talk, deliver, stand here, say that. Stoic in nature, and not robotic, but basically at the ready. You know, your wish is my command. And it was not like that with him, which surprised me. I didn’t expect it. Working with him exceeded my expectations.
He really wanted my interpretation. And he almost didn’t really want me to talk too much about what my background was, what I was working on. He just wanted me to execute it. There were certain times where I would do some takes and we’d move on. And I was like, is that right? Did I do it wrong? Did I mess up? Did I mess this whole thing up?
And it wasn’t like that at all. He got exactly what he wanted. He liked me to keep it fresh, liked the entire cast to keep it fresh and spontaneous. He welcomed all of that. I think it really showed me that he understands and appreciates actors and performance. And he really leans on it more than you think in this process, in the process of making a film, which was incredibly encouraging.
Kyle: How does he compare to Spike Lee in that respect?
John David: There were so many similarities. I’m glad you said that. It’s funny, in my career, that these two gentlemen probably trusted me the most out of anybody. And I say that because of how they led by example, with what they didn’t talk to me about, what they didn’t tell me, what they didn’t advise me during a scene. Trust your instincts. A lot of times they would both echo that.
There was some freestyling sometimes. I made a line up once in a scene in this film, and he laughed and he kept it. I didn’t think he was going to keep it. You never know, which is what I love. He loves discovery, just like I do. Both of them do.
Kyle: I’m interested in the complexities of shooting the film’s inverted combat. Can you share with us some details about how those scenes were choreographed and how long that preparation process took?
John David: Understanding the rules of inversion took about two months, and honestly, the more moves I was able to perform and the more we exercised them, the more we rehearsed them, the better. And the more clear the concept became, the better I was able to understand it. I was understanding it through the lens of the protagonist, but the overall aspect of what we were doing was becoming more evident to me as we were doing the moves.
So how gravity works, as the laws of physics work, how I defend, how I block things, that’s on the attack in this world. And me being on the attack, on the aggressive, means I’m actually defending myself. It’s such a crazy concept. So for example, a forward roll is now a backwards roll. Or say, a toss. You know, this learning how to toss or re-toss somebody. It’s crazy to think about: evading a punch, certain blocks, ways of shooting a gun, aiming, looking for your aim and then aim or “aim then look” instead. George Cottle and Jackson Spiddel, our fight and stunt coordinators, are brilliant. They are brilliant for what they did. Nobody’s ever done moves like this before, and they deserve a lot of credit for what they’ve created.
Kyle: What was the most challenging day on set?
John David: Well, my fear of heights. So it was definitely Mumbai, the high rise, having to jump over a balcony. That was the most challenging day.
Kyle: How’d you psyche yourself up in order to do it?
John David: Well, what you’re doing it for: this is this is the opportunity of a lifetime. I really believe in this role and the story we’ve shot in almost four months now. So we’ve gotten to know each other well. They see my commitment level. So I’ve got to stay in character. I’ve got to stay committed. It’s funny, because I usually take notes very well. When Chris does give them, I’ll take them very well. And I wasn’t taking the note this time. He asked me to do something before I jump over the balcony and I was saying “Yes,” I looked like I was like, “Yeah, no problem”. And I do the same thing that he wanted me to fix. So he thought that was kind of odd, like “What is taking him so long? Why is he not taking the the the note?” I finally do it and get it right. And he realized later, we had a laugh about it, that I was scared to death. That’s why I wasn’t taking the note. I was in my head. I was acting like it was no problem. And I took the note, but I was so scared of that thing.
I mean, because you look down and there’s…the opportunity to be gone forever (laughs). So it just took me time to warm up, if you will.
Kyle: Did Robert have similar reservations?
John David: Rob is the man. He’s a superhero. He wasn’t scared at all. I was the scared one.
Kyle: For such a globetrotting adventure here, I think there’s like seven different countries in which you all shot. Did you have a particular favorite location? Maybe not Mumbai (laughs).
John David: Ironically enough, Mumbai was my favorite. I mean, it’s a photo finish between Amalfi Coast, obviously, and Mumbai. But Mumbai as a whole, we spent, I think, about 11, 12 days there. And some of my off days I had, I would walk the streets, and it was such a tranquil environment. I had a sort of a spiritual awakening there. A lot of things were happening for me in my personal life in such a positive, sort-of evolutionary, way.
And I credit that to my experience there and the people that I got to come in contact with. So maybe that’s why I was so scared, because I was so peaceful. Maybe I needed to be a little bit more on edge or something. But I loved Mumbai.
Kyle: Speaking of people, that puts me in mind that the core trio of you, Rob and Elizabeth have really lovely chemistry. I’m curious how that was attained, and was there any workshopping done off-camera to get there?
John David: Rob and Elizabeth are extraordinary actors. I mean, they are some of the best working today, they really are. But I think everybody had the right attitude. We were all excited, like little kids, to be there. I remember us at the table reading his words out loud in front of Chris at his version of a table read. And it was just like, “This is crazy.”
And then we’re going to, like, Nolan School, learning fight scenes and working out together – so we were in Nolan Camp. But the chemistry was natural, in my opinion. We didn’t have to work to get it there. It was there. It was built in based off of the personalities: they just fit. We all just fit together. And I think we all respect each other’s work. Because they’re so brilliant. When the words are there, you don’t have to do much. You can just add to it, and you can enhance it. But you don’t have to keep digging. I think that’s why it looked and felt so natural on screen.
Kyle: So this is a bit of a **spoilery question**. The film kind of speaks to this generational divide, as one generation is maybe letting down future generations. Do you think the film has an optimistic or cynical tone regarding that political framework that kind of centers around the conflict itself?
John David: I think it depends on who you relate to the most – what character you relate to. I think the film is about point of view. I think it’s about perspective, and how you can be on the wrong side of history with a different type of perspective. And time can dictate that perspective being protagonist-like or antagonist-like. It’s such an interesting concept. And what he’s dealing with, the subject matter, you might not even grasp on the first viewing, because there’s so much spectacle, and it’s an event film. And like I said, the set pieces, the locations, the explosions, the running, the action – I’d say just enjoy that. But when you start to deconstruct, when you start to really pay attention, maybe on the second or third viewing, you’ve obviously caught it early, these are the kind of questions that Chris poses. And I think it’s such an interesting topic.
Kyle: I write for comic book website. So I’ve just got to know, is there a superhero you want to play?
John David: I don’t know – (laughs) whoever calls, you know? Whoever asked me to play it! I would love to. Yeah, sure. Why not? I don’t have a particular one. I want to leave my options open.
Tenet is already playing in many countries across the globe, but opens domestically today.