'BlacKkKlansman' Star John David Washington On Working With Spike Lee And Those '70s Costumes [Interview]

John David Washington was just a shocked as you were when he learned about the story of a Black cop infiltrating the KKK. The actor is staring in BlacKkKlansman, directed by Spike Lee, which tells this true story from Ron's Stallsworth book of the same name. Washington's energy is palpable, and he brings that energy into his role as the Colorado Springs cop who takes the fight against racism to an almost unbelievable level.

Here, we chatted about working with Spike Lee, the film festival circuit, and keeping that same energy when talking to anyone. 

When you read this the story and the script was there a moment of disbelief?

Well, at first I got a hold of the book. I got to read his book and read his words and his perspective, which really helped. But then also then confused me some more like, "I can't believe it. How did he..." I was like still skeptical, like I needed to talk to this man, I needed to look him in the eye or something. you know what I mean? But it was an incredible story based off of the book, and then I did a little bit of research before meeting him with these interviews that he had out. As I started just think about it more and more and just going back and back to the book, I was like, "Wow, this is incredible." Again, that gut reaction always stayed though, it was consistent, and it was constant and that I can't believe he did this.

So then when we got the script I loved how it stayed true for the most part to what happened, and so it made it much more fluid, the process to tell the story and we didn't have to go too far left or right, because the ridiculousness is all in the truth. You know what I mean? And that could be hard to do, some artists might say, "Well, we need to manipulate and make it a little more for the fan." Like, no, we don't have to. It's so there, it's such a unique American story. So for that I was just super attracted to it. And obviously this story couldn't be done by anybody else I believe, between Jordan Peele and Spike Lee running this story, I don't know if I wouldn't have wanted to be involved.

The story is so absurd, and there's a certain artistic license that Spike has in his films that really leans into the oddity, so it made sense why he would direct. How was it working with him, with his specific directing style?

This is really his background. This story is like tailored and made for him. Somebody asked me before, "John, what would you categorize it in?" I know what I wouldn't, and it's not a comedy, right? There's humor in it but it's not a comedy. But Spike Lee knows how to...It's right up his alley.

I mean, it's like hearing your hero, this legend say, "Cut and action." It was so inspiring to see how happy he was and how excited he was about doing this film throughout the process. I mean, he loves process. He doesn't skip any steps; you know what I mean? Now there's a certain pace you got to work with him and be able to freestyle when acting when you have to, which I love, that also means if you have license to freestyle that means you had to do your job and do your research and do your due diligence before you can earn those sort of choices to make that he wants you to make, to use your instinct. You got to earn all that. So it was just the most freeing collaborative environment I've ever been able to work in. And I feel like it brought out my best.

One of the themes that I saw from this film was, in a way, Ron Stallworth codes witches to the extreme, because your character has to imitate a white man in order for you to infiltrate that local chapter of the KKK in Colorado Springs. Did you have an experience where you had to code switch or toggle through two different worlds in order for you to find some success?

[That's how Ron] talked, like as far as like his cadence. I don't think, I don't know if he changed it. You know what I mean? There was some language he had to use; it was a hate language that had to get him in to infiltrate the Klan. I mean, I have a whole bunch of experiences. I went to private school; I went to a historically black college. I mean, my family, half of my family's from North Carolina, I spent a whole bunch of summers and my springs there, so what am I supposed to sound like? That's one of my favorite lines of the film is, "What does a black man talk like?" I love that line, because I guess I could talk a whole bunch of different ways, just based off of my experiences, what my realities are. So I understand to an extent where you want to be proper, I guess or like professional maybe is the word. There's a professional way of speaking, but I don't necessarily want to say I have a white voice. I don't believe that personally.

BlacKkKlansman trailer

One thing I noticed is you've had a large festival run this year, with this film at Cannes, and Monsters and Men and Monster at Sundance. What's one thing that you love about doing the festival circuit and what's one thing that you're not a fan of?

What I love is the celebration of cinema, and [going] to the people. Just getting your movie there, just being in there, a celebration of the hard work. Everybody knows how hard it is to get a film made, pre-production and then the shooting and the post-production, so just to be in those elements of such a joyous occasion and of the celebration of artistic expression. Positive feelings and energy, and I didn't feel personally that any hate from anybody, everybody was supporting each other, equally, and I love that.

I really have no complaints. I mean, it's maybe if I get used to them, if I get to get keep going back to have at this point, but being my first time it was amazing. I mean, this is where you want to be, this is where you want to be able to show your films to and celebrate with people that feel the same way you do and they're just as passionate about the art as you are.

Monsters and Men is going to TIFF, are you going to that too as well?

You bet I will.

Talking about the great 70's fashion, how much did that help you get acclimated into the role of Ron?

It was huge, it was so instrumental. I mean, Marci [Rodgers] just killed it as the costume designer and she was having a lot of fun with it too, you could tell. What I loved, it didn't feel like we're playing just 70's dress up. This feels so authentic, and it made me just warp right into the character even more so every time I put them clothes on and those itchy turtlenecks. I was like, "Yeah, I'm walking different afterwards."

And it was great too, I mean, my playlists, I didn't listen to any hip-hop or R&B for like three months. Like, "Have you heard the new ..." "No, I haven't heard it." You know what I mean? Because I was in such 70's, late-60's mode, and it just it helped, it made it easier. I didn't have to turn it on, I was just living it, it was great.

Last question, since this is your first leading role: having the experience of seeing your face on a billboard or on a poster, like how is that moment?

I can't believe it. I don't have the words. I see it and I kind of freak out, I can't believe that's me up there. But then I get a strong sense of pride, because all the memories and the emotions come out of what we did to make this film and how everybody's so good. You're going to see some great performance from all these actors and actresses and I have to say that make it so, then I become proud to be able to be a part of this team.