John David Washington: from athlete to star actor in Tenet

Three years after his acclaimed World War II thriller Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan returns this summer with Tenet, an action epic that fuses espionage with time travel.

From the recent trailer alone, the film promises to further enhance Nolan’s celebrated reputation as a master of original, big-budget, brainy blockbusters, which blend challenging, philosophical concepts with breathtaking visual set-pieces.

But while comparisons have been drawn between Tenet and Nolan’s back catalogue of movies (namely, his mind-bending memory heist blockbuster Inception), many of the film’s narrative specifics remain unknown. Fan theory obsessives have therefore been left to speculate on the nature of the movie’s palindromic title (it reads the same backwards as forwards), and the cryptic tag line, “Time Runs Out”.

What is certain, however, is that Tenet will bring together an array of exciting on-screen talent, showcasing the likes of Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Himesh Patel, Clémence Poésy, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Dimple Kapadia and Nolan regular Michael Caine.

Leading the impressive ensemble is John David Washington, son of acting legend Denzel, who, less than five years ago, wasn’t an actor at all – instead, he was honing his craft on the American football field. Washington’s story is a remarkable one: a meteoric rise that has catapulted him to the euphoric heights of a Dwayne Johnson-helmed HBO series, and an Oscar-winning Spike Lee movie. Here we chart his rapid ascent…

John David Washington in Tenet movie trailer

From actor to athlete and back again

In 1992, a seven-year-old John David Washington had a short cameo as a Harlem classroom student in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, the film that earned his father his first Best Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the titular Civil Rights activist. (You can catch him 13 seconds into the following clip.)

It would be over two decades before John’s next credited acting work. Wanting to forge his own path rather than tread the one laid down by his dad, Washington traded film sets for the football field. He attended Atlanta’s Morehouse College on a full athletic scholarship where, as a running back, he became the school’s all-time, career-leading rusher (a defensive position that involves tackling), setting a then-record of 1,198 rushing yards in a single season.

Washington’s impressive performances on the gridiron led to him being signed by the St Louis Rams as an undrafted free agent in 2006. Later, in 2009, he was signed by the Sacramento Mountain Lions (then the California Redwoods) in the United Football League where he played for three years. But a deep-set love for acting, engrained firmly within him from a young age, coupled with a serious Achilles injury, eventually brought him back to where it all began.

From baller to Ballers

Rather fittingly, Washington’s first gig upon returning to acting was a central role in Ballers, a HBO series that ran from 2015 to 2019. It focuses on a retired NFL player (played by Dwayne Johnson) who embarks on a new career as the financial manager for professional football players.

Having experienced the star athlete lifestyle first-hand, as well as the many demands that come with it, Washington brought a unique slice of authenticity and insight to his character: a talented but fiercely competitive football star named Ricky Jerret, who is so often the catalyst to his own downfall. Appearing regularly across five seasons, the role was the perfect transition for Washington, and a suitable springboard for his explosion onto the silver screen.



BlacKkKlansman and beyond

There was something wonderfully cyclical in the casting of Washington in Spike Lee’s sharp, politically-charged racial drama, BlacKkKlansman. 26 years after Lee had given him Washington his very first movie credit, it seemed more than a little apt that the acclaimed auteur should be the one to give the rising star his breakout movie role.

This time, he was Lee’s leading man, portraying real-life detective Ron Stallworth, the very first African-American to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department who, in the late 1970s, successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. Washington shares terrific chemistry with co-star Adam Driver, playing fellow detective 'Flip' Zimmerman, ensuring the movie is as funny and good-natured as it's hard-hitting and angry.

In what was an impressive 12 months across the board for Washington, he appeared in a series of critically successful films, including Sundance Jury Award winner Monsters and Men, and Robert Redford’s career swansong The Old Man and the Gun. However, it was his acclaimed performance in BlacKkKlansman that certified Washington as one of the most exciting talents working today, cemented by a nomination for Outstanding Male Actor at the 2019 Independent Spirit Awards. The film itself won Lee his first-ever Oscar, for Best Original Screenplay, although the Best Picture prize went, somewhat controversially, to Green Book.

2020 looks to be an equally auspicious year for Washington, with the actor set to star opposite Alicia Vikander in Born to be Murdered, a thriller from Italian director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino, a filmmaker who has worked alongside Luca Guadagnino on his last three films, including Call Me By Your Name and the reimagining of Dario Argento’s ‘70s horror classic Suspiria.

Tenet, however, comes as arguably Washington’s biggest role to date, and his collaboration with Nolan promises to be something of a landmark in the actor’s fledgling career. We know relatively little about his character at the time of writing, other than he appears to be some kind of time-travelling secret agent who is privy to things that “haven’t happened yet”. This is teased to eye-popping effect in the trailers, including an ambitious car chase that plays out in reverse; what it all means, however, is pure speculation at this stage.

John David Washington in Tenet movie trailer

While time might well run out for the rest of us on 26th August 2020, John David Washington’s time, it seems, is only just beginning. Planning to watch Tenet on the biggest screen you can find? Let us know @Cineworld.


George Nash is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team. Follow him on Twitter.