John David Washinton has become a household name since he started making waves in HBO’s Ballers with Dwayne Johnson in 2015. He stoked laughs, raised eyebrows, and put on an award-winning performance as Ron Stallworth in 2018’s BlacKkKlansman and was anointed a Hollywood heavyweight as the protagonist in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet in 2020.
Now, the actor takes on Malcolm a young Hollywood director trying to find his voice, make sense of his thoughts and emotions while trying to keep a tight grip on a relationship seemingly on the edge of total disaster. Malcolm & Marie is written and directed by Sam Levinson and stars Washington opposite Zendaya’s, Marie. The film opens with a young black couple returning from a movie premiere that Washington’s character had directed. Things start out with Malcolm in a celebratory and buzzed mood is mixing drinks and climbing window sills while ‘Down And Out In New York City’ a James Brown song reverberate throughout an unusually empty house. It is important to note this entire film is in a rich and dark black & white a choice that surely was made to create more glamour, more emotion, and strips any distractions from the dialogue and emotion that Washington and Zendaya deliver. Malcolm and Marie ask the viewer in so many ways; If love is a battlefield then who will win the war? This grippingly entertaining and important film addresses depression, drug addiction, infidelity, acceptance, race, power, and love. If you have been in a relationship or are in a relationship you will be moved to tears, laughter, and maybe some audible gasps. You will also find yourself craving macaroni and cheese. You will see.
We caught up with actor John David Washinton to talk about taking on this emotional and multidimensional character, what healthy and positive collaboration looks like in today’s world, and taking on another iconic character in the future if the planets align. Here is our conversation:
MM: What was the experience working with Sam as a director and also the writing side of the project. Sometimes as an actor you just jump right in and follow a director’s lead. Did you have any creative collaboration with the script? What was the creative process for Malcolm & Marie?
JDW: I am so glad you said that! I have experienced directors/writers where they write their own stuff. You are an extension of their voice, like an actor for hire which is fine. They tell you where to go character-wise. That is not this experience at all, it was totally collaborative. The words didn’t need any tune-ups. It is some of the best writing I have ever come across in a contemporary form. I was so excited at the prospect of saying these words and jumping into character. What was great too was the combination of all our experiences Zendaya, Sam our producers, Ashley, Kevin, everybody. With the right words, you are able to use your experiences; what you have collected in my walk of life. You can’t necessarily do that all the time with certain scripts but in this film, I could. It was so much more freeing in that regard because the text was so strong. We were just throwing out ideas in what we needed to add to, we didn’t need to add much to Malcolm’s point of view I don’t think. I was able to make it my own, and the director encouraged that. I’m forever grateful to him for that.
MM: This film must have felt therapeutic in ways for you and Zendaya and the entire team for Malcolm & Marie as it addresses the situation of what it is like to be the significant other to your character who just premiered a film he directed?
JDW: Being able to say some of these words felt like therapy on a personal level. To get out the frustrations of any artist that feels like they are confined to one thing, that they are in a box. Malcolm’s biggest gripes, talking about discussing identity. He is mad about the review he gets because he is trying to define his identity and his art in this industry. Let him dictate who he is as an artist. Also, it is about the feedback from Marie. In the film can Malcolm takes the brutal truth and honesty that he hears. He is faced with the question; how much do you love your partner? This film also asks can you be in a relationship and be focused on your craft? Can the two coexist, really how can you marry the two? All these questions are fun to explore in the film.
MM: Something that really stood out to me, was that this film takes place in one night. You are away from home, distance from friends and any distractions stuck together to fight out your issues with each other. It feels very similar to the reality many couples may be experiencing during the pandemic. So many people have had to face issues in their relationship head-on because there is nowhere to run right now? Additionally, when Malcolm is chowing down on his Mac & Cheese that visual seems all too familiar to life back in March and April for so many when the pandemic first happened. Everyone was making banana bread, ordering take-out every night.
JDW: That Covid-19 weight! I have been in that situation, I don’t know if I eat like that! It was an extension of Malcolm’s emotions I think. I think that is why he had a particular technique of spoon and bowl. It was funny because you see several times in the film when what he is going through internally he expresses into movement. You know he wants to say something to Marie but his feelings come out through his actions. Notice he takes his jacket off before he eats, it’s like the round one it is like the love Olympics. You can see how Malcolm’s character is being affected by what Marie is saying. I just love the fact that there are humorous moments for the character. Some would say are mean or insensitive but there is a charm to it because he is doing it with the intention to win the argument at all costs.
MM: We caught that moment, your reflection in the mirror in the hallway while Malcolm is angry eating and then shouts to Marie that she is genuinely insane all while you are laying into that Mac & Cheese like an animal in the wild! What a contrast can you talk more about that?
JDW: You really watched it. To me, that is who Malcolm is. He kind of moves slow and talks fast maybe at times erratically but still makes perfect sense in what he is saying. He may be frantically eating but he is very calm with his delivery of the words. You also see in this scene and throughout the film, he is always in his head working it out.
MM: Speaking more about the physical acting some more. The opening of the film finds you dancing and celebrating border line James Brown meets an end zone celebration. Later in the film, you are outside kicking rocks and air fencing! Did you come up with the fencing move or was that directed?
JDW: No, that wasn’t in the script. That’s a compliment to Zendaya how fantastic she is. She really is a generational talent, I keep saying that I really mean it. What I was receiving from her character Marie, dug into him. She questions his integrity as an artist and his voice which he is still trying to find! She lays into him. So Malcolm’s movements are a direct result of what she said and how she said it. So really that was just instinctive for me. I totally lost myself and went for it. Ultimately, I feel it is a form of his meditation. It is a way for him to get his thoughts together and his argument ready.
MM: So we have to talk about “the scene” towards the end when Marie has a knife and sits down on the floor in front of Malcolm with tears in her eyes. I really didn’t know where this was about to go. Talk us through filming this scene and tell us more about the chemistry between you and Zendaya.
JDW: So there were a couple of takes where I’m like, and I am not being dramatic. I don’t know what the actress is going to do. Is she about to put this knife to my throat (and I am totally available for it) but I didn’t know what she was going to do. There was a darkness in her eyes I saw in real life and I was like oh my god! I remember telling her later when I watched Euphoria this woman for sure has been through something; she tried something! She definitely smoked, drank, she had to go through something and she has been clean her whole life so I was just like Jesus Christ, I can’t believe that. It is just a testament to what an amazing actress she is. That scene will be broken down for years to come because it is such a complicated scene and it could go so many different ways wrong. It was just brilliant. You see the reaction that Sam Levinson kept in the movie that was real I didn’t need to dig. You know if you have seen Sam’s films like Assassination Nation and Euphoria it could go in a bloody direction. Sam is capable of taking it a whole other way. That tense moment holds more weight knowing the visionary behind it.
MM: Another critical part of this film for me was when your character who plays a black Hollywood director remarks on white film critics and journalists. Malcolm asks, why can’t stories just be about heart and electricity? Understanding the landscape in history right now, with the black lives matter movement, and the awareness that Hollywood still has equity and diversity opportunities, what do you want to say?
JDW: I don’t know. I am a lot like Malcolm. I am still trying to solidify my identity in the industry. I love to tell stories and I love that universal process of doing it. In this movie, there were people from different walks of life from all over the country with different experiences in the industry male and female, and different sexuality. All of our collective experiences were used in making a beautiful film. That’s what I would tell everybody, not just white people but everybody. We all came together and said something. We were talking about something very specific in our industry. And it’s journalists’ jobs to ask questions and challenge the art ya know and make sure we are at our best. Challenge accepted and then reflect it in the world. I want to say something, I am trying to find it and by doing that I get to collab with people that love what they do that is inclusive and it is all about the work. This movie helped me realize that it is possible. You don’t have to be a jerk to make something impactful. Sam and Zendaya are beautiful people, they are kind and humble human beings. I want to continue to find collaborations like that.
MM: This has been such a pleasure talking about this incredible film John David. We have one last fun question for you that we know our readers and the Internet may eat up just like Malcolm eats his Macaroni & Cheese. We are living in the golden age of comic book movies. Have you thought at all about a character you would be interested in playing if presented with the right script?
JDW: If the script was right and the collaborators were as free-thinking and ambitious as I am I would be open to working with whomever. It’s about who I get to do it with. It can’t happen now but I was obsessed with Batman! The Joker. It would be interesting for an African-American to play the Joker. I was obsessed with the Tim Burton Batman starring Michael Keaton. I had the batmobile toy. I had the video game. Jack Nicholson’s performance, I loved it. It would be that world if that was possible.
At the end of the interview, John David turned the tables; and asked us a question.
JDW: Who do you think won Malcolm or Marie?
MM: I would say Love won. You have to be willing to fight like a madman for love.
John David Washington
PHOTOGRAPHER Dominic Miller
STYLING Samantha McMillan
GROOMING Yvette Shelton
EDITOR Seth Travis
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