Film & TV

‘Tenet’ Star John David Washington Talks Film’s Lessons of Honor, Espionage and Human Motivation

Melinda Sue Gordon | Warner Bros. EntertainmentJohn David Washington (left) and Robert Pattinson star in "Tenet," which was released in theaters Sept. 3.

As he leaned back in his chair, answering questions about his newest movie “Tenet” over a college roundtable Zoom interview Aug. 31, it became clear that former “Ballers” star John David Washington’s good looks and athletic build weren’t the main reason he was the perfect lead for filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s latest film.

“What are you willing to give your life for? Time sometimes can dictate that,” Washington said, musing about the film’s philosophical lessons. “It’s an interesting study, when you watch this film, about how we perceive things … how we interpret love, how we interpret commitment, how we interpret what the right thing to do is.” 

While Washington went on to note that this wasn’t one of the film’s overt themes, he’d already given the kind of answer Nolan must have dreamed about when searching for his next leading actor. It’s a lesson one could draw from plenty of action movies, but not one most action directors would be concerned about imparting.

It’s this focus on the details most people ignore that shapes Nolan’s latest film. A quickly paced, conceptually loaded spy thriller dead set on subverting the espionage genre’s tropes, “Tenet” represents an entertaining step forward for the acclaimed director, but also an increased commitment to his psychological quandaries and sci-fi paradoxes.

In his proclivity to focus more on the moral and philosophical questions Nolan’s film raises than the answers it refuses to give, Washington displayed a keen understanding of the open-minded mentality and like-minded sensibilities embodied by a typical Nolan protagonist.

“One of the biggest challenges for me was making the character a human,” Washington said, without a trace of irony in his voice. A worthy challenge, considering the character he’s referring to is literally named the Protagonist and is given very little in the way of backstory.

“I felt like there was [a] great opportunity to expand the idea, since [the movie is] expanding the idea of the genre as a whole,” Washington said. He didn’t want to portray a typical spy movie lead, because “Tenet” isn’t a typical spy movie. 

“What can we do with a character that’s in that [espionage] world?” Washington asked.

Washington’s ruminations almost seem like overkill when compared to his performance in the film. His Protagonist is matter-of-fact, so inundated with high-concept espionage threats and plot threads that his brief sympathetic moments seem superfluous in the bigger picture. 

Still, it’s clear Washington’s portrayal is the result of a highly thought-out, very empathetic read on his character.

“His vulnerability might have been his great strength,” Washington said of his character. “The fact that he’s willing to die … it takes a special kind of human being to put himself through that.”

It’s another instance of a fairly standard action movie idea (what action hero doesn’t willingly risk their life in the name of a greater good?), but Washington’s ability to take it at face value enabled him to portray a stereotypical character with a refreshing level of believability. It might not be showcased in Nolan’s film, but it’s a level of nuance most spy movies don’t get from their leads.

Melinda Sue Gordon | Warner Bros. Entertainment Christopher Nolan and John David Washington on set of “Tenet,” Nolan’s latest action flick.

“He just cares. He cares about people, he cares about his mission,” Washington said regarding his first impression of the Protagonist. “He doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. … There was so much fertile ground to grow something new.”

But for all the high-minded debate and speculation Nolan’s films inspire, his work might demand more from his actors physically than mentally, and his latest was no exception — even for a former NFL running back like Washington.

“I think I called on certain muscle memory from my playing days to help me,” Washington said. “But that being said, when I played football I was under the rules of gravity and the laws of physics. This character, this role, the physicality defies all that stuff.”

Nolan’s cast members aren’t running laps or lifting weights on camera, but the movie’s unconventional action required a high level of athleticism nonetheless.

“I had to relearn how to blink, how to talk, how to walk, everything,” Washington said, later adding that the process required him “being reintroduced to myself as an athlete.”

The film features what might be Nolan’s most ambitious collection of action sequences yet, an achievement in its own right made even more impressive by the revelation that none of what the Protagonist does is computer-generated.

“There’s no green screen,” Washington said. “It was a great challenge to learn that stuff.”

High-speed chases across timelines, close-quarters brawls and even a balancing act on top of a bus were all made possible through the stunt crew’s dedicated work and Nolan’s massive directorial vision.

All the traditional Nolan themes of honor, morality and public service echoed through Washington’s answers about the movie, but so did the most important Nolan film trait of all: ambiguity. 

“I don’t want to say what I want people for people to get,” Washington said when asked. “I want them to get whatever they receive from the film.”

An expected answer, but a fitting one, given the wide variety of central ideas “Tenet” could theoretically be about. Still, what did Washington see when he watched the film?

“How powerful hope is, how it can be the difference between two people of equal strength,” Washington said. “[The Protagonist] led with love. Love of people, love of humanity, for society. … That’s what I think I got from it.”

“Tenet,” rated PG-13, released in theaters nationwide Sept. 3.

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