While most of the world has been mastering sourdough bread or learning to knit, John David Washington has been COVIDing by promoting the year's biggest movie and making another one, entirely in secret.
Washington holed up in a swank room at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons hotel last week to do interviews for "Tenet," which was supposed to lead the charge of the movies' return to theaters when it opened Sept. 3. But, with many cineplexes still closed and many moviegoers reluctant to return, its $20 million opening was low by the nine-digit standards of director Christopher Nolan, whose blockbusters include "The Dark Knight," "Inception" and "Dunkirk."
Which is why Washington was at the Four Seasons, in the rare position of doing interviews for a movie that already opened but needs his help.
"It's a great deal of relief that it's out and people are responding to it and are seeing it safely. I didn't expect that a year ago, the way it's gone down," said Washington, who took his own family (including mom Pauletta but not dad Denzel) to see "Tenet" at an Imax theater in Irvine, Calif.
"Obviously, I had a huge stake in it" being in theaters, said the actor, a Golden Globe nominee for Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman" last year. "I gave my body, mind and soul to this thing and, knowing what Christopher was doing, this is new territory for him. So I thought it could only be fully experienced in the theaters. It's the best way to get the full potential of the movie."
A lot of Washington's enthusiasm for the project has to do with fanboying out about Nolan.
"I saw 'Dark Knight' at least four times in the theater, 'Inception' three times. 'Rising' four times. I'm a huge fan," said Washington. "When you hear Christopher Nolan wants to talk to you, you don't ask why. You ask when and where and, no matter what's happening, you make it there."
That initial conversation did not go how the actor anticipated. There was no discussion of his unnamed character or of the movie, a thriller in which Washington and Robert Pattinson use backward time warps to try to foil a megalomaniac (Kenneth Branagh) who wants to destroy the world.
"For the 2½ hours we met, we talked about family, movies that get us going. It didn't feel like a job interview or like I was trying to impress him," said Washington. "I've been in rooms where I have to try to win a job with the meeting. I hate those. So it's funny that someone this iconic, a hero, didn't make me feel like I was trying to win the job. We talked about documentaries like 'Hoop Dreams,' 'Wayne's World,' some Spike films. We talked about ['Black Panther' director Ryan] Coogler movies and I was asking questions about his films."
Making the big-budget "Tenet," Washington was surprised how many decisions were left up to him. That also was true of Lee, who has worked with his dad several times. "I've never felt freer than when I was working with those guys," the actor said. "Sam, too."
That would be Sam Levinson, creator of HBO's "Euphoria," which just won Zendaya a best actress Emmy Award. The second season of "Euphoria" was getting ready to film when the pandemic hit, so Zendaya suggested Levinson write a script that could be filmed in a bubble.
A couple of weeks later, she and Washington were shooting "Malcolm & Marie," about a couple whose relationship reaches a precipice. He said that producers followed precautions to make everyone feel safe and that the script is "brilliant" but, other than that, he was sworn to secrecy.
"The character I played scared the living daylights out of me because I've never been asked to go there. I can say, quite vaguely, I've never been asked to do those things. Same as the Protagonist [in 'Tenet']. I never read a story like that before. To be asked to be in stories like these, things that challenge me, makes me nervous."
Washington likes to translate that nervousness into performance energy. When live theaters reopen, he's hoping to perform on stage.
He didn't seriously pursue acting until he was cast in the series "Ballers" in 2015, after his United Football League career ended, but he said he has known he wanted to act since he was 6 years old, attending a 1990 performance in New York's Central Park that featured an Oscar winner he knows very well.
"When I saw my father do 'Richard III' in the park, I knew I wanted to do what he did," said Washington, who appeared in a tiny role in "Malcolm X," directed by Lee and starring his dad.
These days, it's all leads, all the time for Washington, who also has a drama called "Born to Be Murdered" awaiting release. Now that Hollywood is slowly ramping up production again, he has a couple of possibilities but, for now, he's doing what everyone else is.
"Movies, drives, cooking. All the cool stuff that one can do," said Washington. A lot of time at the grill, too. "Yes, I'd say I'm pretty good with the tongs."
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367 • @HewittStrib