Mention Isaiah Washington’s name and thoughts of controversy come up. Thoughts of his ousting on Grey’s Anatomy, and shunning from Hollywood, overshadow the more important truths about this man. His provocative, impeccable skills as an actor with an unabashedly, loud and proud love of the black community, have resonated throughout his work from Get on the Bus and Love Jones to his performances in the present. Now, a passionate producer, working to control his career and images presented on screen, he returns with his Executive Produced film, Blue Caprice. Based on the attacks of the Beltway Sniper, John Allen Muhammad, who was arrested 11 years ago this week, October 24, 2002, after randomly shooting 13 people and killing 10 with the help of his teenage apprentice, Lee Boyd Malvo. Isaiah stars as John Allen, in a film full of suspenseful pauses, nervous moments, and intense scenes of twisted disturbia. In this exclusive interview with The Shadow League, Washington discusses where he’s been, his second-chance comeback, and how he plans to never ever go back.
RAQIYAH: Where have you been, Mr. Washington?
ISAIAH: I know right, it’s always loaded right, always loaded...
RM: I read a great quote you gave in an interview with U.S. News about Blue Caprice. You said, “I didn’t want to do a film about a member of the African-American community, my community, who did all these [terrible] things. It’s hard enough being black in America…” And then you said, “I had to get past my own issues.” How did you get past those issues and why did you finally decide to make a movie about the DC Sniper?
IW: I’ve been working very hard with this in Hollyweird. I’ve always been cognizant that I am an African-American man and I love my brothers, I love my sisters, I love all of humanity that loves me. Even when you don’t love me, that’s cool. But I’ve always been very keen on the idea that if I’m gonna have an opportunity to put something on film, that’s gonna last long after I’m gone… For example, Love Jones, someone wants me to cut my locks off because they don’t see [the] character with locks, wearing a jacket, reddish goatee, and be a tenured professor at Northwest University. And my thing is, ‘Well why not? The director doesn’t have a problem with it.’ But yet, I’m talking to the producer, who is not of my community, looking at me with clippers in his hand, going, ‘I think we should cut your hair.’ And I’m like, ‘Well then you need to go on and send me back to LA, because I can’t play this character.’
That’s been my journey. It’s because I’ve always been an activist in terms of images and what I was saying to them. I’ve always had something to say to the world, to the public, and how ya’ll playing us cheap and you’re playing us short, just because we’re black men. With John Allen Muhammad, some people could look at him as Nat Turner or Al Capone or Jesse James or Jeffrey Dahmer. The stories scared me so much that I was compelled to do it because it scared me. I hadn’t been afraid of a role since Crooklyn, auditioning for Spike. This film, [Blue Caprice] did that for me. It reminded me of why I became an actor. I’m not John Allen Muhammad, I don’t agree with anything that he did, that’s why I did the movie. For the first time, I did a role where I didn’t have anything to say. I wasn’t trying to push the envelope with my power to the people shit. I played a bastard and a cowardice bastard at that. One that was so deep that he was inspired by 9/11. And when he received his lethal injection, he left this earth at 9:11pm.
RM: 9:11pm? That’s interesting.
IW: That’s documented. So I really had nothing to lose. But just play with this French [director] that had something to say, that agreed with me about fathers, lack of fathers, bad leadership, toxic leadership, toxic love, irresponsibility, guns, violence, misogyny, you know I have my ideas on that too. So what if I help create a piece of art that provokes people thinking about all of those things?
RM: Did you meet with any of John Allen Muhammad’s family or friends to prepare for this character?
IW: Well, see that’s the beauty about the art. Ultimately, you saw a character named John Allen. Nowhere in the film do you ever hear, “John Allen Muhammad,” because we weren’t doing a biopic. We were doing an art film inspired by these real people. But we did it so well, using actual events peppered into the story-telling of our creative world, that people were going around, running all over the internet saying, ‘Isaiah Washington is playing John Allen Muhammad and he’s terrifyingly good.” I was like, ‘I didn’t.’
RM: “Inspired by.” “Based on.” People have to remember that those phrases don’t mean factual. What types of projects are you looking for these days?
IW: Oh, you’re not even ready for my next film!
RM: Uh oh. What’s the next film?
IW: You’re not ready. We just submitted it to Sundance. It’s an African-American, gay, coming-of-age story set in Mississippi.
RM: Whoa. There’s a lot of ironic, taboo things there…
IW: That’s right. I’m producing it. The director is an openly gay man from [the TV Show] Noah’s Ark. That’s my brother from another mother. We’re dealing with same-gender interracial relationships, teen pregnancy and not being able to get an abortion anywhere in the state of Mississippi, child abduction, homophobia in the church, the misuse and abuse of power in the black church. I’m playing the father who is the only one supporting his gay son in his community and keeping the peace. It’s called, Blackbird. There’s another documentary I’m working on, having conversations of why Africans don’t like African-Americans and vice versa. Talking about post-traumatic slave syndrome, and why we’re still messed up. It talks about DNA, me getting my DNA and finding I’m from Sierra Leone, and getting my citizenship, which closes the door on what Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois died for. I have a dual citizenship now.
IW: Yeah. I could run for president in Sierra Leone. Nobody knows this. So that’s what I’ve been up to the last 6 years. I’m [producing], taking control of my brand and saying these are the kind of stories I want to tell my people. Blue Caprice is just one of those. Once I got a taste of Sundance, I’m trying to go every year now. As a producer, I just do quality products and then hopefully get paid on the back end. That’s what Tom Cruise is doing. My goal is to come back to you guys as a profound, go-to producer like a Will Packer or Tyler Perry.
RM: I love comeback stories. But let’s look back for a minute. Because I can’t do an interview about where you are now, without being a responsible journalist and discussing where you were. But I feel nervous to bring it up: Grey’s Anatomy.
IW: The truth is always the truth. I’m a child of God, with all of my flaws. So the bottom line is, the guy that walked me out the door on Grey's, already just hired me on an even bigger opportunity on the CW network called The 100 [The Hundred], where I’m basically playing the president 97 years in the future. So it’s all parts of the course. There’s no bad in my world, only more self-empowerment.
RM: Nice! And Blue Caprice is a great comeback. The film is intense, pulling you in from the opening. It’s actually a bit disturbing.
IW: John Allen Muhammad goes to Kuwait, goes to Iraq, disarms over 800 bombs and sees that every single bomb was made in the USA. Knowing that the arms and the limbs of his comrades in the army are being dismembered and disfigured and having loss of life from bombs made in the USA and sold to Saddam Hussein. And you ask that man to come back to America and be cool? His real wife said, ‘I don’t know that man.’ So we’ll never know who John Allen Muhammad is because she married, John Allen Williams. So here we have, with a film called Blue Caprice, which is a metaphor for every human being. Particularly for men of color, that have been depressed, blue, or did something capricious or out of the blue and random. Caprice. We gave you a film filled with a moody capricious human being that happens to be black named John Allen, that goes from being a doting father with three kids, on an island, to killing everything that moves. Father issues. And the father issues started when? Slavery. They started taking the fathers, traumatizing the fathers. They started raping the children and the mothers and the wives in front of the fathers. [Director] Alexander Moors said, ‘Isaiah we’re using events to bring up the cultural violence. But we’re turning a classic father-son story, a love story gone all the way wrong. And I said, ‘That’s what we’re doing? I’m in.’
RM: I bet you were. The most disturbing scene is when your character ties the boy to a tree and leaves him there overnight. The kid finally breaks free, in the rain, and runs home. Crazy.
IW: We only have one take of that. Because Isaiah Washington went into the woods and cried. I was inconsolable. I wasn’t going to do another take. You understand? It was too painful. I’m a father. It was way too close to home there. I know I have to do my job. I know I said I would do this role. But that boy screaming, ‘Dad?’ I couldn’t do another take, Raqiyah. I couldn’t do it. Ya’ll not going to see this grown man cry up in here. I said, 'This man crazy. If I ever met this man? Did this shit really happen?' Yes, he did it multiple times to the boy. He was so wrong on so many levels. I was angry with John Allen Muhammad. I was angry with Isaiah, myself. Like wait a minute, did I just get tricked by this damn person? Did I just… Am I on my way back to slavery? I was having all kinds of bad, bad thoughts and feelings.
RM: That’s heavy. There’s a moment in the film where Tequan Richmond, the actor who plays the Lee Malvo-based character, is in jail. The only emotion he ever shows is when asking, ‘Where’s my father?’ Powerful moment. I know actors feed off the energy of one another. What did you show or help him with while working on this film?
IW: Silence. Think loudly. Whatever you’re thinking, think loudly. That was it. It’s all pretend; we’re pretending here, we’re acting. But if you believe it, believe loudly. Feel it, feel loudly. It’s not a lot of talking in the film.
RM: No, there’s not.
IW: So your answer with a piece of art, that experiment I was working on with myself and this young man that had no baggage, he was not an older guy, not in competition. I was teaching him on a new level of acting, just like my character was turning his into a killer. We going to show the world what less is more really looks like. Not these motherfuckers out here talking about it, thinking they acting, getting paid millions of dollars on bull crap, talking about less is more. No, this is a dad and son, and you can show the world what less is more [looks like], when you’re prepared and thinking something and truly feeling [what] it looks like. So I won with that experiment.
RM: And you were offered this role on Facebook?
IW: That’s how I’ve been doing business for the last 6 years is on Facebook. I don’t need a middle man nor did the middle man need me. So it didn’t stop me from wanting to find interesting stories or find funding when I felt like I wanted to do it. I wasn’t purposely not trying to use Facebook. That was my only way out to the world. To hear what other people thought about me, what they felt I should be doing. I would ask them questions like, ‘What do you want to see?’ Or, ‘Would you be interested in this?’ Or, ‘I just did this.’ Or, ‘What would you feel about me if I played the DC Sniper?’ Oh wow. People would respond. So I’ve been listening, just like any other network, listening to what people have to say on Facebook as data. Now the bottleneck is the distributorship. How big is it going to be, to get to all the people that want to see it? You got a film on limited release, you got video on demand, you got iTunes, you know? I feel like I can get to my people with my story telling. Blue Caprice is number 86 on top rising reviews for Rotten Tomatoes. It’s not a million dollar horror film. We’re there in front of Rush with Ron Howard, on Rotten Tomatoes. So this is an exciting time for me. I’m Executive Producing For Colored Boys [by writer/director Stacey Muhammad]. Really telling stories of how brothers go back to the community after doing nine years in prison, talking about this prison syndrome that these brothers are suffering from. That’s a webseries. We just released episode 6.
RM: Well, you’ve been through so much. I read something about your own father being killed when you were 13 by violence. I’m sorry to hear about that. It happens so much in our community. How did you deal with that? And more importantly, how do you use that today in your work and life?
IW: I was watching Good Times. That’s how I found out. Live at 5 was the TMZ of the time. I dunno, I was 13. So 1976, right? Marvin [Zindler] would come on with Live at 5 Eyewitness News, with his bad all-white toupee, with these blue shades, he looked like Donald Trump before Donald Trump. Whenever you got Live at 5 with Marvin, you knew you were going to hear some really bad stuff. So I’m [flipping] from Beverly Hillbillies to Good Times. It’s summertime, nobody preventing me from watching, there’s no supervision. I turn it on, and I hear, ‘Isaiah Washington has been murdered at Lucky Street.'
RM: Oh! That’s horrible.
IW: That’s how I found out my biological father, who I never knew, was murdered by his community wife, who I still had to share his social security with, because she’s a common law wife. She murdered him. So I gotta split a social security check with a woman I never met, and her son, because the state and law of Texas said so. He never gave me anything. But now I don’t get the car that he owned. The woman’s son who killed my father gets that. Now I get half a check from the man I only met twice, and when I did see him he was beating my mom. I talk about this all in my book, “A Man from Another Land: How Finding My Roots Changed My Life.” But yet, good ole me decided that the next time you hear the word Isaiah Washington on TV, it’s going to be a famous football player or an astronaut or something. It’s going to mean something powerful. It’s not going to mean something bad. That’s why I became an actor. I wanted to turn. When I turned on the television, I wanted to turn that around. And I’ve done it.