Isaiah Washington is proud to say he’s finally “out of the system” when it comes to Hollywood. According to Washington, Mother Africa has given him the power to be free. The Spike Lee film veteran (Crooklyn, Clockers, Girl 6, Get On The Bus) grew up in Houston, later graduating from Howard University as a Theater Arts Major. Before starting his acting career in 1991, Washington served in the U.S. Air Force.
Aside from Lee’s films, Washington is also known for his roles in films like Love Jones, Out of Sight and Romeo Must Die. However, many remember him best as Dr. Preston Burke in ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, a role that earned him two NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series, as well as a Screen Actors Guild Award, during his show’s run from 2005 through 2007.
After his departure, Washington embarked on a journey in search for his roots in Africa. DNA testing traced his blood to the Mende people of Sierra Leon. This inspired his fervor for philantophic work in the country, which granted him citizenship based on the DNA findings, through his Gondobay Manga Foundation. In his new book, Man From Another Land, Washington wants African Americans to become impassioned about African Heritage, and encourages the search of African roots through DNA testing via AfricanAncestry.com.
Click on Amazon HERE to order Man From Another Land. As you read the first pages, you may find yourself as I did: immersed by its compelling and enlightening introduction of the ‘colorism’ he suffered while growing up, his feelings of displacement and prophetic recurring dreams.
Isaiah’s commanding screen presence will be on full display next year: as a charismatic, but notorious TV Evangelist in Russ Parr‘s The Under Shepherd, as the infamous D.C. sniper in Blue Caprice, and as a social scientist undergoing an experiment on racial profiling in the thriller The Suspect, alongside Michael K. Williams, which they both produce. He can also be seen this year in the role of a journalist whose son is missing and goes to Brazil to investigate close encounter sightings in Area Q; to be released in Brazil October 28th, and screening at the Cal State Long Beach’s University Theater this month.
VM: I want to start with The Under Shepard, which seems like a timely project, especially with the scandals lately in the Black Church. We posted the first clip on the site and it got a quite a few interesting comments from our readers, even director Russ Parr joined in the conversation. How did this project come to you and how did you approach it as far as your performance?
IW: I think my approach to my work now is partly due to my book and what I’m trying to relay to my fans, my friends, my family. I only became an actor to get your attention, to challenge the archetype of an African American male; I can’t be anything else in this lifetime than an African American man.
As I came out the private sector, I always said that I had a midlife crisis in 1986. I decided I didn’t want to look at a project anymore; I didn’t want to be married anymore. I think for the most part my life has been somewhat prophetic, partly because of my name Isaiah, which always meant more to others than to me, until I started having this recurring dream much like the character of The Shepherd Boy in one of my favorite books by Paulo Coelho called The Alchemist. I was just going along for the ride and it seemed like the universe kept putting people in places and events in the perfect place, whether they were good or bad, they were all part of a big prophetic purpose. I met Russ Parr at the Leimert Park Book Fair, when I was in my book tour this summer. I completely didn’t know his level of fame but I know he’s a very successful radio personality. But I was in this journey of going back to my original purpose, which is trying to engage all of those in the Diaspora, working with Pan Africans, that’s how I met him. He’s in Miami in the summertime and he was pretty frustrated because he couldn’t find me, he [Parr] says, ‘man, why am I coming to this book festival when I’m selling a movie?’ He said he listened to that inner voice that said ‘the heck with it, I’m getting on that plane’ and lo’ and behold, he sees me and I see this big tall beautiful man about 6’5” 235 and he’s looking at me like I’m Lazarus or something, and I couldn’t understand why he was staring at me. He finally introduced himself, he says “man, I HAVE A SCRIPT FOR YOU,” and I said “oh, you do?” he’s like “yah” and I said “well, movies are not really my focus, I’m not really interested in doing anything if it’s not going to shake the fabric or the core of who we are as human beings.” I said, “where I am right now in my life and this book, if I want to do film, it’s going to have to be debated about, it’s going to have make people think and just like pull their hair out and run out of the theater on fire and then run back and scream ‘Hallelujah!’ If you don’t have a film that’s controversial, or that is going to make you think like the old days of Spike Lee, I’m not interested.” He [Russ Parr] said, “Brother, trust me, YOU WILL LOVE THIS MOVIE.” [Big laughs]
I said “yeah, I get people that tell me they have great stories all the time.” I went on my business to go to the Essence Music Festival to promote my book and he called and said “I have another actor in place; I’m going to let him go, I want you to be the lead.” I said ‘whoa, don’t do that, I don’t want who you hired to be mad at me’ [laughs] “Well, the other actor [Omari Hardwick], he’s very busy and the schedule won’t work out. I said “send me the script, I don’t mean to cut you off, but I got to go.”
Now, something I haven’t done in 25 years; everything was moving so fast. I was still on the book tour. In Chicago, I got caught in a storm; mind you, I hadn’t read the script until the day I got to the set. I didn’t know who, what, when and where. So, there was a thunderstorm, like a hurricane, and it looked like I wasn’t going to be in the first day of shooting of the Under Shepherd. They were telling me from the studio that there were no planes going in and no planes going out, and I said “I’ve already stood up actor Keith David,” who is now taking the role that he originally offered me and I worked with him before, but I stood him up because I was getting back from Sierra Leon, and I said to the people in the studio “I cannot stand David up again.” [laughs] There was no way I was going to get to L.A. in the third day of shooting. I said “I have to get on that plane today.” The car picked me up and I could see the tires being literally picked up from the wind, that’s how bad it was in this area of Chicago, but it all went away about an hour later.
On my flight to LA, I sat next to a woman named Rochelle Thomas, who is a Pentecostal Christian. She’s reading passages from the Old Testament. Ironically, she ended up in the movie. I didn’t even get to read the script because I’m just too taken by this beautiful woman who’s gone back into the workforce, because her husband passed away in California, and she felt there was something about me that she needed to share these passages.
It wasn’t until the third day, Russ Parr said I was doing a phenomenal job, he said, ‘man, you’re blowing this character away! How are you doing this?’ and I finally admitted it to him [not having read the script] and said “man, I am just going with God right now. I am doing something I never expected to do as long as I am alive.” I knew about the story because I talked to him about it; I remember Russ jumped out of his director’s chair, walked off the set and he came back and said, “YOU WILL NOT REPEAT THAT EVER AGAIN! [laughs] No one will believe with your performance, there is no one that will believe that you had not read the script.”
VM: You were inspired.
IW: I don’t know if I’d say inspired, but I’ll just say I was going with God. Maybe that sounds corny, but that’s what it was.
[Before his departure from Grey’s Anatomy] I tried to be the perfect person, I tried to be the perfect husband, the perfect actor in Hollywood and do everything right and help people, and then all of a sudden I go through the worst media incident in the history of television, and everything goes all wrong, everything goes against everything I’m about and my name. Everybody got it wrong. I said to myself I’m not going to try for perfection anymore, I’m going to be the best that I can be, just going back to the basics and put the work first and hopefully one day people will get to read my book, and get to know who Isaiah Washington is. I don’t have an agent or a manager; people reach out to me on Facebook and Twitter. The last five projects I’ve gotten have been through Facebook contacts. When I’d call a director, whether I get the job or not, they’re shocked. They’re like “is this really Isaiah Washington?” and I’m like ‘yeah, it better be me, I’m carrying a driver’s license.’ [Laughs]
What I’m trying to do is be myself and be humble. I can’t afford to give 10% to an agent, 10% to a manager. I’m keeping up with the times; it’s revolutionizing or evolutionizing how actors receive work. Back then as an African American man, not being on the cover of Jet magazine alone, not doing Essence magazine alone, not doing the cover of Ebony alone and you know why? Because all of “my people” [agents/publicists] back in that time didn’t consider Shadow and Act relevant. If you weren’t people from Vanity Fair or a publication like that, you weren’t relevant, but I didn’t know that! Let’s say you date someone in your life, then break up with that person and later someone walks up to you and tells you what a mo’fo’ that person was [chuckles] and you’re like ‘you’re supposed to be my friend, why didn’t you tell me what was going on when I was in that relationship?’ and they look at you and say ‘you wouldn’t have believed me, you were in love.’ That’s how I feel right now. Ebony, Jet etc. accused me as in ‘all he wants to talk to are “white” magazines or “white” publications. It’s not true. I never said those things. I never said it.
What I’ve learned in this is, how can I have a group of people representing me when they don’t eat my food, they don’t look like me, or walk like me, or talk like me? They don’t even like me! It’s just a business. Not only our political system is broken, but, how we do business and have public discourse with one another. The system in Hollywood specifically, is not depicting people of color; we’re not even talking about Asian Americans or Latino Americans; we’re not even getting into that question. There’s a complete disconnect in the buying and selling in this world of who’s who and how we’re valued. How come we don’t hear about the Latino brother who’s running Univision, which is the most powerful studio in the world!? President Obama went to L.A. a few weeks ago and he spoke on Univision, in Telemundo. Univision has more power than all the networks in America combined!
VM: Tell me about Blue Caprice, in which you will play D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad and which you’re currently filming. How did you prepare for the role?
IW: I’m a human being, I’m going to have to tell the truth and bring honesty to the script, but, I can say that the best thing has been two books I read; one by Russian author from the 19th century Fyodor Dostoyevsky called Notes from the Underground and the book Scared Silent from John Allen Muhammad’s former wife [Mildred Muhammad]. Hopefully, it [Blue Caprice] will be very thought provoking, very intense, funny. Hopefully, people will walk out of the theater really confused about how they feel over what they thought they knew about this man because, what we see is ‘wow, this man is also trying to be a good father to his 3 kids and they were taken way from him. Now…does that excuse his behavior? Nah! But I will say that although you may not agree, hopefully it will help you understand.
VM: Tequan Richmond plays your young accomplice in the film, Lee Boyd Malvo. How is working with him?
IW: He’s going to be the breakout star of this film. I’m sure he’s going to be the one that gets all the awards and nominations. He’s young, a great professional, highly motivated, very passionate about this role and the film. I wish him nothing but the best. I told him, “if you don’t get nominated for an Oscar for this; I’m wasting my time!”
VM: We have an ongoing topic in S & A about the “Burden of Representation” for black actors. For example, there was a lot of criticism for the Help and Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in the role of maids and the film in general. What are your thoughts about social responsibility regarding black actors in certain roles male or female?
IW: Somebody else asked me that question a few days ago and I just can’t take it anymore man [chuckles]. First of all, I’ve been out of the system. Hollywood doesn’t pay my bills anymore. Independent films pay my bills, speaking engagements pay my bills. Although I love Octavia and I love Viola Davis; she was underused in my opinion in this wonderful film. Collectively, we need to understand as people of color; Hattie McDaniel made millions playing a maid, a domestic. Stepin Fletchit coined the term “Black Hollywood” because he had his own projects, he was like the Michael Jackson/Michael Jordan at the time and he played on the ignorant but clever “black” image.
I hate the term “black” because it doesn’t bring to life who we are as a people. The term black has more negative synonyms than the term white. It became clear to me to let everybody know we have to stop saying black, stop saying white, you gotta stop saying brown, yellow or red. What is black Hollywood? Well, it’s never existed! We should all be making films, good movies. Do you refer to a white Hollywood? Is The Help a black film or a white film? A film that we consider controversial, that makes us think, that makes us angry, that’s what a good film is supposed to do, weather you agree with it or not; it’s supposed to make you feel something.
VM: There have been quite a few debates about this issue on the site; I’m not sure if you’ve read any of the comments.
IW: I’ve read some of the comments, and, it’s not a negative but there’s a level of ignorance in general that is blaring because people are lazy. People hear something about you, something we’ve read collectively or socially and all of a sudden he/she is a bad person and then speaks on that. It is that Google University mentality that is changing the very fabric of our country and how we’re perceived around the world. That’s why China doesn’t allow Google [censors Google]. Say what you want about them but they are excelling in their education and as a nation and we are not, because we have way too many distractions with our freedom of speech. It’s not right for people to think it’s ok to say the most horrible things online and harm people in the process.
The Help is made by people who want to do good about a very negative past. That’s why it’s making over 100 million dollars. These people need to see their mistakes from years ago and they need to heal. To debate about what are the negative roles of people of color is a waste of time. Keep in mind we from the motherland Africa are the first people in this nation; we created humanity, and maybe others need to catch up because they have a little less melanin. I look at most Europeans or Asian Americans as my children, just like a domestic maid; knowing that eventually, I may be betrayed as they simply don’t understand who they are.
We need to look at ourselves, look at our self-esteem. If Jewish Americans get together, if the Latino Americans get together; but, we as people of color aren’t getting together! What is psychologically that’s stopping us? We’ve been over 400 years in America and not being indigenous people of this land. That is why I wrote this book. We’re talking about science, and DNA and I chose to be the guinea pig for this. We’re all decent human beings, we’re not all great people; it would be very naïve to say that. But, mostly, to waste our time moaning and worrying about success or not of The Help, what we think we like or don’t like, and taking that energy and focusing into our own stories. If I tell you “Ok, I just hit the lotto for a 100 million. I’m going to make 5 films about Jewish midgets who fall in love with Portuguese immigrants and they end up in Africa.” My point is you are not going to spend money on anything that doesn’t empower YOU. Collectively, how can we expect a group of people who have been in charge for a long time in Hollywood who would want to spend money to empower US? It drives me crazy! You cannot continue on in your keyboard about the negativity. Guess what? Complain all you want, The Help is going to make over 200 million worldwide.
The talk should be about projects like Gun Hill Road, Blue Caprice, The Under Shepherd and get these people on the conversation. If you wanna talk shit, do it in a way that’s monetized. For those who know me, they love me, for those who don’t; they don’t know me. That’s fine, because when I put my art out there; it’s all for them; as long as they’re gratified, that means I did my job. Some people are upfront about who they think I am, who I was, and that’s how I prepared for The Under Shepherd. I grew up in the “Black” church. Have we seen hypocrisy in all churches in the last 100 years? Have we seen hypocrisy in the Black Church, whatever that means in the last six months? So, as soon as The Under Shepherd comes out….Isaiah Washington beat it! [laughs]