John David Washington has become a household name in Hollywood much like his father, the venerable Denzel Washington, but the “BlacKKKlansman” star said the elder Washington was surprised when he had landed his first breakout role.
“There was disbelief,” John David told Esquire magazine of his dad’s initial reaction, noting that his mother and Washington’s wife, Pauletta, was the only family member aware of the big news.
He “kept asking questions like, ‘For HBO? Like Home Box Office Entertainment? Who? Really? But what’s it called? ‘The Rock?’ He just kept asking questions like ‘Is this real?’" John David recalled.
The actor continued: "I guess he had to check it with his agents to make sure it was real, and he was happy for me, and then he said exactly what I was going to do anyway, but ‘As soon as this is over, you gotta go learn. You gotta go learn how to do this.’”
John David, 35, has a storybook life all his own, having grown up in Los Angeles as an elite football player, which ultimately landed him at Morehouse College where he played running back before making a run at NFL stardom – signing with the then-St. Louis Rams as an undrafted free agent in 2006.
Washington would parlay that into a brief showing in the now-defunct NFL Europe for the Rhein Fire and also trained with the Hamburg Sea Devils before landing with the United Football League’s Sacramento Mountain Lions on a four-year stint. He hung his cleats up after suffering a torn Achilles tendon.
Having only known the game of football and stuck in a rut with regards to what he was going to make of his life, John David said he received a phone call one day from Andrew Finkelstein, an agent and family friend. Finkelstein had news that casting director Sheila Jaffe was looking to fill a spot on an HBO show centered on the lives of professional football players and the proverbial stars aligned perfectly.
“Now, granted, I’m on a heavy medication,” John David remembered. “I’m feeling very, very loosey-goosey, if you will. I don’t feel the most confident. I’m pretty flammable at this point. I just felt very exposed. And he sends the script and I read it, and I’m like, well, ‘This is cool.’”
Under the advice of Finkelstein, John David began studying and soon let his mother, who is also an actress, in on the stealthy dealings and the pair began acting out his lines in preparation for his big audition – which she had driven him to because he still harbored a boot on his foot from surgery.
Nearly 12 auditions are what it took for John David to land the coveted role of Ricky Jerret on what would become the wildly successful “Ballers” on HBO and from that moment on, he began taking acting classes while darting back-and-forth between Miami and New York City.
Soon enough, Denzel Washington got word of his son’s penchant for timing, and a longtime actor and friend of the family, Stephen McKinley Henderson began relaying the progress back to Denzel, who secretly checked in for updates.
Henderson recollected an exchange he had with the “Remember The Titans” star about John David’s acting.
“‘Does the guy got any chops? ... I don’t want to encourage him if he…’” Henderson remembered Denzel probing. “I said, ‘Well, man, I’ve got to tell you, he’s got some chops. He does. He definitely does.’ John David understood acting is not so much pretending as really doing and really being there with the other person. When he got it philosophically, he was off to the races. That was it. He was off to the races.”
“Ballers” ran on HBO for five seasons and 47 episodes before ending its run in October 2019.
The movie is poised to be one of the first major blockbuster releases since the coronavirus pandemic shut down most movie theaters in the U.S.
Fox News’ Tyler McCarthy contributed to this report.