Topher Grace and John David Washington are no strangers to Hollywood. One has enjoyed a steady film career after eight seasons as the star of That ’70s Show, while the other would often visit his dad, Denzel, at work. But both men were treading into fairly unfamiliar territory when they were offered parts in Spike Lee’s new film—Grace in playing the role of truly terrible person David Duke, and Washington, a former professional football player, in stepping into a starring role on a major release.
Come May, they were both staring down a flurry of flashbulbs from photographers who had gathered on the legendary Croisette in Cannes to capture the stars at the movie’s premiere, which at that point had made the whisper rounds as the most important release of the year. Set in the 1970s, BlacKkKlansman is based the real life story of Ron Stallworth (Washington), an African-American Police officer who duped David Duke and infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan with the help of a Jewish cop named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). It’s both joyful and sobering, deeply nostalgic and devastatingly urgent. It’s also Lee’s best movie in decades. The men spoke to Observer in back-to-back interviews about starring in a period piece that couldn’t be more culturally relevant, and what it’s like when Spike Lee comes calling.
Did you have any trepidation playing someone as despicable as David Duke?
Topher Grace: I didn’t have much. I had a thing in my career a few years ago where I said to my then-agents that I just wanted to stop doing what I’d been doing. I had no problem with [it], but I wanted to try new and challenging roles and work with great directors.
How did you get to that point?
TG: In Hollywood, you make money when you do the same thing over and over again because it becomes predictable, and that was my problem with it. So I did Interstellar and then I did political films like Truth and War Machine, and I just loved it—I really felt the fire burning in me. I stopped thinking about the result and started thinking about what it felt like to be on set and how much I enjoyed acting.
And so when this came along I thought, “Well look, he’s a terrible man, one of the worst ever, but it’s a juicy role and so well written.” And I understood his utility in the film, which really helped get the message across—[one] I believed in. I just had a daughter, and bringing her in the world…you kind of look around and ask “What kind of world is this?” It’s a very confusing time. Charlottesville had just happened and it was so cathartic to go to set.
And, look, It’s not me. Spike Lee is the greatest black filmmaker of all time, and it’s Spike who’s saying something. I was helping him say something that I agreed with, and on a national level. That really helped me reconcile playing someone like David Duke.
How hard was it for you to unlock the humanity in this man while you were researching him?
TG: The answer is, impossible. I really tried. I’ve done research before, I’ve played people who are alive before, but I’ve never played someone who was so well-known to the public. This is one that you don’t want to get wrong. It’s dangerous if you don’t get it right. So I did as much research as possible. I read his autobiography called My Awakening, which is kind of like his Mein Kampf. I watched a lot of filmed interviews with him in the ’70s. He was actually on some episodes of Donahue in the early ’80s. That was pretty helpful because that audience was not into what he was saying. But the true evil nature of him is that he’s really good with people, and he’s charismatic. The more research I did, the more trouble I had finding anything to relate to. At the end of the day I thought, “Nope. This guy is just purely evil.” He’s evil because he found a way to have his message reach more people. So I just played him as completely evil, which I covered with his chipper attitude that he always has, and then revealed his true side.
He obviously knows about this film and knows that you played him. Did he reach out at all? Would you ever agree to meet with him?
TG: I had no end to meet him. And the answer to “Would you ever meet him?” is: especially not now. I don’t ever want to have a conversation with that guy.
Obviously this film would resonate with people no matter when it was released, but it feels especially poignant in Trump’s America.
TG: When we were on set it was like, “Can we get this out tomorrow? How fast can this film come out?”
I can see this movie having a similar impact or reception as Get Out did last year. It’s a crowd pleaser, but it’s also deeply provocative and timely.
TG: When I saw it for the first time at Cannes as an audience member…you’re never really moved by films you’re in, even if they’re good because you can see the seams. But in this one, when that footage appeared at the end, I think I was as moved as the rest of the audience. Spike is a true artist.
Did working with him meet or exceed your expectations?
TG: This isn’t hyperbole. It really exceeded them. I remember an 11th grade teacher brought in Do The Right Thing and showed it to me in high school. And He Got Game came out when I was in college. You remember the films as they came out, and I was a huge fan of his work. But there was a side of Spike that I didn’t know, which is him personally. He’s a lot like this film. This film doesn’t pull any punches, and yet it’s very entertaining and fun and warm, and it’s kind of the best way to talk about these issues because it reaches the most people. Spike’s like that.
What do you think he saw in you that convinced him you were right for this role?
TG: When I said to my Hollywood team that I wanted to play David Duke, there was a little bit of head scratching and they talked to the studio and Spike, and I had to go in and read. Some actors won’t do that but I thought, “absolutely—I’ve never done anything like that before so why would anyone believe that I could do it?” The night before I went in to read for him I was rehearsing the scene and I was alone in my office at home. My wife and daughter were asleep and I couldn’t say some of the lines out loud. So the next day I went in to meet Spike and I said, “Hey man, before I read, I just want to say, you might think this is stupid, but I’m just really uncomfortable with this dialogue.” And this is the thing I didn’t know about him. He’s so warm and immediately went to work at making me feel really comfortable. He just said, “Look this is my film, I understand the message, and this scene, even when we’re shooting it, is going to be really hard. A couple of these scenes are going to be really hard. But you’re serving what I’m trying to say, so don’t worry. I know what I’m doing.” And he said it with a lot of warmth and humor.
I read for him, and he’s kind of the reason that I did well and then got the role. It was like that all during shooting. I don’t think anyone would say that he coddles his actors but he’s really there when you need him. There [were] a couple days when I got a little depressed and I did need someone like Spike Lee to come over and say “It’s okay.”
Did you get a chance to talk to him about how he sees the tenor of the country and the rise of Trump?
TG: He’s not exactly surprised with the way things have played out. What really jumped out at me was in the Donahue appearances, Duke he uses the terms like “Make America Great Again and “America First.” I was blown away watching that in 2017. I brought that up to Spike and he was like, “Oh yeah we have to include that,” so we found places to put it. I don’t know if Donald Trump will see the film—though he probably will because he’s in it, and we all know he watches TV—but I thought, “Oh man, what an amazing thing to have this conversation with Spike Lee and then release it out in the world. Maybe Donald Trump will see it.” It’s mind blowing.
John David Washington
You first heard about this film when Spike Lee texted you himself. Did you think it was someone pranking you?
JDW: I didn’t know what to make of it. Spike has his own way of doing things. I didn’t think it was a joke but I definitely didn’t know if it was real. And then I thought, “maybe he’s trying to get me to pass something along to my pops.” But then when I found out there was a script and a book he wanted me to read I was through the roof. It was awesome.
Did you know what part he wanted you to play?
JDW: I thought he wanted me to play Ron or maybe one of the Black Panthers. But why would he have me go through all of that trouble and read this book for such a small role? I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to mess it up, since he never asked me to do anything besides read stuff. He just said, “Get ready for this thing. See you next summer.” So I just went with it.
Did you have a relationship prior to this film?
JDW: Growing up, I went to a couple of sets that my dad was on, like He Got Game, and if I saw him in passing he’d always show love. But we definitely didn’t have a phone relationship.
Obviously your dad has a long history with Spike. Did you ask him for any advice about working with him?
JDW: Yeah, he just said, “Put God in everything you do. Put God first. Pray.”
Did you get a chance to meet Ron Stallworth when you were preparing for the role?
JDW: Yeah I did. I met him at the table read. That’s where he showed me the Klan membership card signed by David Duke. It was a trip. We had a solid relationship. We talked every week during filming and he was so helpful. I admire the man, he’s a true hero.
What did you learn from him?
JDW: He was very generous with all of his information and how he approached his cases. He talked about all kind of cases that he had, and the lengths he went to getting into character as a detective, and how it’s almost like acting—the way you make up your backstory and never break, no matter what. You always have to keep an alias ready and keep an alibi ready to always back your story up. All those kinds of details.
And then we got into the personal life, and what motivated him to become a detective. There could be a movie about how he became a cop in the first place. He was the first African-American cop in Colorado Springs. He went through a lot of resistance to get to where he was, and even being an African-American in the ’70s is an experience in and of itself; he gave me a great perspective on what that meant.
A lot of people think that the black experience in America has gotten considerably better, and maybe it has, but to say racism doesn’t exist anymore seems naive.
JDW: It’s a period piece, but the trigger words are still used to this day. [There are] history lessons in this film that I learned even in research—the resurgence of the Klan, that they’ve had several different lives from The Birth of a Nation to David Duke, and what’s currently going on. Hate has been able to withstand the test of time because of these institutions and how organized they are.
Did you talk to your Dad or to Spike about what it was like to be a young black man in America?
JDW: Spike put me on to some documentaries; we discussed music and he talked in great detail about growing up in Brooklyn in the ’70s. He just felt like a teammate more than this legendary director that we put on a pedestal. I kept calling him Mr. Lee and he would just say “Cut it out. Call me Spike.”
What do you hope audiences take away from this film?
JDW: I hope people will see how harmful words are, and how irresponsible we can be when saying the wrong things at the wrong time to certain people. I mean, this is how people in this country feel and talk behind closed doors at their family barbecues. I don’t think the film is pointing its finger at, or suggesting to the audience, who the bad guys are or who the evil people are. I think that’s for the people to decide for themselves. That’s a great credit to what Spike has done. He didn’t force any kind of message on you, but he packaged and delivered it in such an entertaining way. There are some ridiculous scenarios in this film that are somewhat enjoyable, but it’s a reluctant laughter, like, I can’t be laughing too much because this is kind of crazy. This is sad, and I feel embarrassed for my country.
A lot of people are calling this your breakout role. Is that something you pay attention to?
JDW: It would be a disservice to where I’m trying to go as an artist if I thought about that. That’s out of my hands. That’s too big for me to think about. I can only control what I can, which is what I’m able to do as an artist. I want to tackle these roles and get to work with people I admire and people who have the same respect for the craft that I do. And then it’s for the public. When they yell “That’s a wrap for John David” on set, it no longer belongs to me, it belongs to y’all.
I know you come from the world of football. I’d imagine there are a lot of similarities between being an athlete and an actor.
JDW: You’re right on the money man. And that’s what I mean in that, as an artist, I’ve had one good game. I need to put a season together. [When I’ve] had a good season, I’ve got to put another one together. Maybe I’ll get five good seasons in…did I win anything? Maybe after ten years I could say maybe I could go to the hall of fame. Right now, I feel like I’ve put comparable to one good game together, so I need some more games.