"How do you infuse empathy and humanity into such a horrific, monstrous, internationally detailed event? Are you guys crazy to actually think you can pull that off and get away with it? That's what attracted me to him, he was crazy enough to dare to try to pull that off. I was like, 'Yeah I've been here before with Get on the Bus, I've been here before with Clockers, I've been here with True Crime, I've been here with some subject matter and themes that were very difficult to wrap around. So I said, 'Let's go there again. Let's dig deep.'"
Isaiah Washington describes what attracted him to the role of Beltway sniper John Allen Muhammad in Alexandre Moors' Blue Caprice, which opens in theaters this Friday. The story goes that Washington agreed to do the film only a few months before shooting was scheduled to start, after producer Isen Robbins initially contacted him on Facebook. In addition to admiring Moors' work as a short filmmaker and music video director, Moors also wrote Washington a passionate letter that got him to accept the role.
The resulting film, which Moors says is largely influenced by Gus Van Sant's Elephant and Richard Brooks' In Cold Blood, is both haunting and unexpected as it focuses much less on the violence of the 2002 attacks than it does on the chilling psychological hold that Muhammad has on Lee Boyd Malvo (Tequan Richmond), the young man he manipulates into performing most of the shootings.
As Washington offers, "People know that it's based on true events but you don't see my character hurt anyone. If anything, you see how emotionally I'm tearing Tequan's character down, which is more violent than any physical violence."
SHADOW&ACT: When you talk about how you came onto the project it all sounds very quick and based on gut emotion. Is that the way you usually operate or was this movie unique for you?
ISAIAH WASHINGTON: This was completely unique. It was almost like I had fallen in love with [Alexandre's] letter. I already knew I wanted to work with him. I'm looking at his work and I'm like, "I'm feeling this work, this is amazing, but I don't know you. I need some foreplay, I need more time." But then I stopped and said this is exactly where I need to be. I've never approached a project like this before and it's scary as heck. And that turned me on because I didn't know what to expect. That's what made me jump in.
S&A: What did he say to you in this letter that was so compelling?
IW: It wasn't flattery, he was just very analytical and observant of the kinds of roles, starting back with Clockers. He was like, "How do you make me love you when you've done some horrible things in your films? You're the only actor I know that moves me that way." He said, "That's John (Muhammad). I want people to be torn with real human emotion." He said, "That's what I want, but on steroids. Because you're going to be doing some horrible things."
S&A: Tell me about your preparation for the role.
IW: We talked and he gave me two sources to read - Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground and Mildred Muhammad's book Scared Silent. I finished her book in about two days. I didn't finish Notes From Underground, but literally if I had I would have slit my wrists. It was just way too much, and I figured I got it. Didn't do the research that I normally do. I just showed up to be a block of clay for him.
S&A: You've mentioned that you and Alexandre went back and forth and had to fight artistically for this film. What do you mean by that?
IW: We both jumped in. And when you don't have a lot of dialogue and you have to know how you're going to shoot it, it scares you and drives you at the same time. So we were holding onto each other in the artistic tension of trying to figure it out. We cannot fail. If we get this wrong it's going to be really, really wrong. So the conflict was, we were pushing each other and fighting for how to get it right. It was intense because we obviously have a professional respect for one another but all that is off the table when you're working. Time is not your friend at any point of production, but when you're doing an independent like this time is the arch-villain. You don't have time to make any mistakes at all. And it took it's toll on Alex, on me, on Tequan. It was rough because we all wanted to win and we knew the stakes were high.
S&A: Tell me about working with Tequan Richmond. As the more senior actor, did you offer any kind of mentorship?
IW: Tequan is very clear on his instrument. He was clear on how to serve the vision that Alexandre chose. Believe it or not I was pretty wowed by his power, his simplicity. He might say, "I was following your lead, you set the tone." We go back and forth, but I'm thoroughly impressed with Tequan and I can't wait to see what the world has to say about his performance. I think he's onto one heck of a film career.
S&A: Was it difficult to have such a destructive relationship with him on screen and still be friendly off screen?
IW: You have to keep in mind, we did a major motion picture in four weeks. On average it usually takes three months to pull something like this off. So I couldn't afford a lot of distractions and I would ask people politely, "Please don't take this personally, but don't jump all over me in between takes. Don't treat me like a movie star here." I had to stay focused and my antenna had to be purely open to Alexandre. When you get into those other habitual behaviors, having conversations and talking about current events, it just takes you off your game. So this was one situation where I asked for extreme space because there was so much going on and we didn't have a lot of time to make this magic happen. I just didn't talk a lot, and that was really the tone with Tequan. We were all on the same page.
S&A: The film is starting to get acclaim at this point, but it's difficult material. What did you expect the response would be when you were going into it?
IW: I dared to think the unthinkable. Call it ego, call it selfishness, call it whatever, but I thought I would be an actor worth my salt if I could play this human being and have people actually care about the character or be connected. If I can pull that off then I know that I've still got it, whatever it is. It was like the ultimate basketball game or trying to climb Mount Everest. Coming off the opportunities I've had, the extraordinary roles, I had to dig deep and figure out what's next.
S&A: At this point in your career you have the freedom to choose which projects you want to get involved in. What are you looking for, going forward? Is it about making art or is there something else that attracts you to a film?
IW: Not just art for art's sake, but I want to have films out there that will provoke authentic, holistic conversations about the human condition. And not provide the easy answers, but put it out there. Everything is not black-and-white. I'm really interested in the gray area - not justifying it, not glorifying it, not condoning it, but at least having people see there's a genesis for every event in our lives. There's some divine order to it, whether it's ugly or beautiful. That's what I want to be a part of as a business person, as an artist - something that's going to change the way we think and the way we see ourselves.
I feel like I'm off to a good start with Blue Caprice and The Undershepherd, and the upcoming Blackbird. And the web series For Colored Boys that I'm very excited about producing. Marc Lamont Hill has come on board and we're hoping to get it to cable. Stacey Muhammad's taking on the prison system and how it's impacting black families and how these guys get out and are trying to patch their lives back together. There's just some extraordinary talent out there and I'm trying to embrace all of it as fast as I can.
Sundance Selects releases Blue Caprice in theaters this Friday, September 13.