As I began to do the research for the role, I asked myself what … you do after playing Dr. Burke on Grey’s Anatomy. That was the pinnacle of my creativity, of getting the best positive image out there that I have been fighting for as an African-American artist. So now I’m free to go back to where I started with Spike Lee, finding characters that will now make an impact, and this was one of those projects.
TR: You gave such a nuanced, eerie performance as Muhammad, who was a father figure to Malvo. How did you prepare for that role, and what conclusions did you come to about this man and his life?
IW: I research everything. The thing I got from Laurence Fishburne is always “think loudly” — so if I’m thinking about all this research I did on him, the camera is just a mirror for that, and you are going to see that. And if I really did my job right, you are going to feel it. We don’t have to talk about what he’s thinking or where he’s coming from. Obviously we could not put everything into the film, but if I carry it in my DNA, my body is going to respond.
One of the things about John Allen Muhammad is that he never really reconciled himself with racism. From my research of him, he never got called the n-word until he joined the Army. He grew up as an orphan in Louisiana in the late ’60s, was illiterate and fooled everyone. He always fashioned himself as a Bourne Identity character, but he was denied that in the Army.
It seems that was the tipping point for him. In my opinion, that started his insanity. I read the book Scared Silent because I wanted to hear Muhammad’s wife’s point of view. It was very unfortunate circumstances that she lived under. He abused her emotionally.
TR: In one way, this is a comeback of sorts for you. I have to ask about the infamous incident in which some people maintain that you used a gay slur. What’s your take on it now?