(The Root) — Isaiah Washington wants everyone to know he's back — not just as a "hired hand," as he made clear to The Root, but as an executive producer. His new movie, Blue Caprice, in which he also stars, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to a packed house and a round of applause.
The title refers to the car used by John Allen Muhammad and his young accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, who participated in a deadly shooting spree for three weeks in October 2002 that resulted in the killing of 10 people in the Washington, D.C., area. Washington expertly plays Muhammad, the man who took the impressionable teenager, played by rising star Tequan Richmond, under his wing and turned him into a killer.
Washington dropped out of the Hollywood scene in spectacular fashion after a very public crisis in 2007, when he was accused of using a gay slur in reference to T.R. Knight, a fellow cast member on Grey's Anatomy. (He later apologized.) The Root chatted with him at Sundance about the fallout from that incident, how he gained new insight into Muhammad's character and when he became interested in researching his African roots and wanting to build a railroad on the continent.
The Root: What are your memories of the D.C.-area sniper attacks? One thing that shocked many was that the perpetrators were black.
Isaiah Washington: I was standing in my condo in California, and I was totally embarrassed when I found out John Allen Muhammad was an African American and that he had a family. I have three kids, he had three kids. I was embarrassed to be an African-American father that day.
Initially, I said no to the film. The director, Alexandre Moors, found me on Facebook. I don't have an agent or manager. I'm so far from Hollywood, it's not even funny. It's just not my thing, and it hasn't been for the last six years.
I'm interested in doing projects that will change cinema as we know it. I'm at a pretty good start as an executive producer of this film. I wanted to come back with ownership, I wanted to come back with something that I wanted to do, as opposed to what agents or managers are expecting me to do. I get to pick and choose, and this story hurt me; it embarrassed me.
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?
IW: I still love [my fans]. I gave you Love Jones. I gave you True Crime. If you got it wrong, then you got it wrong, but I'm not a liar. I said what I had to say, I apologized for what I apologized for, but you're lying on me.
If I did what they said I did, then how do [I] get to stay there [on Grey's Anatomy]? I never understood my people who were mad at me. If you do what they said I did, how do you go back to work for eight months afterward?
I sat in the back being gagged by my former bosses, not talking because I was nervous; I didn't want to lose the $20 million opportunity. So I am not going to talk anymore. You don't get to stay anywhere if it all went down the way certain people wanted it to be framed. So anytime I could have said anything, even now, it's like, why are you still talking about it?
[Some people may say] you're an a—hole, you're a homophobe. You can't be in this business for 25 years having those issues. It don't work — period. So when I checked out of Hollywood, I checked out because y'all are stupid.
TR: I know you have taken some smaller roles here and there, but when you dropped out of Hollywood, what did you do?
IW: I've been working in Sierra Leone. I've been helping to rebuild a nation that was torn apart by the blood-diamond wars. I found out that my ancestry is from Sierra Leone, and I was made a chief there. I've been lobbying on Capitol Hill and dealing with saving real lives.
I'm like Sean Penn in Haiti. I'm doing something that can change a child's life with the schools I've been working on. I also wrote a book. Now I am trying to get funding to build a railroad in Africa. That's what I have been up to for the last six years. I'm literally trying to still help my people because I love my people, even when my people don't love me.
Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.