Isaiah Washington insists that he didn't have any sort of vindication or return to glory in mind when he agreed to star in the heavy indie drama Blue Caprice, but he also understands the media's desire for a tidy, powerful narrative. And hey, Hollywood loves a good comeback story. So here he is, six and a half years after making the biggest mistake of his life, and hours before the release of the movie that could finally put it in his rearview mirror.
"Dude, I was Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein wrapped up in a blanket," the 50-year-old actor says, laughing at his own hyperbole. During our conversation, he's often smiling, and keeps a toothpick in his mouth, clearly relaxed and obviously prepared to discuss the 2006 event that put him in Hollywood limbo.
At the height of his career, he reportedly used the word "faggot" during a fight with Patrick Dempsey on the set of Grey's Anatomy, which prompted co-star T.R. Knight to publicly come out of the closet. Then, Washington used the word while denying that he ever said it the first place in the press room after Grey's won the 2006 Golden Globe for Best Drama Series.
Months later, he was fired from the supremely popular primetime medical soap, which led to a very extended sabbatical from Hollywood.
"I didn't have a choice; everything stopped. It was like, We're not even looking at this guy. We're waiting on some blood splatter, we're waiting on the sniper shot. That is how intense it was," Washington remembers. There is no sense of self-pity here, just a sober recounting of the consequences that followed his admittedly stupid use of a hateful word. "I had threats a couple times. There were some strange things that were happening. I went and got a bulletproof vest, that's how I was living. I still have my bulletproof vest on my desk… I don't know if they were serious or not, but all you need is one, so I had to take precautions and take certain things seriously and did report it.
"There's nothing I could do about the judgment, the trial, and conviction in public opinion," he continues. "I didn't have the money to afford a manager or an agent. I had already spent it all paying Howard Bragman, the crisis management people. I already spent thousands and thousands of dollars. I went through it all. I couldn't afford to compete at that level. I didn't have a choice. I was tapped the fuck out."
Ultimately, Washington says he sank into a million dollars of debt, and with a wife and three kids, life got tricky and he had to downsize. "A good friend of mine said, 'Man, you're a toxic asset,'" he remembers. Work was scarce for Washington, just a few small roles here and there. He had some residuals he could count on, began doing speaking gigs, wrote a book about his career, and started a foundation in Sierra Leone, working to build schools and create economic opportunity; as head of the organization, the actor turned advocate got paid for his work as well.
Washington also made an effort to push back against the sort of vile bigotry carried by the word that got him fired.
"I desegregated the NOH8 campaign by being the first African-American to do that," he says, referring to the high-profile, celebrity-laden gay rights publicity photo series. "I told Adam Bouska, I said, 'Dude, you're making gay seem like a white issue; you need to blacken it up.' So I went into the picture, stuck the NOH8 sticker on my face, and everyone wanted to attack that. I'm like, No, he asked me for something, I did it. I showed support. Since then, more African-Americans have felt it was the cool thing to do."
Now, he's just $300,000 in the red and back to work, slowly but surely climbing back to the sort of roles that took him 15 years to earn in the first place. Blue Caprice — the Sundance-approved drama in which he plays the cold, calculating, and disturbed real-life D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad, who terrorized the Potomac in the fall of 2002 — is an unexpected (and very impressive) start on his comeback trail.
Early conversations about director Alexandre Moors' movie gave Washington the impression that it would be some full-fledged biopic; the actor had no interest in a film that traced Muhammad's life from his youth, through military service, and then over the years that tallied up the indignities — divorce, lost children, money troubles, political outrage — that would provide the twisted justifications for his terror. Americans like outlaw stories with rebellious reverence for guys like Billy the Kid and Al Capone, but Washington knew there would be no similar embrace of a monster that murdered anonymously and then quickly disappeared from the spotlight.
Instead, the movie largely looks at the time Muhammad spent brainwashing his lonely teenage accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo (played by Tequan Richmond); their military-like training in the woods of the Pacific Northwest; and the meticulously planned terror of their three-week shooting spree, which resulted in 10 civilian deaths and three more left injured. The movie gets its title from the car that Muhammad and Malvo drove around the D.C. area; they hid in its modified trunk and fired their guns from special holes drilled through the rear.
Blue Caprice has been uniformly praised, first out of Sundance and now with its Friday release in New York City. It currently has a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and Washington's steely, slow-burn performance as the sociopath has won him major kudos. There was only so much material available for the actor to consume about Muhammad, who was executed by lethal injection by the state of Virginia in 2009. Washington read the killer's ex-wife's book, as well as Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, the tale of extreme isolation that came at Moors recommendation; that one, he says, he "did not finish because I wanted to slit my wrists."
Still, there were a few aspects about the killer with which Washington could identify. Like the actor, Muhammad was a black male, had three children with whom he was close, and served in the military. Washington spent four years in the armed forces, which provided a certain window into the warped degeneration of the killer's mind.
"Let's look at the average American that joins the military," he says. "Usually the percentage is highly people of color or poor whites that have probably one or two options: the penitentiary, which is used to disenfranchise the poor, or join the military. Most of the officers are usually trained at West Point so they get to be the leaders. Everyone else has to work their way up and take the tests. So you have so many kinds of cultures coming together, and then, basic training when the brainwashing wears off, those old beliefs and mores, perceived or real, tend to come back to the forefront.
"And people do become cliquish; even though you're carrying the same rank, carrying the same weapon, people do tend to gravitate to what's familiar," Washington continues, pulling in his own experiences in service. "Overseas, you all stay together because you're American. When you come back to America, it happened to me; my best friend — I'm not going to say his name, his last name was Klein — and when we were in the Philippines, we were as thick as thieves because we were Americans. When we got stationed in New Mexico, he was from Alabama; he wanted to be with his homeboys in Alabama, like 'I'm sorry. Peace out, bro.' I was like, Seriously? Really?"
To play a monster — especially reanimating one from the recent historic record — is a thankless task. Any acting requires some understanding and empathy for the character one inhabits, but then, during interviews about the performance, what choice is there but to distance oneself from the evil acts perpetrated on screen?
Resentment festered and boiled over and ultimately poisoned Muhammad, who felt screwed over by the world to the point that he wanted to not only bring it pain, but trained others to do so as well. Could Washington, who, from his point of view, was banished from Hollywood in a punishment that was far harsher than his crime, relate? Not exactly, he says, as he's moved on from what were a very difficult first few years. Still, Washington will admit to at least an intellectual understanding of the sniper's grievances, drawing from other life experiences.
"Just looking at my African American self, former military, understanding the complexities of how the military works, how corporations work; how the history of this country — from Watergate to WWII to Desert Storm — in the military, you're doing your job, trying to get to the truth, and you're constantly pushed in another direction," Washington says. "So after a couple years of just clicking here and there, out of curiosity, I've been able to find a better understanding of why he had this long laundry list of grievances, personally, professionally, and otherwise."
And yet, Washington says he is now at peace with himself and the world, promising that the Grey's controversy and subsequent journey into the wilderness left him a "bigger man." It's also been patched over with at least some of his former colleagues on the show; he kept in touch with Chandra Wilson, who donated to his foundation, and he's now working once again with Mark Pedowitz, the former ABC executive. Pedowitz was a honcho at the network when Washington got axed from Grey's, and he's now overseeing the CW, where the actor will star in the midseason series The 100. In the sci-fi drama, Washington plays the president in a future dystopia. ("Why not?" he says with a laugh. "I'm a great leader!")
"It was great, I told [Pedowitz] that I love him," Washington says of the meeting the two had upon his casting. "A tear came down his eye and he said, 'I'm so glad to hear that.' And I said, 'Man, you've been carrying this weight all this time? Man, I never faulted you. I made a mistake.' There was no way to correct or leave it alone because I brought it up and used the word I had been accused of, of which they had no proof of me doing. So now, I shot myself in the foot; however, I was still defending myself and telling the truth and the circumstance was all wrong. I never faulted anyone. I had to take responsibility."
Washington's other upcoming projects include Blackbird, a movie already in the can in which he plays the father of a gay male in the south. The film should create some conversation, though Washington played a gay man himself in 1996's Get on the Bus. He's also producing a project called For Colored Boys, for which he's wooing Michael K. Williams to join as an executive producer; his inclusion could send it from web series to HBO drama. The pitches keep on coming for Washington through Facebook, which he calls his agency. "That was my window to the rest of the world when all the rest of the doors were closed," he says.
All told, Washington has moved on, and hopes others can do so too.
"People ask, 'Do you feel unfairly [targeted]?' Well, I did maybe three years ago," Washington explains. "I can understand why other people may still be stuck there, but look at the reviews of the film I'm a part of now. When the next film comes out, this will have run its course."