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John David Washington knows how to play hurt.
Before following his Oscar-winning father Denzel into the acting business, the Tenet, Ballers and BlacKkKlansman star spent his days getting knocked around the football field as running back, briefly in the NFL for the St. Louis Rams, where he was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2006, and then, from 2009 to 2012 for the Sacramento Mountain Lions in the short-lived United Football League.
It’s an experience that Washington was able to draw on for Beckett, his new film, which opens the Locarno International Film Festival on Wednesday ahead of its global bow on Netflix on Aug. 13. Unlike the nearly-invincible Protagonist he embodied in Nolan’s Tenet, in Ferdinando Cito Filomarino’s English-language debut Washington plays the titular character as a hurt, scared and confused tourist caught up in a political conspiracy he doesn’t understand.
While on vacation in Greece with his girlfriend, played by Oscar winner Alicia Vikander, Beckett crashes their car, setting off a series of events that will see him on the run from corrupt police, the local mafia and more powerful political forces.
Filomarino, who made his directorial debut with Antonia in 2015 and worked as second-unit director on mentor Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name and Suspiria, sets his thriller against the backdrop of the political and social turmoil in Greece in 2015. Beckett marks his return to Locarno, where his 2010 short film debut Diarchy won the PIanific Award.
Washington and Filomarino spoke to The Hollywood Reporter‘s European Bureau Chief Scott Roxborough by phone ahead of Beckett‘s world premiere.
John David, this is a different kind of role for you. Typically, you play super-confident, even cocky characters – the Black cop who infiltrates the KKK in BlacKkKlansman or the indestructible time-inversing police officer in Tenet — but Beckett is vulnerable, wounded and definitely no superhero.
Thank you. Basically, I was playing the football player for several years, and I played like three cops. So Beckett was just a refreshing character, someone I actually can identify with, maybe not in terms of fighting for my right to live and survive, but in some respects, with what I experienced in football, fighting against all kinds of adversity and pain to see what you are capable of. I was able to rediscover myself, to recall those trying times, those physical ailments. This role put me back there and that appealed to me.
You spend something like 80 percent of this film with your arm in a cast, which must have been a phenomenal thing to do, just physically. What did you bring from your experience as a professional athlete in inhabiting this role?
Just how much adrenaline can push you to overcome or to achieve things to achieve a goal _ whether it is to win a game and have success on the field. And what it’s like to have this very linear concentration on the task when you are having to deal with being in pain all over.
In this case, Beckett breaks his arm. He’s gets stabbed, shot. He goes through it all. And until now he hasn’t really been asked to go above and beyond. He’s sort of an underachiever, a master minimalist.
But he gets thrown into this situation and he finds out what he is capable of, what his full potential is. I think that’s what his girlfriend (Vikander) is encouraging him to do on this vacation, to get him to grow, to grow in their relationship, and to grow as an individual. And through the movie, we see that exponential growth. That was appealing to me, to see that kind of character development within all this other stuff and chaos happening in the movie. It was a new challenge for me, something that I’ve never explored artistically before.
Ferdinando, why did you pick John David for the role?
I saw two of John David’s movies, I saw BlacKkKlansman and I saw Monsters and Men, and I saw two completely different performances that I felt were coming from an instinct. He approached them completely differently and in completely different contexts by drawing on something quite minimalistic. So when he reacted to the script to Beckett when we first started talking about it, I could tell he could portray the drama of the character while at the same time embracing all of the physical aspects of playing within this kind of genre.
Did you do your own stunts for the film?
Washington: As much as I could, as much as Ferdinando would allow me to. I was a willing participant. I’d bang my head on the walls, get my blood pressure up and just get into the pain zone, into the suffering that he was feeling, into this war of attrition that this movie becomes. I definitely did all my own running.
Filomarino: Absolutely. It wasn’t just a technical matter of performing the stunts but with John David, in having someone who is so passionate that he literally hurls himself into the job. I really mean literally. There were a couple of things where we were legally obliged to have a stuntman. But aside from that, he was absolutely right in the middle of it.
Stylistically, the film reminded me of those political thrillers from the 1970s. What were your cinematic touchstones for this project?
Definitely a lot of films from the ’70s, those sort of paranoia movies. Most importantly Three Days of the Condor, but many other films. But the idea was to do a bit of cross-pollinating the genre with drama. Because even in Three Days of the Condor, when the character gets in over his head, he’s still a CIA agent with that training and everything. For Beckett, it was important to me to have a more ordinary character who goes through all this.
In many ways, Beckett is much more ordinary than you John David. He’s not a professional athlete. In other action performances, like Tenet, you’ve almost a superhero. Did you have to tone things down for the action and fight scenes in this movie?
Well, a lot was dictated by the story, by what’s available to my character. He still has his instincts. There is an instinct to survive and to be physical when you have to be: like in a wounded animal. Beckett is like the most dangerous wounded animal. And he is carrying a huge amount of guilt. In a way, I think that’s what gives him his superpowers to survive. That said, it’s a very sloppy survival. It’s not clean at all. Sometimes his body is awkward and unwieldy. It’s funny because sometimes you make these ugly, weird faces when you’re in pain and trying to get through something, and I do a lot of that with Beckett. But I really loved that. I embrace the sloppiness. I embrace the awkwardness of this character, not by not playing too much into it, but by just letting it happen naturally.
It was also great to prepare for the role by eating a lot and not working out a lot at all.
This film is opening Locarno, one of the great independent film festivals. It goes out next week worldwide on Netflix. Why was it important for you, Ferdinando, to have the movie shown on a big screen, at a real film festival, for its premiere?
Locarno celebrates independent cinema, and we made this film as an independent film, and then they responded to it by absolutely embracing it and proposing to put it up front as the opening night film. I found that, first of all, to be flattering and beautiful. And I found the combination, to have this truly independent film festival celebrating filmmakers and this unique cinema experience followed by a global release on Netflix, the biggest streaming platform there is, to be an amazing representation of what this movie is.
You both will be at the premiere in Locarno. John David, do you miss the red carpet?
Do I miss the red carpet? Well, I just love going to the movies. That’s been a big part of my childhood and a big part of my life. And film festivals, in my experience, are just a nice opportunity to get together with people who love cinema, who love the art form. It’s a place where you can experience it as a community. I do miss that.
I don’t know if it’s a fair question, but it seems to me that both of you have had to step out of a big shadow. John David with having such a famous actor for a father and Fernadino with your mentor, Luca Guadagnino, who has produced your movies and who you worked under as a second unit director. How has that influenced the choices that you’ve made in your career — were you inspired by them or did you make the choice to deliberately set yourself apart from them?
Filomarino: I’ll go first. What I can say is, from the get-go as a filmmaker, and as a producer, Luca only produces films if he believes the director’s vision will be unique and worthwhile. I have not felt influenced by him in what I chose to talk about. In fact, I felt empowered to follow my instincts because he helped me to believe in myself and help me realize my vision.
Washington: In my case, I am strongly influenced in real life by my father, by the kind of spiritual man that he is, by his core beliefs. I try to follow that. And I’m inspired by his career. I don’t know if it dictates or has influenced mine, but I am inspired by it. I love all his movies, every single one of them, from Heart Condition to, I don’t know, The Siege, to everything in between.
He’s had possibly a perfect career. I’m trying to emulate that. But I’m inspired by a lot of people. I’m a huge fan of Jack Nicholson’s movies. I’d love to have a career like his. But I have to carve that out for myself. I just want to collaborate with beautiful artists who make you feel safe with trying things that are different, with taking a shot, you know?
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