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Interview: Isaiah Washington says, 'I've been famous long enough'

The actor and "Blackbird" star talks about moving into producing and about the time he got a "beatdown" for looking gay.

isaiah washingtonBlackbird

At one point after asking a question during my phone call with Isaiah Washington, there’s a long silence. Did the call drop? Did he hang up? I check in to see if he’s still there. He is, he says, but he was just thinking. “I think as loudly as I talk,” he replies. “My silence is just as intense as what I say.” No kidding. I only get three questions in to Washington before our time runs out, and yet the conversation lasts 25 minutes. The actor and producer can talk, and a response can touch on several things you were going to ask him and many others you weren’t.

He’s promoting “Blackbird,” a film he helped produce and one touching on a subject that’s played a key part in his career: homosexuality. Washington plays the surprisingly tolerant father of a deeply religious Bible Belt high schooler (Julian Walker) wrestling with his attraction to the same sex. The actor, who was bumped from “Grey’s Anatomy” over an alleged anti-gay slur he made to out co-star T.R. Knight, knows his words can get him into trouble, but loves to talk all the same. Here are some highlights from our chat:

Not just a film: “I think it should be a television series, like ‘The Wonder Years.’ I say that every day. I don’t know if the producers are listening to me. But I don’t think ‘Blackbird’ is a one-off. I don’t think it should be something that people see, say ‘What a great story!’ and then it disappears. I think that men of color should on HBO or Netflix or Amazon right next to all the other shows that are doing well. It has a lot to say.”

Does he still like acting?: “I’m more interested in taking on more producer positions. I’ve been famous long enough. In my mind I’ve been extraordinarily blessed as an actor. I’ve done everything I set out to do. I wanted to prove to the world that Denzel wasn’t the only leading man. I did that on ‘Grey’s.’ I have 62 episodes to show the world that there’s not only one African American man in Hollywood who can be sexy, smart, interesting, likable, unlikable and complex, like a human being. “

His next step: “I want to produce thought-provoking, mind-changing films. I want to bet the guy in ‘The Kid Stays in the Picture.’ If Richard Branson and Robert Evans had a love child it would be me. In my mind, in my ego that’s how I see myself. When people read that they’ll say, ‘That’s the strangest f—ing thing.’ I know! [Laughs]”

Films about ideas: “When you go see a Spike Lee film you know you’re going to be arguing after you’ve left the theater. You’re not going to agree. I think a lot of us in our community have lost sight of what Martin Luther King has given us, which is the ability to acknowledge our critical thinking and critique the public discourse. We’re in a state now where if someone doesn’t agree with you, they have to tar and feather you. [Laughs] You have to die! If you want to hurt me, I’m at Venice Beach. I’m not hard to find. I’m there every day. I’m the most approachable person in the world. The tough talk is just that.”

Spike Lee changed his life: ‘When I saw ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ I was lost. In 1986, I didn’t know where to turn, didn’t know what to do. But I saw ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ I looked on that screen and saw those people — I saw Joie Lee, I saw John Canada Terrell, I saw those beautiful people in black and white. I said, “That’s what I want to do!” I screamed it in the theater. [Laughs] A friend of mine sitting next to me was like, “Oh my god…” I said I was going to work with this man. I didn’t know how long it would take, even if it was in the next 10 years. [Ed. Washington had roles in three Lee films: “Clockers,” “Girl 6” and “Get on the Bus,” in which he played one of the film’s two openly gay characters.] This is what I want to do — to make people of color look beautiful. I want them to be smart, I want them to be intelligent. I’ve achieved that goal. Now I want to help others achieve it.”

Read our interview with fellow "Blackbird" star Mo'Nique, about returning to movies

His own dealings with homophobia: “I was attacked. In the ’80s I was taking a dance class in the Bronx. At that time it was real cool to have these boots with this shiny metallic cover on the front. I had these jeans that had a fringe on them, like a cowboy. I guess the way I was dressed coming out of a dance class, I had to be gay. I was walking down the street close to 11 o’clock, trying to get the train. These guys start screaming at me, ‘You f—ing f-a-g-g-o-t.’ I was like, ‘What?’ So I kept walking. I got on the train and these guys chased me down, hurt me. I was overwhelmed by four African-American men yelling at me, calling me the worst things — everything but a child of god, but mostly things you hear when you’re gay and people want you to die. I remember passing out and waking up at the end of the line. I took a beatdown for something I wasn’t. So I know firsthand what the feeling is like. And yet here I am, ironically.” Here Washington laughs, and off-handedly refers to the T.R. Knight incident that still colors his reputation. “I talk to my God and say, ‘Really?’”

An overloaded film, maybe: “We can be accused of probably putting too many issues in this film. But I think it’s important. It’s important that we cover teenage pregnancy, abortion, suicide, interracial relationships, interracial gay relationships, high school relationships, same-sex relationships in high school, the black church, homophobia — and in what? 92 minutes? [Laughs] No one’s doing that!”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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