Tenet: talking time-travel and backwards stuntwork with John David Washington

Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited blockbuster is finally in cinemas. We speak to his leading man about preventing a future apocalypse now, the importance of a Travis Scott soundtrack and why co-star R-Patz will make a great Batman (it’s all in the chin, apparently).

Tenet is the new film from Christopher Nolan.

Tenet is a lavish thriller in which a secret agent-type character known only as The Protagonist (John David Washington) must defeat, in very simple terms, a war from the future travelling back in time and ending the world, um, right now. The Antagonist with his finger on the future-trigger? A bad-guy Russian bazillionaire played by Kenneth Branagh who has a severely vexed relationship with both his wife (Elizabeth Debicki) and every other living thing on the planet. The raffish wingman? Robert Pattinson, a British intelligence operative with a fondness for vodka, physics and upwards bungee jumps. As half-rehearsals for The Batman go, it’s a great one – R‑Patz is brilliant.

Tenet is, nonetheless, in terms of the cast, all about JDW. Previously best known for Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018) and, well, for being Denzel Washington’s kid, this is a star-making turn from the 36-year-old Los Angeles native.

Tenet bristles with epic set-pieces: a siege in Kiev Opera House; a jumbo jet crashing (in slow motion) into an airport terminal building; a full-throttle car chase in reverse gear; hand-to-hand combat in which one heavy is fighting forwards in time, the other, backwards; a high-speed armed robbery involving a couple of trucks, a fire-engine and JDW looking like Fireman Sam (with a dash of James Bond cool).

Tenet is 150-minutes of IMAX camera-shot blockbuster that demands to be seen on a big screen.

Tenet is topped off by a brilliant new Travis Scott track, The Plan.

Tenet will make your brain hurt if you try to follow the plot stuff about [checks notes] time inversion” and entropy”. Just go with it.

Tenet is the saviour of cinema, the big-loud-smart-cool event” movie that will (an entire industry hopes) persuade people to once again enter darkened spaces with lots of strangers (a feat that might be beyond, say, Seth Rogen’s An American Pickle).

Tenet is… no pressure for its leading man, right?

Good evening/​afternoon, John David Washington. By the look of your Zoom window, it seems like they” have you holed up in a CIA black site. Appropriate.

Ha! If by that you mean Warner Bros’ [Los Angeles] headquarters, then yes.

So, Tenet. Or, to give it the backwards title that this ambitiously time-bending film demands, Tenet. I do need to watch it again to take in the multiple moving parts, not to mention the plot details. But what’s impressive is how the huge set-pieces are choreographed together. Some movies, those are just there for their own sake. But this one, the action moves the plot along artfully and elegantly.

That’s high praise, and I think that’s exactly what Mr Nolan was going for. Everything he does in this film has a purpose, has a reason. Even though it might take us two or three viewings to catch up to it, you appreciate it more when you do, because everything is specific to what he’s trying to go for.

In terms of getting this movie into cinemas, Mr Nolan refused to blink. Yes, the release date was moved back several times, but he stuck to his guns, insisting that it open in theatres rather than be punted to an online platform. And in doing that, Tenet has become the canary-in-the-coalmine for a return to some sort of cultural normalcy. How much extra pressure did you feel because of that?

It was a rollercoaster, a wave of emotions, if you will, during this time with Covid alone, movies aside, for life’s sake and health’s sake. So I thought maybe there was an opportunity for a movie like this in the industry to help administer some hope and inject some escapism from the harsh realities of what we know now, what we’re living in.

That being said: I was excited. I felt like first, I wanted it to be in theatres, I thought it should be in theatres, I thought it was a film that deserved to be in theatres. It’s a film that will prove, or show, why what we do is so important, and how it can be a great contributing factor to evolving as a community. I’m very excited that it’s finally getting to come out. And hats off to Chris, who has really been advocating for this for so long. He was unwavering in that idea.

Let’s go back to the start of the creative journey on this film. What was the very first thing you heard about this typically mysterious new project from Chris Nolan?

I didn’t hear anything, besides a meeting that he wanted… But I didn’t go in there trying to win a job. I went in there to meet Christopher Nolan and we ended up talking about a lot of things. The plot of the movie we ended up working on was not one of them. It was a great and memorable experience, one I’ll cherish forever, those two-and-a-half hours I got to spend with him, without knowing about any job or what was going to come of it, other than he’s a great guy.

When you eventually were given a script, what were your initial thoughts?

When I ended up getting the job and reading the script, it took me about four hours to read. I kept on flipping back and forth, making sure I read what I thought I read. And I kept thinking: how are we going to pull this off? How is this going to look? How can we even do something like this? Is there gonna be some kind of green screen that they’ll use for the first time, or so much digital manipulation that’ll help do some of this stuff?

When I found out that it wasn’t that way and I was gonna have to learn how to do certain things, multi-dimensional things, it was exciting and a great challenge. Especially for the physical demands of this movie.

How did Chris explain the character of The Protagonist to you?

He would kind of let me catch up. I was asking a lot of questions and he’d sort of guide me into what he was thinking. He talked about the world he’s created in its entirety, but there were just a lot of discussions about feelings and purpose, that kind of thing. That’s what gave me the confidence. Or at least gave me somewhere to start.

Was it important to you to get your head as best you could around the physics at the heart of this?

Yeah, I tried as best I could but I didn’t want it to distract me from the character either. He’s kind of discovering it as the movie goes along, so there was something about the fact that I was learning it as the character was learning it that was beneficial to the growth of the character.

Robert Pattinson recently said: Right up until the last week of the shoot, I was talking to John David and asking him some pretty fundamental questions about who my character was. And John David was like: Wait, you don’t know this?’” Was he fibbing?

[Smiles] Rob was very prepared. I think he knew plenty and that’s what makes him a good actor. He was ready to go. All the research that he’d done and the preparation, it made it easy just throwing it out on the day, going with it. He knew what he was doing and he did it phenomenally.

He also said that at the start of the shoot he couldn’t keep up with you physically, not least because of your previous life as a professional American football player. Did you notice him getting fitter as filming went on?

[Laughs] Aha! He’s surprisingly nimble and he’s fast, too. He had to do quite a bit of running, especially towards the end of the shoot. That was the only friendly competition element that was on set: who was the faster runner? Which Chris would bring up from time to time, because he can run! He has those long legs. He handled it well from what I could see.

What other prep did you have to do before filming began?

There was an eating regimen, dieting. And [Brian] Duffy who trained us and was a Navy SEAL, [helped me] get into the mind of what it was like to be a Navy SEAL, what that means, all that kind of stuff. All the physical training helped. I’d almost journal it at the end of days or at the end of the week – what my body felt like, what those sets and reps felt like – and let that give me some information about what the character goes through and what it was like training.

There’s one… let’s say special fight scene where it looks like you were doing Krav Maga. Was it a version of that?

Not to give too much of it away, but I had to learn a lot of fights – a lot of fights. I had to make them look as naturally rugged as possible. Not too uniform, not too rehearsed. That balance of knowing exactly what you’re doing but not really looking like you’ve never seen these moves before – because we actually haven’t – was tricky and quite eventful.

In terms of the backwards-forwards car chase, which you shot on an Estonian motorway: in layman’s terms, how the hell did you do that?

We rehearsed it, we blocked it, we turned on some engines, we knew our positions, and when he yelled action we executed our directives.

Spoken like a true secret agent…

That’s how we did it!

There were some scenes where I’m guessing you had to act backwards, and then the film was spooled forward. Is that right?

All of us at some point had to act backwards. It sounds simple and silly and basic, but I had to learn how to walk backwards. I had to teach myself how to do a lot of these movements the opposite way to how you’re used to executing them. You know, the crawl before you walk, walk before you run” concept of it all. You’ve got to reverse everything, reverse engineer how you see gravity.

It’s also a beautifully shot movie – the cinematography is fifty shades of steely grey. Also, killer tailoring (even if Michael Caine’s character isn’t impressed)! Did that stylish element appeal to you?

Most definitely. It’s something about having a football background – when you put on your jersey and your helmet and your pads, you just have a certain mentality that you take on. The same was true when you put on those suits, you put on the gear, when you hold the gun a certain way, it just activates you.

There are very few directors who are blockbuster-level auteurs, which are normally two mutually exclusive things. Was that on your mind going in, and did you re-immerse yourself in all Chris’s movies?

I didn’t really, because I feel like that would have been putting pressure on myself. He’s made some classics with some actors that are fantastic, so I didn’t wanna put pressure on myself in that way. But I did listen to basically all his scores on repeat.

Right. If you think of Hans Zimmerman’s Dunkirk score, that’s like an extra character in that movie.

And Interstellar, too, almost the contrast of the organ with it being a space film. Inception, all the Dark Knights, all of that helped me, especially with the physicality of getting into a warrior spirit mode.

And the final bonus is hearing Travis Scott booming out over the closing credits.

It’s great! It almost feels like when you hear that signature Travis Scott sound, it reminds the audience to stay in the feelings that you’ve received from watching the film, instead of over-analysing what you saw. It’s a nice segue into then starting to get into a conversation about what you saw. Travis for me is on rotation with Kendrick Lamar, J Cole. He’s great, absolutely.

You’ve also recently been working on a secret” movie called Malcolm & Marie with Zendaya and Euphoria creator Sam Levinson. He wrote it from scratch in lockdown, and I believe you even have some financial skin in the game with the movie as well…

Woah, woah, out of respect for Sam and Zendaya, I don’t think I should speak on it yet! They’re sort of leading that charge, so I need to get clearance from headquarters first before I talk about that. But you’ve done your research!

Are you a Euphoria fan?

Yeah. That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to be a part of it. I think what they’re doing is special and people are now just starting to get caught up with what they got going on. He’s a phenomenal filmmaker and I think he’s an incredible writer, and Zendaya is so talented.

She’s shown how layered and talented she really is. Sometimes it takes a director to bring that out of you – I know [that], and I’m relating it to Christopher Nolan. I feel the same way about him in our relationship. He’s had the ability to bring things out of me that people don’t know, artistically.

Do you feel like working with Spike Lee on BlaKkKlansman made you a better actor?

One hundred per cent, no doubt about it. I came out of that experience a more confident performer, and a more assured one in my abilities and trusting my instincts, which had never happened before him. There were almost no notes at all. He would never suggest a way to do a performance or a way to approach a scene. He just let me go.

That kind of freedom I’ve never had before, and I felt that way with Chris as well. It made me feel like it was a collaboration. I wasn’t working for them, I was working with them. Any time I could be spontaneous, they would use it. That feeling was confirmed when you see the final product, what they kept, what they left the audience with. I’ve been in situations where you do some things creatively and it doesn’t see the light of day, they go in another direction. In these two directors’ cases, it wasn’t like that.

Spike won a very long overdue Oscar for that script. Why do you think that movie resonated so well, both with your peers in the Academy but also culturally in the world?

I think it spoke to generational hate. It exposed the ugly truth about this country that’s been at the underbelly for a long time. It’s recently become topical but these issues have always existed. It really concentrates specifically on the power of hate. The reason for its generational longevity is because of the language of hate and what it sounds like, how people think. It really exposes that, and this whole fact that truth is stranger than fiction. We were standing on historical facts, which can only be told from the likes of Spike Lee. I don’t think he could be denied this time, and I’m glad he wasn’t.

In terms of how else you’ve spent your time creatively in lockdown, have scripts been coming your way, and/​or have you been writing anything for yourself?

I got quite a bit of inspiration working with Sam Levinson, seeing how his process is and how he created this, just working with him, to wanna start… I mean, I write stuff down, but maybe [now I want to] try to organise it. I think he’s a genius. I’m not someone that can work on that level, but it just is nice to know that you can pick up a pen and try. I feel more encouraged to do so.

Do you know what you’re making next?

Nope. I would like to know, but I do not.

I know Chris isn’t generally in the sequel business (um, Batman aside). But the unfolding bromance between your and Robert’s characters makes you think Tenet is crying out for a prequel-slash-sequel.

I will definitely guarantee this: if Chris calls me, I’ll be there. That’s for sure.

What kind of Batman do you think Robert’s going to make?

He’s surprisingly physical, I think he’s a hidden athlete. People are gonna see that more and more. He’s perfect. And he’s got the perfect chin.

If you had to pick one scene or set-up in the movie that was your favourite to film, what would that be and why?

That’s like picking who’s your favourite child, man! I love them all differently. I had some great times with Elizabeth, especially the restaurant scene. She opened up a can of acting that I had to catch up to, quite frankly. Rob as well, he was doing some things that were just brilliant, and again I had to catch up. Kenneth was literally speaking backwards with an accent! I’ve never seen that before. So a lot of learning on set is what I did.

What would you like people to get from the experience of seeing Tenet?

I hope they come in with an open mind, and not trying to understand it but feel it. If they can keep that in their spirit while they’re watching, I think what they can come out of it with is the reason we need cinema, the reason why we need movie theatres, and the reason Christopher Nolan is one of the greatest ever directors.

Finally: do you understand every aspect of the film’s [checks notes one last time] palindromic temporal displacement?

Uhhh, I gotta see it again and I’ll have a better answer for you.

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