Loading...

Isaiah Washington Explains How He Played the D.C. Sniper 

Thursday, Sep 12 2013
Comments
9136814.t.jpg

Isaiah Washington didn't want to play John Allen Muhammad, the Beltway sniper who triggered three weeks of terror in 2002. The man — make that murderer — felt too familiar. Like Washington, Muhammad was a veteran and a father of three. Both were analytical, observant and quick to vent their opinions, even when that venting got them into trouble. And both had grown up without a dad: Washington's was murdered, Muhammad's simply left.

"Every young black man is pining for a sense of security and leadership," Washington says. He found his in fiction, singling out Good Times' John Amos as a key father figure. "I was totally in awe of his dignity and his love for his family on the show. When he got killed off, I was distraught."

Muhammad had no one. Instead, he became a father figure himself to Lee Boyd Malvo, a Jamaican teenager he brought to America and taught to kill.

Related Stories

When Muhammad and Malvo first meet in Alexandre Moors' patiently chilling Blue Caprice — so named for their getaway car — Washington smartly gives the character a paternal strength that we might mistake for love. But this vet of our Middle Eastern wars was angry. He was mad at his past, mad at his status as a poor black man in America, and mad at the military for betraying his trust.

"He pretty much started losing it when he risked his life every eight seconds to disarm more than 800 bombs, and every single bomb had 'Made in the USA' on it," Washington explains.

Most of all, Muhammad was mad at his ex-wife for filing a restraining order to keep him away from his three kids, including a boy just two years older than Malvo.

"It's a very volatile, toxic, father-son story," Washington says over a heap of Jamaican jerk chicken and a ginger beer. "That was the only thing that I could lock into: the father aspect. If my kids were taken from me, how would I feel? That's the only place I could live and justify his actions."

It wasn't easy. In one scene, Washington had to tie up his young co-star, Tequan Richmond, and abandon him in the woods. "I told Alexandre I was probably going to do it only two or three times. When Tequan's screaming, 'Dad!' — that was the moment of filming where my personal judgment seeped in. I thought, 'This is horrible.' "

In another, Washington taught Richmond how to drive the stunt car without realizing that Moors was shooting footage that would wind up in the final edit. "When he hits me and I jump up on the back to keep my legs from getting broken, that really happened," Washington laughs.

Together, Muhammad and Malvo would kill 10 people and wound three more.

Their relationship reminds Washington of the violent brainwashing he's seen firsthand in Sierra Leone, where he built a school for former child soldiers. "To coerce psychologically a youth is the most profound yet horrible abuse of power you can imagine," he says. "Muhammad put pictures up of the kid and then made the kid shoot them so he could kill off the human part of himself — so it would be easier for him to kill random people without any remorse."

Richmond, best known as the ignored younger brother on TV's Everybody Hates Chris, plays Malvo with a desperate fragility that slowly, imperceptibly turns to steel. As his on- and off-camera mentor, Washington was struck by the 20-year-old's own parallels to his character.

"He's working since he was a baby, and nobody ever paid any attention. Now the whole world's going to stand up and take notice like Lee Malvo himself — only difference is, he doesn't have to go to prison for playing the part."

So was Muhammad crazy? Befitting a man whose own sanity was debated on Gawker and TMZ after he was fired from Grey's Anatomy, Washington would rather not speculate. But he's at least sure that Muhammad felt it was the country that had gone mad. "Somewhere along the way he declared war on the system, like Christopher Dorner," he says, "but I'm not so sure if his intentions were as honorable."

The oddest thing about Muhammad is that his politics — and, likely, the man himself — have been largely forgotten. Unlike the case of Ted Kaczynski, we remember the crime but not the criminal. That's especially strange, given that Muhammad was a homegrown Muslim, declaring jihad just one year after 9/11. Even during the spree, Muhammad had a hard time making headlines, as the media assumed he was a white male in a white van, the rare example of racial profiling selecting against a black man.

"Egotistically, he started calling National Security, the sheriffs, and saying, 'Look, you got the wrong profile,' " Washington sighs. "They didn't listen to him because they assumed he and the boy were people of color on the phone — 'You guys couldn't possibly be pulling this off.' "

It's an awful irony: This unloved reject murders strangers to get attention, and still goes ignored. Again, Washington finds himself identifying with Muhammad against his will.

"No actor, whether they admit it or not, doesn't want to be seen," he admits. "There's something strange about Americans that Jesse James and John Dillinger and Billy the Kid are heroes, so it smacks of a particular –ism that whatever he did, they didn't want to give him credit for. This film sort of corrects that, if it is something to be corrected. But that his name didn't go down with the Jeffrey Dahmers and the other famous Caucasian killers — he probably would be pissed off about that, too."

Reach the writer at anicholson@laweekly.com

Related Content

Now Showing

  1. Wed 23
  2. Thu 24
  3. Fri 25
  4. Sat 26
  5. Sun 27
  6. Mon 28
  7. Tue 29

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!

Slideshows

  • Emmy-Nominated Costumes on Display
    On Saturday, the Television Academy and FIDM Museum and Galleries kicked off the Eighth Annual exhibition of "The Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design" with an exclusive preview and reception party. 100 costumes are featured from over 20 shows representing the nominees of the 66th Emmy Awards. The free to the public exhibition is located downtown at FIDM and runs from today through Saturday, September 20th. All photos by Nanette Gonzales.
  • Cowabunga! 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
    The COWABUNGA! - 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tribute show opened Friday night at Iam8bit. Guests donned their beloved turtle graphic tees, onesies and a couple April O'Neils were there to report on all the mean, green, fighting machine action. Artist included Jude Buffum, Tony Mora, Nan Lawson, leesasaur, Jim Rucc, Mitch Ansara, Guin Thompson, Stratman, Gabe Swarr, Joseph Harmon, Alex Solis, Allison Hoffman, Jose Emroca Flores, Jack Teagle and more. All photos by Shannon Cottrell.
  • Are Westerns For The Weak? Not According to "Sensei" Martin Kove
    Decades ago, the western film was king, with nearly 100 produced every year at their peak in the 1940s, and their popularity extending years beyond. But today, other than rare successes like Django Unchained or True Grit, the genre is not in great shape. Films such as Cowboys and Aliens and The Lone Ranger failed to spark new interests in the western. It's a tough nut to crack, but veteran movie bad guy Martin Kove -- most well known for his role as Sensei John Kreese in The Karate Kid -- is passionate about the classic American film genre and is trying to revive it. We spent an afternoon at his home talking about westerns and how to make the genre interesting again. All photos by Jared Cowan.

Movie Trailers

View all movie trailers >>

Now Trending