In the drama Blue Caprice, which opens Friday, Isaiah Washington plays John Allen Muhammad, the man who went on a shooting spree in the Washington D.C. area in 2002 in the company of a teenage boy, killing 10 people and wounding three others before he was arrested.
Muhammad, who was executed by lethal injection in 2009, was the sort of criminal whose actions seem incomprehensible. Although actors usually try to find something to identify with in the roles they’re playing, Washington says the part of Muhammad forced him to change his usual approach and completely rethink his style of performance.
“This is the first time I have ever worked that way, not from the inside out or the inside in,” the actor said via telephone from New York. “I was purely an extension of the blueprints, which were the script and [director] Alexandre Moors. I trusted him implicitly. I had a lot of ideas and perceptions and biases and fears about playing this character, and he told me I had to check all that at the door and just trust that whatever he was seeing through was right. It was an exercise in ‘No acting, please’ — a case of less and less being more.”
Washington’s unsettling portrayal of a man gradually driven to insane acts by his raging self-hatred is the engine that drives Blue Caprice, which is a much more elliptical and lyrical movie than traditional crime dramas based on true events.
“I wanted to step out of my comfort zone,” Washington said. “I knew there was a huge chance of unbelievable failure for me, which would have been just horrible. But I decided to trust what I felt about this character and my director and just be. We only had one creative disagreement during the shoot — a scene in which I’m looking around at the security cameras at a store. I said ‘I don’t want to be playing a coward here. I don’t want to come off as a loser.’ And Alexandre said ‘We’re not making the f------ Bourne Identity here!’ He was right, of course. He broke me out of that mindset. I wanted him to emancipate me as an artist, and he wound up emancipating me as a human being.”
Washington’s career was almost derailed after being fired from Grey’s Anatomy in 2007 for making a homophobic slur during an argument with castmate Patrick Dempsey, a comment he maintains was taken out of context. But he has since made peace with the scandal and looks back at the controversy as a blessing.
“I think the good thing about my exit from a popular TV show is that it made me take a really good look at who I am and where I was heading,” said Washington, who is now 50. “I’m on a journey of letting go of everything I was taught, every foolish behavior, every arrogant move, everything I thought was supposed to be cool as an actor. I’m coming back to this craft relying on my wisdom as a human being and going by my gut and my instinct. I’m not listening to managers and agents and publicists any more, because over time you become less of an actor and more of a commodity. This is the kind of chapel I want to live in. So far, so good.”