From Football to Broadway: John David Washington’s Unconventional Acting Path

Unlike his father, John David Washington didn't study acting in college, but went from football to acting with one choice role.

Actor John David Washington
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“The plan was get comfortable with auditioning, get told, ‘No,’ and to come out here to New York and study.” – John David Washington

Actor John David Washington recently made his Broadway debut in the revival of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson at the the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. His debut comes just over eight years after his famous father, Academy and Tony Award-winning actor Denzel Washington, appeared on the same stage in a revival of A Raisin in the Sun. However, John David took a much different path to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre’s stage than his father. While the elder Washington studied acting in college, the younger Washington told CBS Sunday Morning that he went from the football field directly to acting with one choice role.

Washington remembers being impressed by his father’s ability to act, sharing, “My father, he walked me around these streets when he was getting ready for Shakespeare in the Park, you know, Richard III. And I used to love when he would recite his lines.”

However, Washington did not initially pursue a career in acting — he went to Morehouse College on a football scholarship and later played in NFL Europe and the now-defunct United Football League. But he did have an interest in the family business. He explains, “My mother is an extremely talented artist, and my father is one of the greatest of all time. He’s my favorite actor. That was intimidating. When we’re in the comforts of my own home and with the family, I felt comfortable. But then when I get to the outside world, it didn’t seem as simple to just pursue it; and I felt football would change that narrative when they saw me play ball.”

Nonetheless, Washington realized that in some aspects he wouldn’t be able to escape his father’s immense shadow. He remembers that an article about one of his college football games in the Atlanta Journal Constitution referred to him in context of who his father was. He says, “I think it was my freshman year, and I had a great game, and [they wrote], ‘Denzel’s son runs for as many yards and as many touchdowns.’ I realized then it was inescapable.”

After his football career ended because of injury (the same year that the UFL folded), he attended an open audition to play a football player in the HBO series Ballers. He didn’t have much faith in getting a role, but he thought it would still be good audition experience. He remembers, “The plan was get comfortable with auditioning. get told, ‘No,’ and to come out here to New York and study.”

But things didn’t go according to plan — as it turns out, Washington got a role in the series. He admits, “It was a life-changing moment for me. I felt good after, like, maybe the fifth or sixth audition, like, ‘I can do this.'”

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