A comeback on his own terms

A comeback on his own terms

A comeback on his own terms

Isaiah Washington was talking about goats. He was recounting how he had recently bought 15 of them for a village in Sierra Leone, where he has been a chief, known as Gondobay Manga II, since 2006.

“Their meat is low in cholesterol, they’re a sturdy animal, they’ve been around since the beginning of time,” said Washington, who rode his black 21-speed bicycle from his home just down the street.

If you didn’t know that Washington was a chief in Sierra Leone, let alone that he’s buying goats for a village there, well, that’s understandable. Since being fired from the ABC series Grey’s Anatomy in 2007, after he reportedly used a homophobic slur during an on-set argument, this 50-year-old actor and married father of three has kept a low profile, at least in Hollywood circles.

But this year, Washington is making something of a comeback. After spending a good chunk of the past six years off camera, he’s excited to talk about his coming projects. He recently starred in the Old West shoot-’em-up They Die by Dawn, alongside Michael K Williams and Rosario Dawson, and plays Chancellor Jaha, leader of the few surviving humans, in the coming CW sci-fi series The 100.

And then there’s Blue Caprice, a feature film based loosely on the Beltway sniper killings. In October 2002, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo killed at least 10 people in the Washington area, firing at random victims out of a small hole cut into the trunk of their 1990 Chevrolet Caprice. In the film, Washington plays the elder assassin, Muhammad; the role of his deadly protégé went to Tequan Richmond (Everybody Hates Chris).

Although the film has garnered kudos for Washington since its premiere at Sundance in January — in The New York Times, Manohla Dargis called him “ferociously magnetic” — he nearly didn’t get the role. A first-time director, Alexandre Moors, had been trying to contact him for months, but by July 2011, Washington had ditched many of the usual accoutrements of a working actor. “I didn’t have an agent, a manager, didn’t want it,” he said. So Moors reached out to him through that most dependable of talent agency stand-ins: Facebook.

Even after making contact, however, the role was a hard sell. Indie film salaries aside — “No studio put a dime into this film to get it made,” Washington said — he wasn’t interested in rehashing a story about two of the most notorious black serial killers in recent history.

“I was thoroughly embarrassed,” he said, recalling the time he learned that the two men were black. “Because in my community, whenever you hear something really foul, we’re holding our breath to see whether the person is black or white. He’s always either a crazy white man or a brother.” But the director pressed him — largely because he had no other actor in mind for the part. “I was a big fan of his work, especially his work with Clint Eastwood in True Crime and with Spike Lee in Clockers,” Moors said. “I thought he brought an amazing versatility and ambiguity to the characters.”

Washington was ultimately sold on the director’s vision of the film, which focuses on the twisted mentor-student relationship rather than on the horrific killings themselves. “I was more interested in how you become a killer, not what you do once you become one,” Moors said. Playing serial killers took a physical and mental toll on both lead actors. “I had to go to the couch for about six weeks,” Washington said. Richmond, who has been receiving strong notices for his sullen, nearly mute depiction of Malvo, took up smoking.

As for Washington, he’s happy with his current lot in life, despite its financial and professional ups and downs. In 2005, he learned he was genetically linked to the Mende and Temne people of Sierra Leone, and has since become one of that country’s most vocal and visible supporters. Through his foundation, he has helped build a school, worked to create wells and bring in medical supplies, and helped woo foreign investors. Lately, he’s been working on a plan to manufacture “rainwater catchers,” but finding financing has been hard. “I tweeted my idea to Bill Gates, but he didn’t respond,” he said. “I can get money for an independent film quicker than I can get money for something like this.”

Washington is looking forward to his coming movie Blackbird, which he describes as an “African-American gay coming-of-age story.”

“I’ve been so incredibly blessed,” he said. “I’ve worked with some of the greatest professionals in town. I stood at the Golden Globes.” “I worked with Sandra Oh, bro!” he continued. “My life has been great.”

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