For Isaiah Washington, it’s all about the plot twist. In many ways, the man America came to know and still recognizes as “Dr. Preston Burke,” the smooth and serious cardiothoracic surgeon of ABC’s long-running medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” is in real life quite, well … unexpected.
From “Grey’s” Burke to Thelonious Jaha on CW’s “The 100” to D.C. Sniper John Muhammed in “Blue Caprice,” I will admit I was struck by the contrast between the veteran actor’s real-life persona and the complicated, stoic and even introverted characters I had seen him play.
Confidently unfiltered and prone to deep, loud belly laughs, Washington revels in animated storytelling. He also loves a good cigar and candidly admits that his talent and competitive nature have often made him somewhat of a loner in Hollywood.
Hollywood media would have us stick to the well-worn pages of a script that begins and ends with Washington’s unceremonious exit from “Grey’s Anatomy.” However, I found it to be just a short — and less interesting — chapter in the book that details the whole of Washington’s life and career.
The real story of Isaiah Washington begins with a boy born in Houston, Texas, in the early 1960s to a violent, then absent, father and a hard-working single mother. It is a story with a few chapters most already know, as well as many that people do not.
There is one thing, though, that is for certain: Isaiah Washington has many more chapters — and a surprise ending or two — left to write. And he’ll be damned if they’ll be written by anyone but himself.
Washington paid a visit to Skillset Magazine’s headquarters in mid-2018, where I was able to talk with him about topics ranging from his early life, his work, his pro-Second Amendment activism and what’s next for his career.
Skillset: You’re a Texas guy, born in Houston?
IW: That’s right. Born and raised.
Skillset: What was your family dynamic like growing up? What were your parents like?
IW: My mother worked very hard. She worked as a domestic, cleaning houses until 1971, when she became the first African-American woman licensed as a barber in the state of Texas.
My biological father was a very violent man. I had a lot of resentment from that, but I used it positively. Everything that he was drove me to be the best that I could be — to be a different man than the one I knew.
Skillset: Your experiences with your father actually motivated you?
IW: Yes, especially when it came to football, because I used my resentments to push myself physically and mentally. I used my imagination when hitting someone — maybe I was hitting my father. I guess today we might call it method acting. It helped me to do battle on the football field.
Skillset: You joined the Air Force right out of high school. You have said you learned a lot in the military, but that it was generally a tough time for you.
IW: My first tour was Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Then my last two years were at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico. I was just 19 when I went in, and I got into a lot of fights. I was very good at my job, working on T-38 aircraft, but I got involved in some things that I shouldn’t have. This combined with a situation where there was poor leadership — where I saw things I didn’t understand. I was on a bad trajectory.
But sometimes something can happen that just makes you see the light. And when it did for me, I decided that whatever I would do, wherever I would go, I had to be the best at what I did. I matured greatly after that.
Skillset: So fast-forward a few years. You were out of the military, living in your car and on other people’s couches while you did a semester at Howard University. Long story short, you saw a Spike Lee film and decided that you were going to pursue acting.
IW: That is correct. It was 1986. I saw “She’s Gotta Have It,” and that’s when I put myself on a 10-year plan.
Skillset: What do you mean by a “10-year plan”?
IW: Well, the 10-year plan from 1986 was that I would be making my first movie with Spike Lee by 1996.
Skillset: And how long did it take?
IW: I was making my third movie with Spike Lee by 1996. So, I was ahead of schedule.
Skillset: In 2005, “Grey’s Anatomy” happened. Suddenly your career became defined by one character in a relatively short period of time. When you left the series in 2007, was that difficult to move on from — to have to redefine yourself as an actor?
IW: Well, I can say that my goal was completed. I wanted to prove that Denzel wasn’t the only leading man, and I think I did that. In the ’90s as an actor, I was always hearing about how Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Will Smith and Denzel were the only black men who were going to have any work that mattered. I didn’t want to accept that. Yes, all of them are incredible talents, but I thought it was ridiculous for an agent to tell me that I had to wait until Will Smith’s and Denzel’s careers were over before I could feed myself and my kids.
When Shonda Rhimes and I got together, we said we were going shake all that up. And we did. I feel as if I broke a color barrier on that show. I have never once heard, “Oh, you’re the black guy on that TV show,” or “You play the black doctor.” I’ve never been about that, and 11 years later, I’m still Dr. Burke. It’s like having an American Express Black Card. I feel very good about it.
Skillset: We all loved you as Dr. Burke, but more recently, we were saddened to see your character Jaha leave “The 100.”
IW: (Laughs.) A lot of people didn’t like him, but now that he’s gone, many fans have gone from “I hate him” to “Oh, God! He’s dead. Bring him back — bring him back!” They miss him now.
Skillset: One of my favorite roles of yours was that of John Muhammed, the D.C. Sniper, in “Blue Caprice.” That must have been a difficult one to play.
IW: Oh, absolutely, because it’s the antithesis of who I am. Playing a guy who sends a child off to kill someone was the hardest thing for me to shoot because I have kids of my own. I could never do that or even imagine creating a child soldier. So, yeah, it was tough playing Muhammed. But because it was so scary and so far from who I am, I think it was one of my best roles. I had to get out of the way and really take myself out of the character to bring him to life.
Skillset: You’ve got some new projects coming up that are interesting and different. The graphic novel “Bison” is one you announced at Comic Con. Tell us about that.
IW: The main character in “Bison” is Solomon. He’s a former Buffalo Soldier, and he’s also a former slave. He becomes a kind of self-appointed security detail, helping people that are crossing the Plains, and he becomes very good at what he does. He’s a good shooter, a good knife guy.
Skillset: Much like “Bison,” the film you did recently, “Behind The Movement,” has a historical basis. It is about Rosa Parks. Do those types of historical projects and characters draw you in?
IW: Well, some people like to see me in hats. (Laughs.) They say I look really cool in hats. If there is an opportunity for me to wear a hat in a period piece, I’m probably gonna do it.
Actually, I did “Behind The Movement” because I didn’t know who E.D Nixon was, and I thought I knew a lot about the Civil Rights Movement. When I read the script, I realized that E.D Nixon was basically the father of the Civil Rights Movement. I was upset for not knowing what this man had contributed. This wasn’t something I learned in school.
Skillset: Speaking of activism, we learned that you’re a gun enthusiast. You’re also a big advocate of the Second Amendment. You even spent time at the Thunder Ranch School in Oregon. Not everybody takes the time to get proper training. How was that experience?
IW: At the Ranch, you’re shooting eight hours a day, all day. You’re getting in 500 rounds with a pistol and rifle. They’re throwing a lot at you in a short amount of time, and then it’s over. And you say, “Whoa! What just happened?” You have to figure it out, and you have to use what they taught you or you’ll lose it. It’s like a language. So, I was really thrilled with that.
Skillset: You’re also creating an organization, GMI, or Guns Matter, Incorporated. Tell me what that’s about.
IW: I want to try to help build something over time, where you can go and take your classes and do your training. I also want to provide what I would consider another option to the NRA for people who want information and insurance, but who don’t necessarily want to deal with the politics of it all.
I’m moving into this space to hopefully make it comfortable and cool for both people who look like me and people who don’t look like me to follow my brand. But I’m doing it in a way that doesn’t draw a line in the sand. I’m saying, “Look, if you don’t like guns, fine, but don’t demonize me because I do.”
Skillset: You’ve been in Hollywood for nearly 30 years. In your acting and in your career, have you had any personal mentors?
IW: Definitely — Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll and Clint Eastwood. Poitier is still there for me in his 90s, along with Carroll. Those are my go-to mentors. I have some positive relationships in my age group, but not really any among my acting peers. It’s all become so competitive. Apparently, other people perceive me as a good actor, and that, I guess, makes me pretty much a loner.
Skillset: OK, let’s move from the cutthroat city of Hollywood and talk about “Cut Throat City,” your upcoming film, which takes place in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.
IW: This is a film directed by RZA, who is amazing — the glue of the Wu-Tang Clan. It’s got a great cast, including Terrence Howard and Wesley Snipes. The younger crew is Demetrius Shipp Jr., Shameik Moore and Eiza González. Then there’s T.I., Rob Morgan and a few more.
I play this interesting mortician, who is a very cheeky little chap. (Laughs.) He’s extremely weird. It’s so fun. I call it one of my Johnny Depp kind of roles, and I have this beard with the strange glasses. It is just crazy.
Skillset: Going forward, you’ve talked about wanting to produce more along with your acting. What can we expect?
IW: A little bit of both. I’ve liked to surprise people throughout my career. I like to pop up in places where no one thought I would. I’m looking for roles that will set the record straight — I’m attracted to roles like that. I am also interested in being a producer, in helping to create content.
Skillset: You married your wife, Jenisa, more than 22 years ago. You have three kids together. How would they describe you as a husband and a father?
IW: They say I’m more interesting in real life than I am on television or in the movies — and they love my movies.
But seriously, I can’t speak for them. I always wonder if I should pretend I’m dead, so I could hear my eulogy. I wonder what the world actually has to say about Isaiah Washington, because I really don’t know. I’m too busy growing and evolving, trying to figure myself out. All I know is that I’m really clear on what’s in my rearview mirror. I try to plan out what’s in front of me, but I don’t know until I get there.
Skillset: What is one thing that you would want people to say about you as an actor, person and father?
IW: That I am incredibly human — flawed, funny and not funny. I brush my teeth, have funky breath. I go to the bathroom like everybody else. That I have earned the respect I have because I have worked very hard for it by doing what I do. Whatever I’ve done, I have worked for it. Yes, people have given me opportunities, shots and breaks, but I was prepared.