John David Washington Can’t Even Explain the Movie He Just Starred In

Sometimes a story is so complicated that even people who wrote the story, or made it into a movie or TV show, don’t understand it. That has proven to be acutely true for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, the time-bending thriller that came out last summer. 

John David Washington plays the lead in the movie, and even after it came out, he still was at a loss to explain it. And that wasn’t just for concerns about spoilers. 

John David Washington smiling in front of a gray background
John David Washington | Cindy Ord/Getty Images

What was ‘Tenet’ about?

Asking what Tenet was about is a bit of a loaded question. If there’s a shorthand to explain the movie, it’s probably, “the movie that goes backward.” The trailers highlighted several scenes with the action happening in reverse. Washington played an agent who is recruited into a shadowy organization called Tenet, with the aim of stopping a Russian arms oligarch played by Kenneth Branagh. Only instead of dealing with nuclear warheads, the enemy deals with a machine that can reverse the flow of time. 

Speculation ran high that Tenet was somehow connected to Inception, Nolan’s 2010 movie about thieves who steal secrets by entering their target’s dream state and manipulating the landscape and physics of the dream. Tenet turned out to be not related to Inception at all, except as a study in very strange physics. Not that it would have helped make the plot clearer to its main star. The fact that he is called only “The Protagonist” shows just how shadowy the story was, for better or for worse. 

But not even Washington could explain it. Asked by GQ how long it took him to understand the plot, Washington confessed, “I’m still learning, to be honest. Temporal pincer movements, points of entropy — every time I see it I get a better understanding of what Chris did as a whole. My grounded understanding of it came from the character, the Protagonist. That’s how I was able to understand at least what I was doing with my role in the script.” 

How was ‘Tenet’ received? 

RELATED: ‘Inception’: Leonardo DiCaprio Believes His Character ‘Got Back To Reality’ At End of Film — ‘I Had To Make My Own Choice on That One’

Before the pandemic took over the world, Tenet was positioned as last summer’s blockbuster with a brain, a position taken by other Nolan movies such as Inception and Dunkirk, both of which were Best Picture Oscar nominees. But as the pandemic worsened, Tenet was delayed from its July release date until it finally came out in September. By then, not only was it the blockbuster with a brain, it was positioned to “save” the struggling movie theater industry.

That didn’t exactly happen. It ultimately made more than $300 million worldwide, which was seen as an OK success considering so many movie theaters were closed or had limited capacity. However, movie studios aren’t in business to do just OK. Even its critical reception was soft, coming in at 70 percent, which would make it the lowest-ranking Nolan film on Rotten Tomatoes. Critic Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle reflected the thoughts of many when he wrote, “Tenet is difficult to understand, but even worse, it inspires little desire to understand it.”

As for Washington, GQ asked him directly, “If confused friends or family ask you to explain it, can you?” He replied, “I can explain my character and his relationship to inversion and reverse entropy in temporal pincer movements. But overall, nah.”

What is next for John David Washington? 

Tenet may not have been the blockbuster Warner Bros. and the whole industry was hoping for, but it continued the momentum of the career of Washington, son of Denzel. John David had broken out thanks to his lead role in Spike Lee’s Oscar-winning BlacKkKlansman. Now, his career stands to ascend further with his next project, starring someone else who is used to keeping plot secrets: Zendaya. 

The movie is called Malcolm and Marie and was shot over the summer amid the pandemic. Oscar buzz is building for Zendaya, who won an Emmy last year for Euphoria. Washington said of the project, “I was able to shoot a movie during COVID with the great Sam Levinson of Euphoria and Zendaya. They are a powerhouse. Those two together make some beautiful work. I’m a huge fan of Euphoria, so I was able to shoot something very quietly with them that I’m very proud of. Something that I’ve never done before, something very challenging as an artist. Those are the kind of challenges that you look for. Scripts like this, they’re rare. They really are. So I’m lucky to be a part.”