How Denzel’s Son Became the Best Thing on HBO’s ‘Ballers’

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Dominic Miller

The role of Ricky Jerret was the most difficult part that veteran casting director Sheila Jaffe ever had to fill. Over the course of a year, she auditioned a thousand actors for the co-starring role on the hit HBO series Ballers. Most of the actors captured the mercurial wide receiver’s outsize ego, but in a way that was too macho and too angry.

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She needed someone who could come off as a hothead and still be likable. She needed someone who could be sympathetic while bedding a teammate’s mother, someone who could remain charming while beating up a fellow club patron who disrespected his alma mater. Basically, Jerret needed to be a more eloquent Ricky Williams with all Dez Bryant‘s flair — and temper.

Unable to find the right actor, she tried for the real thing and began scouting former players. Then she remembered hearing that Denzel Washington had a kid who played professionally. So she threw a Hail Mary and called Denzel’s agent to inquire about John David, who hadn’t appeared onscreen since he was nine years old, when he stood up in a classroom and exclaimed, “I am Malcolm X!” at the end of his father’s film.

“I was hoping John David inherited the acting gene,” says Jaffe. “Clearly he did.”

John David Washington, the oldest of Denzel’s four kids, not only scored the role, but he became one of the best things about Ballers, which kicked off its sophomore season in July. “This character, he made me giggle at first because I know guys with his spirit,” John David says. “But what really attracted me to Jerret was the cultural misunderstanding of a guy like this. A lot of NFL guys are misunderstood. I felt like I had an opportunity to take a magnifying glass to why he acts like this, because of what he’s dealt with and the kind of pressures he’s under.”

The role put the 32-year-old under his own kind of pressure. He’d spent most of his life running away from Hollywood because of the very large shadow cast by his two-time Academy Award–winning father. Football became a way for him to build his own identity.

“I’ve had the acting bug since I was, like, five,” Washington says. “But growing up I saw how people treated me differently when they knew who my father was, even the stuff I did on the field. Sometimes I’d rush for 100 yards and the headline would be, ‘Denzel’s son runs for 100 yards.’ That’s where the suppression of that bug came from.”

As a 5-foot-9, 200-pound running back at Morehouse College, in Atlanta, Washington set a school record for career rushing yards. In 2006, the Rams signed him as an undrafted free agent. For two years he drilled all week with the team but, come Sunday, had to watch from the stands. Such is the life of an NFL practice-squad player.

“I felt like Rudy in a way,” Washington says, referring to the famous underdog player at Notre Dame. “I wasn’t the team mascot, but I was, like, that try-hard guy who was willing to do anything to play because he genuinely and purely loved the game.”

The highlights of his NFL career came in the preseason, an eight-yard scramble on his first carry and a catch on the game-winning drive of an exhibition game. During his second season, the backup running back got hurt, and coaches told Washington to be ready to suit up. But the night before the game, the Rams signed a player from outside the organization, and Washington was back in the stands.

The next year, following a workout with the Houston Texans, general manager Rick Smith told him he would never make it back to the NFL. Driven to prove him wrong, Washington spent four seasons in the UFL, with the Sacramento Mountain Lions, where he played under former NFL coach Dennis Green and took handoffs from onetime Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper. Washington was second-string, but he led the team with 4.2 yards per carry. In the lone start of his professional career, with Denzel pacing the sidelines, John David ran for 114 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.

He thought that might get him another shot in the NFL, but in a training session with pro players that included Antonio Cromartie and Colin Kaepernick, Washington jumped during an explosion drill and felt a pop. He’d torn his Achilles tendon, and his hopes were over. Three weeks later he received a call from Jaffe to try out for Ballers.

Washington limped into the first of his 11 auditions for Ballers on crutches and with his right foot in a walking boot, zoned out on painkillers, and with a bushy beard that he blames on a post-injury funk. The producers decided to incorporate the whiskers into the character.

He didn’t tell his father about the audition until after he got the part. Denzel has always been more of a stern motivator than a teacher, anyway. His father’s advice is always the same: “Keep working. You ain’t good enough.” Denzel also shut down John David’s early reluctance to follow him into acting by saying, “Google ‘Michael Douglas’ and then come back and talk to me about my shadow.”

“If I try to act like him or make movie choices like him, I’m going to fail,” John David says. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite actors of all time, but I can’t do that. Nobody can do that.”

It’s Washington’s first visit to publicist Alan Nierob’s Los Angeles office. The actor still dresses like an athlete, with cargo pants torn off above the knee over compression shorts, a plain black T-shirt, knit Adidas, and a Yankees cap worn backward.

He takes a look around and spots a photo of  Nierob standing next to his father, Richard Gere, and Mel Gibson. “I took that photo!” Washington exclaims. One perk of being Denzel’s son that John David did accept was using his father’s publicist (as well as his agent). John David has known Nierob since he was in junior high.

Now that people want his picture, Washington has assigned Nierob to be more of an anti-publicist — to turn down nearly all interview requests. He doesn’t want publicity for being his father’s son. He wants to earn it.

“I’m trying to build my résumé,” Washington says. “The lede more times than not is going to be about my father, because I haven’t accomplished anything yet. I don’t need the attention just because of who I’m related to.”

That hasn’t stopped him from being noticed. Dwayne Johnson garnered all the headlines surrounding the release of Ballers, but by the time the season came to an end, Washington was getting plenty of attention. Then social media blew up as people realized he was Denzel’s son. There was another round of revelations in January when Washington stood onstage with his mother and siblings as his father received the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes.

The beard offers him a protective layer in more ways than one. Growing it out helps him become Ricky Jerret, a character in total contrast to Washington’s quiet and humble demeanor. As soon as filming on a season completes, his first stop is the barber. Trimming down the follicles to a close crop makes him barely recognizable as the guy onscreen.

Washington doesn’t have a girlfriend or a home. Right now it’s all about the work. When shooting Ballers, the show puts him up in a Miami apartment. Afterward he goes into a modified off-season training mode, flying to New York to study acting at HB Studio and spending summers in L.A. to train with NFL players at Proactive Sports Performance. It’s a routine he still loves from his playing days, which he uses now to stay fit for his new role.

And after landing the Jerret part with his first audition, Washington has faced the hard realities of being an actor in Hollywood. The only other job he’s scored in two years of auditions is as a Brooklyn rapper in a RZA-directed movie that’s in post-production limbo. This sounds frustrating, but it makes him smile. All he’s ever wanted is to be treated normally.

“I’m auditioning like crazy and I’m getting turned down like everybody else, so I feel great,” Washington says. “I feel officially ingratiated with the world.”

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