Isaiah Washington didn’t want to play John Allen Muhammad, the Beltway Sniper who triggered three weeks of terror in 2002. The man—make that murderer—felt too familiar. Like Washington, Muhammad was a veteran and a father of three. Both were analytical, observant, and quick to vent their opinions, even when that venting got them into trouble. And both had grown up without a dad: Washington’s was murdered, and Muhammad’s simply left.
“Every young black man is pining for a sense of security and leadership,” says Washington. He found his in fiction, singling out Good Times‘ John Amos as a key father figure. “I was totally in awe of his dignity and his love for his family on the show. When he got killed off, I was distraught.”
Muhammad had no one. Instead, he became a father figure himself to Lee Boyd Malvo, a Jamaican teenager he brought to America and taught to kill. When the pair first meet in Alexandre Moors’s patiently chilling Blue Caprice—so named for their getaway car—Washington smartly gives the character a paternal strength that we might mistake for love. But this vet of our Middle Eastern wars was angry. He was mad at his past, mad at his status as a poor black man in America, and mad at the military for betraying his trust.
“He pretty much started losing it when he risked his life every eight seconds to disarm over 800 bombs, and every single bomb had ‘Made in the USA’ on it,” explains Washington. Most of all, Muhammad was mad at his ex-wife for filing a restraining order to keep him from his three kids, including a boy just two years older than Malvo.
“It’s a very volatile, toxic father-son story,” says Washington over a heap of Jamaican jerk chicken and a ginger beer. “That was the only thing that I could lock into: the father aspect. If my kids were taken from me, how would I feel? That’s the only place I could live and justify his actions.”
It wasn’t easy. In one scene, Washington had to tie up his young co-star, Tequan Richmond, and abandon him in the woods. “I told Alexandre I was probably going to do it only two or three times. When Tequan’s screaming, ‘Dad!’—that was the moment of filming where my personal judgment seeped in. I thought, ‘This is horrible.'” In another, Washington taught Richmond how to drive the stunt car without realizing that Moors was shooting footage that would wind up in the final edit. “When he hits me and I jump up on the back to keep my legs from getting broken, that really happened,” Washington laughs.
Together, Muhammad and Malvo would kill 10 people and wound three more. Their relationship reminds Washington of the violent brainwashing he’s seen firsthand in Sierra Leone, where he built a school for former child soldiers. “To coerce psychologically a youth is the most profound yet horrible abuse of power you can imagine,” he says. “Muhammad put pictures up of the kid and then made the kid shoot them so he could kill off the human part of himself—so it would be easier for him to kill random people without any remorse.”
Richmond, best known for being the ignored younger brother on Everybody Hates Chris, plays Malvo with a desperate fragility that slowly, imperceptibly turns to steel. As his on- and off-camera mentor, Washington was struck by the 20-year-old’s own parallels to his character.
“He’s working since he was a baby and nobody ever paid any attention. Now the whole world’s going to stand up and take notice like Lee Malvo himself—only difference is, he doesn’t have to go to prison for playing the part.”
So was Muhammad crazy? Befitting a man whose own sanity was debated on Gawker and TMZ after he was fired from Grey’s Anatomy, Washington would rather not speculate. But he’s at least sure that Muhammad felt it was the country that had gone mad. “Somewhere along the way he declared war on the system, like Christopher Dorner,” he says, “but I’m not so sure if his intentions were as honorable.”
The oddest thing about Muhammad is that his politics—and arguably, the man himself—have been largely forgotten. Unlike the case of Ted Kaczynski, we remember the crime, but not the criminal. That’s especially strange given that Muhammad was a homegrown Muslim declaring jihad just one year after 9/11. Even during the spree, Muhammad had a hard time making headlines, as the media assumed he was a white male in a white van, the rare example of racial profiling working against a black man.
“Egotistically, he started calling national security, the sheriffs, and saying, ‘Look, you got the wrong profile,'” Washington sighs. “They didn’t listen to him because they assumed he and the boy were people of color on the phone—’You guys couldn’t possibly be pulling this off.'”
It’s an awful irony: This unloved reject murders strangers to get attention, and still goes ignored. Again, Washington finds himself identifying with Muhammad against his will.
“No actor, whether they admit it or not, doesn’t want to be seen,” he admits. “There’s something strange about Americans that Jesse James and John Dillinger and Billy the Kid are heroes, so it smacks of a particular -ism that whatever he did, they didn’t want to give him credit for. This film sort of corrects that, if it is something to be corrected. But that his name didn’t go down with the Jeffrey Dahmers and the other famous Caucasian killers—he probably would be pissed off about that, too.”