January 11, 2013 at 02:00 PM EST

Blue Caprice

Current Status
In Season

In Hollywood, it can often be a savvy career move for an actor to break bad. After all, the villains get to have all the fun, with supersize personae that toss out witty retorts slathered with evil relish. But there’s a difference between dastardly baddies like Calvin Candie or Silva and John Allen Muhammad, the real-life Beltway Sniper who terrorized suburban Washington, D.C., a year after 9/11, murdering at least 10 random people with the assistance of his young disciple, Lee Malvo. Their crimes were ruthless and indiscriminate, and after they were caught, convicted — and Muhammad was executed — the explanations only made their actions more horrific. This wasn’t a man who wanted redemption, and to play him on screen demanded a selfless surrender to a blanket of darkness.

Enter Isaiah Washington, most famous — and infamous — for playing Dr. Burke on Grey’s Anatomy. Since exiting the show in 2007 following some crude ill-conceived comments, he encountered what almost seemed like professional purgatory. “I’ve been in a world that is so far from Los Angeles that it’ll blow your socks off,” he says. But in Blue Caprice, which premieres at next week’s Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 19, Washington returns and resurrects the cold-blooded menace that he once demonstrated in Out of Sight, Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 jailbreak thriller in which he played Don Cheadle’s demented right-hand hatchet-man. His Muhammad, however, is much more nuanced and thus more unsettling. Informally adopting and manipulating the impressionable Malvo (Everybody Hates Chris‘ Tequan Richmond), Washington’s character’s boiling frustration cultivates a young killer who will do anything to please his “father.”

Below, in addition to an exclusive look at the film’s poster, the 49-year-old actor explains the challenge — and personal risk — of playing such a diabolical character.

What was your initial reaction when you were asked to play John Allen Muhammed?

I’ll be honest, it scared the bejesus out of me. But I wasn’t looking for it. The last thing I was looking for was Blue Caprice. They found me on Facebook. And through a stroke of luck and serendipity I happened to check my Facebook email and saw a last kind of reach-out email with a personal letter from Alexandre Moors insisting that they didn’t want to call anyone else but me to offer this role. And I didn’t know what they heck they were talking about. So I picked up the phone and called, and they said, “We’ve been trying to find you for a month. We have a script based on what we think led up to the attacks of the D.C. sniper attacks in 2002.” I went, “No. Oh no.” [Laughs] I don’t think so.

I had so many biases and prejudices, being an African-American. I remember when I found out the sniper was an African-American and had this young boy with him, and I was horrified and embarrassed to be an African-American father. It pissed me off! That this dude, who looked like a normal human being, could do this. I remember it like yesterday. You couldn’t have told me back in 2002 that I would be portraying this monster.

Well, what changed your mind?

I found myself very intrigued by the personal letter, the heartfelt letter that I received from Alexandre. So I googled his name and I found myself on his creative website. I saw the video that he — well, purportedly was just a creative consultant on but I think he had a lot to do with the direction of it — Kanye West’s “Runaway.” It just blew my mind. I showed it to my kids. I watched it all week. His other shorts, and videos, and commercials – one was so significantly different from the other. I just said to myself, “My God, this man has an extraordinary range and grasp of the art of filmmaking.” And I said yes, before I ever read the script, based on “Runaway.”

Next Page: ‘I went too deep.’

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