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The Real Deal

Denzel Washington passes on the Hollywood star scene for the quiet pleasures of work and family.
Alysse Minkoff
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

On a dazzling Santa Ana wind-swept day at the Hotel Bel-Air, Denzel Washington riffles through the

cigar box, passing over the Montecristo No. 2s and the Hoyo de Monterreys and the Padróns before choosing a Fuente Fuente OpusX, because he's never tried one before. He's finished a delicious brunch in which he has counted no fat grams, cared not a whit about cholesterol counts. He devoured, almost inhaled, a luxurious meal. The dishes finally cleared, he sips a glass of wine, fires up the Opus with enthusiasm, and reluctantly starts to talk about himself and the vagaries of Hollywood.

"I'm an actor, so that's the bottom line. I'm not a marketing whatever. My strength does not lie in marketing a product called 'Denzel.' That's not what I do. My strength lies in playing a part and hopefully entertaining and affecting people on some level. Now I'm not being naive. I know that marketing comes into play when you're spending 50 or 60 million dollars of other people's money to make a film. You have to be involved in marketing that product. But the publicity gets to be boring. How many times can I tell the same story?" He puffs on the cigar. "I understand the importance of doing publicity for a film, so I'm willing to do that, but I don't want to sit around talking about myself. That's not a great day for me. That's not my idea of fun."

What Washington will talk about, and with a passionate intensity, is his work. Musing about the distinction between being classified as an actor or as a movie star, he looks out into the hotel's gardens and says, "I guess I'm always looking for a new challenge. That's who I am. It's not necessarily qualified by those two titles. One is not better than the other. It's just that as an actor I chose to play a lot of different kinds of parts and I enjoy that. I think that's what acting is.

"In any craft or artistic endeavor you want to do different things," Washington notes. "You want to go to different places, you want to find different ways to go about it. You may have your constants, but you're looking to go into new territories, new angles, new challenges. So that's how it is for me as an actor. I couldn't play the same guy eight times and I don't have to. I think I've said all of my career, I'm not a celebrity. I'm not a movie star. I'm just an actor who is more popular right now. I don't even know what a movie star is. And one of the reasons why I keep on going back to make movies that don't have such huge budgets is that it's not as much pressure. You feel like you can take more chances."

The films that Denzel Washington will star in this year are a further reflection of the broad spectrum of his creative choices. In January, the taut supernatural thriller Fallen casts him as veteran homicide detective John Hobbes, an ordinary man who, while investigating a mass murderer, inadvertently gets swept into the battle between good and evil. Directed by Gregory Hoblit and released by Warner Brothers, it is a big-budget, big-studio film. Washington then joins Spike Lee for a third time in He Got Game, in which he plays a man convicted of accidentally killing his wife. His son, a highly recruited high school basketball player, played by Ray Allen, holds the key to his father's release from prison. Slated for a summer release, it is a less costly, character-driven movie without all of the Hollywood hype and fanfare that usually surrounds a big studio film. The 43-year-old actor is aware of the need for both kinds of projects, and his decisions are based on the acting challenges inherent in the roles, as well as for economic reasons. It is a nice balance, but it's choices like these that keep Denzel Washington from achieving movie star status in the traditional definition of that title.

Fallen director Gregory Hoblit comments about the conundrum that exists between being defined as a movie star or as an actor: "Whether it's looks, or that ineffable thing called charisma or sex appeal or timing, any number of things kind of conspire to 'make' a movie star. And those things elude a lot of staggeringly talented people. And then, of course, there's a bunch of people put there with no talent at all that have hold of a rocket ship. You know: they've got looks, they've got dumb luck, they've got something. I think what is extraordinary about Denzel is that I think he's got the ability to be both an actor and a movie star. He's both, really. And it's gonna be up to him to really decide how he wants to swim through those waters. He's as handsome as it gets, and he has real charisma and energy and he's just marvelously talented. It was a pleasure to play on the same field with him for a while."

Choices are what this actor is all about. To look at this man's résumé is to understand that there is no formulaic Denzel Washington film, no snappy two-sentence synopsis of his work. And that there are no safe career moves readily apparent when you look at the arc of his career, which spans some 25 feature films, from the big-budget action-packed Crimson Tide, opposite the legendary Gene Hackman, to the intimate character study in Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues. In the historical drama, Glory, under the direction of Ed Zwick, he portrayed the runaway slave, Trip, earning himself the 1990 Academy Award for best supporting actor. Under director Richard Attenborough he had been nominated for 1987's Cry Freedom, and his stirring performance as Malcolm X garnered him a third Academy Award nomination, for best actor, in 1992. He teamed with Julia Roberts as reporter Gray Grantham in The Pelican Brief, and tore up the screen with John Lithgow in the action-adventure thriller, Ricochet. And there's Courage Under Fire, The Preacher's Wife, Devil in a Blue Dress, Philadelphia, Much Ado About Nothing; the list is long and varied.

What is it that draws him to a particular character or project? What moves him as a performer? "I like to go to new places," he says. "To specify, it is to say that I like not knowing. I like knowing when I get there. I know when it starts coming around and it raises the hair or it doesn't. I was trained in the theater. So it was instilled in me as a young performer to take chances and not to worry about all that, because failure is a part of growth. If you're gonna fail, fail big and take chances. So I've done that, or I've tried to do that."

Using the Hotel Bel Air as a metaphor to illustrate his point, he looks over at the adjacent suite. "I want to go in that room and find out what's going on in there. I'm always interested in finding out about something that I don't know. I know how to get to a screenplay through the acting. I am used to getting to a film through a character."

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