Denzel Washington passes on the Hollywood star scene for the quiet pleasures of work and family.
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Sitting down by a reflecting pool as the sun sets behind the Malibu Hills and the light just starts to fade, he changes his tone, talking about The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, one of the charitable causes that he publicly supports, and why he feels that this work is so important.
"In the inner city, so many of the heroes these young men see are people on the wrong side of the law. And that's partly my fault. If people like myself or doctors or lawyers who make a couple of dollars then leave the community, they don't get a chance to see us. Young kids today don't have good influences. They see the guy making $3 an hour at McDonald's. Or they see the guy driving the Mercedes with $20,000 in his pocket. They don't see their father or their mother enough because they are both working to support the family.
"Now, I used to go down to the corner to go to the store, but I didn't have to worry about fighting and getting killed or being in a gang. I walked down and walked back. A lot of these kids, especially down in South Central, can't do that. They can't go down to the store without running into the 63rd Street Crips. Now, you're a part of it, or you're the enemy. Day in and day out--this is everyday now. Now what are you gonna do? After a while, with a little bit of despair, they can catch you on a bad day. It could be like, 'Damn, my dad's not around, let me just go with them this one time.' Now we cut to six months later and I'm shooting a movie at the prison in Chino and there's that guy and he says to me 'D, man, I just went with them this one time.' Everybody in prison has a story and maybe his story is true. Maybe he did go with them only that one time." Washington's commitment is an attempt to head off "that one time."
"I believe in the Boys Clubs because I grew up in them. The first commercial I did was with the actual director of the club I went to. I don't want to make a big deal about this, because I'd be setting myself up for a big fall, but either you're here or you're there. You're either part of the problem or you're a part of the solution and you can't turn back. You know the difference. And you also know how good it makes you feel. I know I'm here helping you, but trust me, it's helping me a whole lot more."
Slightly uncomfortable about being portrayed as another do-good celebrity, he shifts the conversation back to his work. The two films he stars in this year are illustrations of his artistic as well as spiritual evolution. "That's the feeling I have about the movies I do now. What good is it doing? Is there a way I can turn it into a story, into a lesson, into something positive, into a healing, into a growth for the viewer? If it hit me that way, hopefully I can interpret that so it will hit them that way. If not, what's the point, especially in this day and age we're in. Either you're doing something for goodness' sake or for evil's sake. You can't just continue to walk around with the blinders on and hurt people and say, 'Well, it's not hurting them that bad, plus I'm getting all of mine. Let me do this last one.' Part of why I chose to do Fallen was because of the pull and tug of good and evil. I think the battle goes on. There's no doubt. I think that struggle plays out on a daily basis. [My character] John Hobbes was just a soldier in that battle. The whole war wasn't going to be won and lost on that day."
He pauses for a moment, considers his words carefully, sidesteps the obvious soapbox, and moves forward. "It's twofold. It's the work you do and it's the life you live. It's life experience and it's the roles you choose. There are tremendous opportunities in this game. Different ways, different roles and aspects of your life that you need to work on. With Fallen, it was great to be in a group of people who were really smart, really good people. We worked together to create a good product, and that's exciting."
The people on the set of Fallen speak Washington's praises as well. "Because the character of Hobbes is fighting Evil with a capital E, he has to be someone who is really pure of heart in a way," says Fallen screenwriter Nicholas Kazan. "To be completely frank, most movie stars either always have been or are now corrupted by fame and power and money. Or they were just plain corrupted to begin with. Denzel Washington is basically a good human being. He goes to church. He works in the black community. I cannot say that he is without his movie star moments; but they come far less frequently than they do with other movie stars. You look at Washington and you think: This is an honest man. This man says what he means, means what he says and is trying to make the world a better place. And that was the most essential quality for this role. And in the bargain, we also got a fantastic actor."
Director Gregory Hoblit adds, "The material in Fallen was uncommon and provocative, and we all acknowledged that making this film was going to be a fairly long journey because we had to make it true and credible all the way through. We had all kinds of philosophical conversations through the process. Washington is profoundly interested in good and evil and what makes the world tick from his Christian point of view. It was a nice collaboration and we came up with the movie that we were looking for."
In He Got Game, Washington creates a man who is on the other end of the moral spectrum. "My character is in prison for manslaughter. He didn't intentionally kill his wife, but he killed her nonetheless. His son is the greatest basketball player to come out of high school. He has the opportunity to get out of prison for a week to try and convince his son to sign with a team, and if he does, he will be released from prison."
Not wanting to divulge the film's ending, Washington says, "He reestablishes a relationship with his children. I don't know if he is redeemed, but he changes. I think he's been affected in a positive way by spending a week outside of prison, and I think it's made him better off. He may not have accomplished what he wanted to accomplish; but he ultimately did what was important. There are good dynamics in the script. The father killed the son's mother. The son holds the key to the father's freedom. The stakes are high. I liked pushing this kid because my [character's] life didn't make it. And I liked playing basketball with all those great players during the course of making the movie. Plus, it was fun to be ugly for a change: yellow teeth and funky, raggedy hair, the works."
Returning to the Hotel Bel Air for one last walk through the gardens at nightfall, Washington lights a Punch Punch and contemplates the growth of his very private soul in the midst of a very public career. What exactly is his image? And what is truly important to him?
"I think it comes from life experience, not from exposure," he says. "That's how it started, that's the root of it. And I insure that I keep going back to the roots. I don't worry about the leaves on the outer branches. Sure you prune those, but you have to remember that a tree grows from the roots. It's not about making sure each leaf is polished so everybody can see them and say, 'Oh, that's the prettiest tree I've ever seen.' That's not what I'm about. Now if somebody says, 'That's a beautiful tree,' that's because I've been doing good root work. You can step back and look at it occasionally, but you can't dwell on it too long. My belief in God keeps me humble and rooted and so does my family. If I didn't have those two aspects of my life, then I would need to have all the people talking about my leaves all of the time."
He smiles an incredibly warm and engaging smile, leans conspiratorially close as if sharing a wicked secret. "It's simple: You get a part. You play a part. You play it well. You do your work and you go home. And what is wonderful about movies is that once they're done, they belong to the people. Once you make it, it's what they see. That's where my head is at."
With that, Denzel Washington goes home to his wife and children. *
Alysse Minkoff is a freelance writer living in Beverly Hills, California.