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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

(continued from page 4)

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."

One of the ways that Denzel Washington gets close to his characters is through research, at times exhaustive research. He spent months on the beat with Washington Post reporters to prepare for The Pelican Brief. He practiced with Civil War battle re-enactors for Glory. For Courage Under Fire, he trained at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin in Texas, where he qualified on the M1A1 tank and the 120mm gun, participated in battle games and listened to audiotapes of tank battles in Desert Storm.

The research of a role is clearly a part of the creative process that he relishes. "The acting coach Stanislavsky talks about cutting 90 percent. So you do research, research, research, then you drop it and listen when you're in the scene and know who you are. You never know how it's gonna come around. That's why you go out there and find out. It's because you need the human beings that hook you into the character. Maybe I'm not as imaginative as the average actor. I need some kind of a hook sometimes."

To prepare for his attorney role in Philadelphia, Washington met with two lawyers who were about to become celebrities in their own right: Johnny Cochran and Carl Douglas. "I learned some things from Carl Douglas that I used in the film. Like when you have a friendly witness, you would stand over by the jury so that the witness's eyes were making contact with the jury. With an unfriendly witness, you'd go far across the other side to direct the eyes away from the jury. Or you're wearing clothes that draw attention to yourself on days when you know you were going to have an unfriendly witness. Upsetting the court and all kinds of tactics on how to just get them laughing. Getting the judge on your side." Little did he know at the time that these two gentlemen were about to become famous.

It's not just the technical or logistical aspects of a character that are uncovered during the research process; sometimes an emotional "hook" is uncovered by Washington that he can utilize in creating a character. "When I was preparing for Courage Under Fire I met a lieutenant who had lost some soldiers in combat, and one of them was his very close friend. And I asked him: 'How did you deal with it?' He said, 'You take the abuse. You go back to the wife of the soldier and she asks you: Why did you send my husband and your friend out into battle? She beats you up and you have to live with that every day.'

"He had a chance to deal with it," Washington says. "When I heard his story I said, OK, that's what's wrong with my guy. He just had to lie. He came home and saw the wife or the parents and had to lie. He sat there through the funeral and couldn't tell the truth because of the pending investigation. The reasons he couldn't tell the truth he understood, but it's like, where does the pain go? It's gonna eat him up, which it did. Until he was able to sit down in front of them and tell the truth. And he knew that he was going to have to in order to survive. He didn't just do it for them. He did it for himself, too. When that moment finally came it was such a release. Fortunately, we shot that scene late in the filming process, so I had played it out in a lot of the other scenes."

Just as quickly, with a twinkle in his eyes, he adds with a touch of softness in his resonant baritone voice, "The magic. There's fun creating that magic. Bringing something to life, whatever. Putting together a character. The twists and the turns that people don't expect. So to sit around and talk about it before someone sees it is boring. I think there should be some mystery in it. Who wants to know everything about it? I think it ruins movies when you know everything about how the movie was made and put together. If you explain, it's like showing you the trick before I show you the magic. Let me explain to you how it works. All right, now come see the show. It's supposed to be magic. And being an actor is about creating that magic.

"And I'll tell you something else. A young black kid writes me a letter and says, 'Man, I never realized that a black person can command a submarine.' He saw Crimson Tide and now he loves boats and he wants to be a captain in the Navy. I'm like, well, cool. That's a part of why I took the part. To see this black person in that position of power. I like to influence in that way."

Although one senses no racial agenda with Denzel Washington, nor tension, he is a black man succeeding and flourishing in what is essentially a white man's business. But he does not want to make a big deal of it. Racism isn't an issue and yet it is an issue; and he takes it on with thoughtfulness, honesty and without bitterness. "It's like, well, is there racism in Hollywood? Well, is there racism in the world? There always has been, you know there always will be." He takes a puff of the cigar and says quietly, "There are all kinds of ways to win a battle. Some people stand up on a soapbox and yell and scream. Some are working behind the scenes. I do what I do. I know what I'm doing. I know why I'm doing it and I continue to do it. I don't need to talk about it too much. Hollywood is saying, 'Now we'll make some movies with black folks.' They're not doing it for altruistic reasons; they're doing it because it's business. Good business. Kiss The Girls [starring Morgan Freeman] is making some money. Will Smith, in terms of box office numbers, has made big money. But my affection is to the public. They hear me. They know what I'm doing and they see it. When they appreciate it, they tell me--they come to my movies. And when they don't come, they tell me. The analysis of all of this is for somebody else. I'm just making movies. I'm trying to make something interesting, stir some conversations, push some buttons and to entertain. I don't waste my time worrying about how I'm perceived. Later for that."

He looks over his exhalation of smoke with a face that says, "We've covered that, haven't we, and now let's move on to something more fun." The cigar becomes a device used to change the tone of the conversation. "The other day I was driving around in the heat. Going around and around. Running my errands. Everybody was beeping their horns and going nuts, so I decided to fire up a Cohiba. I cranked up the stereo and within moments, man, I was so mellow. I was just gone. I was like, 'I'm not in a hurry, I don't know why these other 19 million people are in a hurry. I don't know what's wrong with them, but I'm fine.' It's like everybody around me was going crazy and I'm in my own little Cigar Aficionado World."

Washington is unafraid to admit that as a novice cigar smoker, he is still in his learning curve. He is eager to experiment and try new things. As a self-described 'stat-man' he pours over Cigar Aficionado's cigar ratings and can quote them, chapter and verse, the way some men quote a scouting report. He has the rare distinction of being an avid wine collector who is completely unpretentious. He proudly shares the vintage card he keeps safely tucked inside his wallet. He is not into labels. He likes what he likes.

He certainly knows where he likes to smoke, even if he is just beginning to discover what he likes to smoke. "Normally I like to smoke outdoors, like this. I haven't broken the Mrs. in yet and I don't want to smoke around the kids; but it's not just that. I prefer to smoke outdoors. I like the fresh air. I love to smoke on the sea or by the water. I like the quiet that it's about. I like to take a nice mile walk up and down the beach, take a nice toasty single malt with no ice and a good cigar. Walk a bit. Sit down on the sand. Can't beat it. It's odd, because the first time I really smoked a cigar was back before you knew you were supposed to have a good time with them."

The cigar boom has created for some a certain snobbery: a Big Bad Boys Club where the right cigar band is needed to gain entry. It's something that Washington steadfastly refuses to buy into. He wants to learn as much as he can, to educate his palate. He prides himself in finding a new cigar that he enjoys. He doesn't need to wave around a Churchill to feel as if he's part of The Club, either. "I like a smaller cigar, because I like good cigars and I feel like I don't want to waste them. It's like, where I am in the learning curve, I'm going to smoke a little cigar. It also has to do with the amount of time I have in the day and where I like to smoke the cigar. But that Monte No. 2 is great, even if you don't have the time to finish it. I love the taste it gets."

He laughs and ponders for a few minutes and looks down at the Fuente Fuente OpusX in his hand. "Cigars have also made me appreciate time alone. As an actor, you go on the road, you expose your life and your emotions, and you go back to your hotel and you're still wound up. You've released all this energy and you're channel surfing in some great hotel. Everything is top of the line. You've got your private guy that brings you this and drives you there. And you're still alone. All day long you're the center of attention. Everybody recognizes you and all of that. But your family is 3,000 miles away and you call and they're having a great time. You can hear the kids running around and there's noise in the kitchen and you give everybody what they need over the phone and then you're alone. I didn't use to trust that time alone. But a cigar can give you a pleasant time. It's something you can enjoy by yourself and it's OK. It's like taking a luxurious bath instead of a quick shower."

Sipping his wine, he muses, "Just every now and then I like a good cigar, whether it's politically correct or not. What? Don't eat? Don't breathe? Who are those people? What is this politically correct group that controls things? Where is this group?" And a laugh like warm butterscotch catches Denzel Washington's entire body. He looks again at his cigar. "This is like legalized drugs. This is the drug of the '90s. Time stops."

The wine finished, Washington decides he'd like to explore one of Los Angeles' newest cultural offerings, the Getty Center. On the short drive to the museum, he continues to tell his stories while he savors the last of his cigar.

Denzel Washington was raised in Mt. Vernon, New York, the middle child of a Pentecostal preacher and a beautician, who divorced when he was 14. Washington attended Fordham University with hopes of becoming a doctor or journalist, when his life's path switched to acting. After graduating from Fordham, Washington was accepted into the prestigious American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where he studied under Bill Ball. After returning to New York, he began his theater career with Joseph Papp's Shakespeare in the Park. He appeared in many Off-Broadway productions, portraying Malcolm X in When The Chickens Come Home To Roost and winning the Obie Award for his portrayal of Private Peterson in A Soldier's Play. It was through that role that he captured the attention of the producers of the NBC television series "St. Elsewhere" and was cast as Dr. Phillip Chandler. He met his wife, Pauletta Pearson, an actress, pianist and singer, in 1977 while filming the television movie, Wilma, and they are about to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. The Washingtons have four children and make their home in Los Angeles.

Balancing the demands of a high-profile career, raising a large family and maintaining a good marriage are clearly priorities for Washington. He proudly gives most of the credit for the success of his home life to Pauletta. "She puts up with me. I think, also, in a way the traveling helps. We're able to travel together and also be apart sometimes. Not everybody gets to live like that. Twenty years now. It's like you start to pat yourself on the back when you look around you and you see that very few people have 20 years into a marriage."

But a family life does mean occasional sacrifices. "I do miss the theater. I started in the theater and I'm used to the immediate response from the people that are there; but I don't think I'll be able to do a play for a while. It would have to be in a situation where my whole family could go, because I would have to do eight shows a week. There just isn't enough time to fly home. And they're all in school now, so I can't just take off for New York and not get home for two months. I can't do that right now in my life. I've got to be able to get home or them get to me. For a stretch I took four or five jobs just because they were shot in L.A.

"With four children I have to maximize the work I do now financially," he says. "It's like I have to do one film for financial reasons, as opposed to when I was single, or before we had all of these children. I find that I'm not as good at not working as I thought I would be. I get itchy. My wife also says I'm only good for about three weeks of downtime. But I'm learning a decent pace now. I try to take four or five months off between jobs."

One of the newest challenges Washington has created for himself is as a director. Last fall, he took a break from filming He Got Game to direct the music video "In Harm's Way" for Bebe Winans. The first-time director had more than his share of butterflies. "Directing was the newest, most exciting thing that has happened to me as an artist since I started acting. It was like starting over again. It was a new thrill. I didn't know what was gonna happen. But the second I got on the set, from the first moment it was time to go to work--I was off to the races. No problem. I had a lot of fun supporting other people and seeing them do their thing. I really enjoyed myself. I like taking a group of people and watching them excel. It doesn't mean that I don't have an eye behind the camera, but I'm good with people. It was good for me to direct this video because it got me excited again about what I do. And it made me realize, 'hey, you need to get there on time.'" He laughs. "Where is the star? Where is he? He's in the trailer?"

Washington served as executive producer for "Hank Aaron: Chasing The Dream," an Emmy Award-nominated documentary for TBS that also turned into a learning experience for him. "I went to Atlanta and met with Mr. Aaron. He's just a living legend. I found out that he had all these death threats as he approached Babe Ruth's [career home run] record. A lot of people didn't want him to break the record. He received 900,000 pieces of mail in one year and about 120,000 of them were hate mail.

"Right now we're working on a documentary about photographer Gordon Parks. I'm excited about that because a lot of people don't know that much about him. About how prolific he is. He's written many books; the most popular was A Man and His Camera. He directed Shaft. He was one of the first, if not the first, big successful black magazine photographers. He's somebody who has a story to tell and I like having the opportunity to share him with people. He is just a great man."

The opportunity to tour the galleries of the Getty Center while some of the art was still being hung brought out an almost childlike curiosity in Washington. He had questions about the lighting, the architecture, the security, the colors, the gardens.

At the end of the tour, Washington was clearly moved. "I loved getting in that tram [that takes museum-goers up the steep hill to the museum]. I didn't think I was gonna love it, but it was obviously necessary. It was one of the smartest things they did, because you're forced into a different environment first. You're forced to share it with everyone else, which is good. Especially in Los Angeles, where everybody has their own little cocoon: their car. You have to abandon your cocoon and get in this communal thing that takes you up the hill with this beautiful, panoramic view of the Los Angeles basin that we all share. I loved the stone. And I liked the feeling of what this place is all about. It's not just a museum. It's not a billion-dollar tribute to Getty and his paintings. It feels like it's for anybody and everybody who wants to come. It feels like it's for the kids from South Central or Sylmar, and it's just as much for them as it is for the privileged. It's gonna change the city in a lot of ways. It will give a bit of strength to L.A. as a cultural destination as well."

He pauses a beat, looks around at Richard Meier's stunning and sensual architecture, and laughs. "Sounds like I'm working for them, huh?" Walking around the grounds he recalls, "My mother took us to see the Mona Lisa when it came to New York. I remember the lines being 60 times around the block. I remember the excitement. I've had that feeling, like seeing the Louvre for the first time, or seeing a painting that I had always seen in a book. It was exciting to be so close to these paintings. I can't get over the fact that you can stand next to them and breathe on them. They're all so precious and we're all so close to them."

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.


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