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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 1)

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.

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