Denzel Washington is high and dry a mile off the coast of Islamorada, an island in the Florida Keys. Relaxing with his family, the actor drinks wine as his boat peacefully awaits the tide that will lift it off its current resting place -- a sandbar. Washington is in no rush. To hear him talk about it, he's relishing an extremely rare occasion on the sandbar: He's not working. Over the past 20 years, he has taken almost no time off from a schedule that has produced more than 30 movies. Nominated five times for Oscars, Washington has starred in numerous critical hits, including Glory, The Hurricane, Malcolm X and Philadelphia. This long weekend -- a break from his current movie filming in Miami -- is an unusual chance to unwind.
This year he won the Best Actor Oscar for his role as a crooked cop in Training Day, becoming the first black actor to win since Sidney Poitier took the 1963 award for Lillies of the Field. Now Washington has vaulted to the ranks of Hollywood's best-paid actors, getting a cool $20 million to star in the drama Out of Time. Though Will Smith and Eddie Murphy get just as much, they earn it for comedies and special-effects extravaganzas. Washington built his career with comparatively less expensive dramas such as John Q, Remember the Titans, The Bone Collector and Training Day, films that opened strongly and turned a profit.
Now he's branching out with his directorial debut, Antwone Fisher, in which he plays a supporting role. The movie is based on the story of a troubled young Navy recruit whose fistfights with shipmates send him to a psychiatrist (played by Washington).
In a business with few roles for African American actors, Washington is one of the most sought-after stars in Hollywood. While filming Out of Time in Florida, he was besieged by visitors. Writer-director David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, House of Games) came calling to ask Washington to star in a new movie he wrote and will direct. Joel Schumacher (Batman Forever, Falling Down) traveled to Miami to persuade Washington to sign up for a thriller titled Sleepwalker. Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13) also just called to talk to Washington about starring in another thriller, The Burial.
Washington was born in 1954 in Mount Vernon, New York, the second of three children. His father was a factory worker and a part-time Pentecostal minister, and his mother was a beautician. His parents split when he was in his teens. Washington credits his mother and the Boys Club of America, for whom he is now a spokesman, for keeping him off the streets.
He graduated from Fordham University intent on becoming a journalist, but his real interest was working with children at the Boys Club and the YMCA. It was while performing a skit for kids that he discovered acting and decided to study at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
In New York, Washington acted onstage in roles that he would later reprise on-screen, in both A Soldier's Play and When the Chickens Came Home to Roost, playing Malcolm X. His big-screen debut, the 1981 comedy Carbon Copy, was a flop, but he spent the next six years as part of the ensemble cast of the acclaimed TV hospital drama St. Elsewhere, acting in as many movies as possible between rounds.
His movie career took off in the late Eighties and he won his first Oscar nomination for his portrayal of slain South African civil rights activist Steven Biko in 1987's Cry Freedom. He won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar two years later for his role as a runaway slave turned Civil War fighter in Glory. He was nominated for three more Academy Awards: in 1993 for the title role in Spike Lee's Malcolm X, in 2000 for his portrayal of boxer Rubin Carter in The Hurricane and in 2001 for Training Day. We sent frequent Playboy contributor and Daily Variety columnist Michael Fleming, who most recently interviewed Harrison Ford, to meet Washington in Miami. Here's Fleming's report:
"We met at the trendy Delano Hotel in South Beach, where Washington was anonymous in the darkened restaurant. Because his performances are so often charged with emotion and anger, I expected Washington to be an intense, even intimidating guy. I was wrong. He is a relaxed, good-natured dad who would rather talk about his son's college football career than his own achievements as an actor."
Playboy: How tough is it for black actors?
Washington: I'm not in a position to talk about the lack of opportunities for black actors, because no one has gotten more opportunities than I have. One might argue that it's a more difficult climb. And as hard as it can be for black actors, it's far more difficult for African American women. Halle Berry won an Academy Award this year, but there are fewer major roles for wonderful actresses such as Alfre Woodard and Angela Bassett. At the same time, it's tough for all actresses as they get older. Where is Meryl Streep? If she were black, would we be saying she isn't getting roles because of racism? Or is it sexism? It's some kind of ism. The roles go to younger girls.
Playboy: Lou Gossett Jr., Cuba Gooding Jr., even Whoopi Goldberg, didn't get good roles after winning their Oscars.
Washington: I can't say why, since I don't know why they made the choices they made, whether they were money choices or artistic choices. After I won for Glory, I turned around and did the action movie Ricochet. That wasn't because I wanted to do an action movie or because I couldn't get anything else. The night I won I went to Spago, and Joel Silver walked in and said, "We have to do something." Eight months later, I'm making Ricochet. It could have been awful for my career, and 10 years later people might have been saying, "He won the Oscar then couldn't get anything good." But that was just something I chose to do.
Playboy: Is it generally easier for young black actors to break into the business now than when you started out?
Washington: I think it is. The more we get into positions of some authority in Hollywood the better off we are. Now that I'm working as a director, I am in the position to cast young African American actors. For Antwone Fisher, I cast Derek Luke and Joy Bryant, who are on their way. That's how it works. The more of us who succeed, the better it is for all the new people coming up. When Steven Spielberg was casting Schindler's List, he found Ralph Fiennes, who was discovered and got a career. You don't pick Ralph Fiennes because he's white, but as good an actor as I am, I couldn't have played that part, because there were no black Germans. On the other hand, in a movie about Antwone Fisher, I don't care how good Ralph Fiennes is or how good Matt Damon is -- they are the wrong color. The more stories black filmmakers get to tell, the more opportunities there will be for black actors.
Playboy: Did you ever lose out on a role because of your race?
Washington: No, and in fact I have turned down some very good roles that then went to white actors.
Playboy: What movie do you regret turning down?
Washington: Seven was brought to me years ago. I said no. Brad Pitt wound up playing the part. Go figure. I blew that one. In general I've never been one to go after stuff. I'm not out shmoozing. There are enough roles out there for me, and they seem to come along regularly enough. Since my recent Oscar win, I'm getting more offers, though there's a lot of garbage out there, too. It's always hard to find good material.
Playboy: Of all the films you could have chosen for your directorial debut, why Antwone Fisher?
Washington: I have already acted in five or six films based on real people's lives. Biographies are something that I know about.
Playboy: Aren't biographies particularly tricky, though? Your films about Hurricane Carter and Malcolm X, for example, were criticized for embellishing the facts.
Washington: These are movies. Life doesn't take place in two hours and 15 minutes. This is a dramatic form. They don't play music when you get shot in real life. Some reporter complained that Malcolm X was manipulative. Of course it was. Movies are manipulative. There isn't a 69-piece orchestra behind you when you're walking up the street. We're not making documentaries. You have to understand that when you're acting or directing a true story. It is particularly challenging when you're dealing with a controversial historical figure.
Playboy: Spike Lee was criticized for making Malcolm X too preachy and for pushing his own political agenda. Do you agree?
Washington: I would agree that there was a great two-and-a-half-hour movie in there. Listen, Spike was a young filmmaker who had done a lot of great work. The movie's director is the pilot. It's his vision. For an actor, the time to worry about flying is when you're on the ground. If you don't want to fly with the director, don't get on the plane. There's no point in getting up there moaning and complaining, "Oh, we should do this, we shouldn't do that." Spike had something to say. The version that came out was his vision and he had a right to make it the way he wanted. Would I have done the same thing? No.