Playboy: Playboy interviewed Sean Penn right after he directed his first movie, and he said he never wanted to act again. What about your future?
Washington: I can understand why he would say that. I loved directing even more than I thought I would.
Washington: Sean Penn didn't retire from acting and I don't think I will, but I'm hooked. I want to direct another picture -- absolutely. God willing, I'll be directing the rest of my life.
Playboy: Since you're a well-known actor, do people think you shouldn't direct? Will the critics be circling?
Washington: Sure. You can get slaughtered. But the high stakes are part of the whole thing: the great fear and the attraction. I was becoming bored with acting. needed something to wake me up. This did. Throughout, the process has been both frightening and thrilling.
Playboy: Do you no longer feel any pressure when you are acting?
Washington: No, not after some 30 films and 20-odd years. I have had some really interesting parts, especially of late. The problem is, where do you go from here? Directing was a whole other thing. The fear of the unknown was, again, terrifying as well as great thrill. I don't know where the days went. I enjoyed the collaborative process more than I thought would. I loved working with the cinematographer, editor, production designer and the others. There is one thing learned from all of the movies I've worked on that I was able to put into practice: Keep good people around you and let them do their jobs.
Playboy: How does that compare with your working style when you're acting?
Washington: As a director you've got to be more of a diplomat. More communicative. It was a surprise that I liked it, but that turned out to be the best part of the experience. As an actor, you're a star. You hide in your trailer and appear once in a while and do your bit when they call you. When I'm acting, I have tunnel vision. I do my thing and I don't b.s. too much. I do my scene and go back into my trailer to prepare for the next scene. It's completely different working as a director. I'm on the set all day long and collaborating with everyone.
Playboy: Was it tricky directing yourself?
Washington: I didn't want to be in the movie. I didn't really intend to. I don't want to say it wouldn't have been made if I wasn't in it, but you know how that works. Warren Beatty told me, "It's good for you to be in it, Denzel, because it's a way into the picture that you know, something you're used to." It was a really good point.
Playboy: Can you objectively view your own performance? Who tells you, "That sucks. Do it again"?
Washington: I dealt with it by doing four takes each time I had to act. I printed them all. It's tough to see the performance. You're looking at the pimple on your face. You get used to it, though I never like watching myself. Directing other people feels sort of natural. Before I became an actor, I worked with kids at Boys Clubs and at the YMCA. I was a coach. Directing, I'm a coach again. It's familiar. I enjoy watching other people do well. I'm more comfortable in that role. It's where I started. I never wanted a career as an actor, never thought about it. In the Seventies, once I started acting, I went to New York to work in the theater. I thought I might one day work on Broadway. That's all I ever aspired to. We theater people didn't think about Hollywood.
Playboy: Did you watch movies?
Washington: The movies I liked were films like Mean Streets. The actors that watched were people like De Niro, Hoffman and Pacino. I guess I thought I might one day try to do something like they were doing, though I never thought much about it. It just sort of happened. I was doing a great play, Soldier's Play, that won a Pulitzer Prize. It went on to become a movie. In the meantime I auditioned for a TV show called St. Elsewhere. I thought it would be a job for 13 weeks, but it lasted six years. So I'm in Hollywood. When they made the movie of Soldier's Play, I was asked to do it. The next thing I knew, I got married. Then my wife became pregnant, so we had to stay in one place. That's how I ended up in Hollywood. That was almost 20 years ago. My son left for college this year. What happened?
Playboy: Now twenty years later, after 30 movies, you say you were bored with acting. Can you still get excited about a new role?
Washington: I'm professional, so I do my job and I work hard. But I still get bored with it. People probably say, "With the kind of money you're making, how dare you complain?" It's not about money. It doesn't matter what kind of money you're making. Anyone can get bored with their job. Directing has solved that for me.
Playboy: Did it feel safer directing a movie with such a small budget? The entire $13 million budget is less than your salary for Out of Time.
Washington: Ed Zwick, with whom I made Glory, is doing The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise, spending $100 million. I asked him, "What do you do with $100 million?" I mean, what do you get? Ninety thousand extras instead of 20,000? I just wouldn't know where to start. And spending $100 million of someone else's money would be enormous pressure; making a picture like Antwone Fisher for $13 million isn't. Making Antwone Fisher for $50 million would be pressure. If someone is giving you $50 million to make a movie, they expect a commercial hit. They want to get their money back or they won't be giving you any more. There's much less at stake with a $13 million movie. It's not Braveheart. It's not some epic production. It seemed reasonable for my first time out.
Playboy: You got to the $20 million-a-picture mark after 20 years of making dramas, while guys like Vin Diesel can get there virtually overnight with spectacles like XXX.
Washington: I feel like I've just been chopping wood. I found my wheelhouse in movies that cost $50 million, which, if they open at $20 million, will give the studios their money back. Nobody has asked me to put on tights for one of those superhero movies, and I'm not saying I wouldn't have wanted to make $25 million when I was 25 years old, because I surely wouldn't have walked away from it. But, for me, spending $100 million or $150 million is questionable. I'm still making pictures for $50 million and found a niche and I think studios are comfortable with me there. There's a double-edged sword with this more-money stuff, because now you've got to be in a certain kind of film. But you know what? God bless Vin. He brought in $45 million the opening weekend of XXX. I'm not mad at him. I don't know if he's a great actor or not. Who cares? He brought in that much money, and if I'm a studio head, I'd say, "Get that guy, I want that guy in a movie."
Playboy: Is it true that you won't make movies on faraway locations?
Washington: I've always been like that. Last time I traveled far was to Italy for Much Ado About Nothing 10 years ago. I am getting older and my kids are getting older. My daughter is almost 15. I don't want to be across the ocean when something important happens. I don't want to say, "I should have been there." I've missed a lot of birthdays; I've missed lot of events and games. But I've made lot of them, too. When I can, I commute. When I made John Q, I flew home every weekend. I'd put the kids to bed on Sunday night and take the red-eye back to the location. On Mondays I worked on four hours of sleep.
Playboy: Are you trying to be a more attentive and present father than the one you had?
Washington: My father worked all the time and he was preaching on the weekends. In that generation, nobody saw their father. You were lucky to have one in the house. Mine was always working. When he came home at night -- well, maybe you didn't want to see him at night. He might give you a whipping or something, taking care of something his wife told him to do. "Wait till your father gets home." One of those.
Playboy: Are you open in ways your father wasn't?
Washington: My father had a stroke in April 1991 and was on his deathbed. went to visit him. I kissed him on the forehead. He started choking. The nurses came in and had to clear us out of the room. It was like, "I may be dying, but don't start kissing on me now." My father came from a different time. He wasn't abusive or anything. It was just him. I'm different.
Playboy: Your parents divorced when you were a teen. Did you see much of him after that?
Washington: I didn't see him much for three or four years. When I got out of high school I spent a lot of time with him. Later there was another period when I didn't spend a lot of time with him, but when I got older and matured we sat down and established a good relationship. We had a good relationship through the time he died.