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.
How tough is it for black actors?
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.
Lou Gossett Jr., Cuba Gooding Jr., even Whoopi Goldberg, didn't get good roles after winning their Oscars.
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.
Is it generally easier for young black actors to break into the business now than when you started out?
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.
Did you ever lose out on a role because of your race?
No, and in fact I have turned down some very good roles that then went to white actors.
What movie do you regret turning down?
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.
Of all the films you could have chosen for your directorial debut, why Antwone Fisher?
I have already acted in five or six films based on real people's lives. Biographies are something that I know about.
They don’t play music when you get shot in real life. Of course movies are manipulative. We’re not making documentaries.
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.
I can understand why he would say that. I loved directing even more than I thought I would.
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.
Since you're a well-known actor, do people think you shouldn't direct? Will the critics be circling?
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.
Do you no longer feel any pressure when you are acting?
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.
How does that compare with your working style when you're acting?
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.
Was it tricky directing yourself?
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.
Can you objectively view your own performance? Who tells you, "That sucks. Do it again"?
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.
Did you watch movies?
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?
Now twenty years later, after 30 movies, you say you were bored with acting. Can you still get excited about a new role?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
Is it true that you won't make movies on faraway locations?
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.
Are you trying to be a more attentive and present father than the one you had?
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.
Are you open in ways your father wasn't?
My father had a stroke in April 1991 and was on his deathbed. I 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.
Your parents divorced when you were a teen. Did you see much of him after that?
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.
In what ways are you like your father?
He was a gentleman -- a kind, spiritual person. I think my father raised a gentleman. There's also something to be said when your father is a preacher and your mother owns a beauty shop. I grew up working in barbershops and in church, which is where you find the best storytellers, performers and liars. Between the pulpit and the shampoo bowl, I grew up in theaters. I can remember my father preaching -- remember his power and commanding voice. When I was studying in college and I saw James Earl Jones, I was reminded of my father. He had the same kind of power. It was comforting to know I came from that.
And your mother?
My mother was a city girl raised in Harlem. She was aggressive, a go-getter. My father wasn't well educated. He was a country boy. He encouraged the children to go to high school and then get a good job. But my mother wanted us to go to college. She wanted more for us. When I started heading toward the streets, she got me out of there. She scraped together enough money to put me into private school. She could see trouble was coming.
What type of trouble?
The kind of trouble that hit my three closest friends. One is dead, and they all did time in penitentiaries. I didn't. And these were good guys. My mother got me off the street, sending me to private school and in summers sending me away to camps. That led me to working at camps and coaching kids.
How did coaching lead you to acting?
I was a counselor working at a YMCA camp in the summer of 1975. We were doing skits for the kids. I did one. A guy said to me, "Have you ever thought about acting? You're a natural." I didn't know what I was going to do, so I said, "Maybe I'll try it." My school had a campus at Lincoln Center in New York, and I went there. I got the leads in a couple of plays and I never looked back, at least until I graduated. I was about to get a regular job again with the recreation department. I made my first movie, Carbon Copy, but still wound up at the unemployment office. They're like, "What are you doing here? I saw you in a movie." "I'm in line B trying to get my money, move up." My wife -- my girlfriend at the time -- was making more money doing Broadway. She was bringing home 800 bucks a week. We had unemployment checks coming in when one of us wasn't working. I had a six-month lull, the only lull I've had in my career. After that I got a play called When the Chickens Came Home to Roost, followed by A Soldier's Play. Then I went straight into St. Elsewhere.
Did you worry about becoming stuck in television while you were working for years on St. Elsewhere?
I did my best to stay out of the limelight on the show. I was scared of doing it, but it wasn't like a three-character sitcom. There were 16 main characters. I was able to hide. I wasn't in there trying to be the main guy and fighting for more lines. I just wanted to be nice and quiet. After the first year of the show, Norman Jewison called. He wanted me to do the movie A Soldier's Story. The producers of the TV show were accommodating. I was able to leave to do that. After A Soldier's Story I did a movie with Sidney Lumet called Power. Then did Cry Freedom.
In Crimson Tide you played opposite Gene Hackman. Was it intimidating to work with him?
I'd sit there sometimes and they'd almost have to go, "Denzel, your line." I was watching one of the great actors of all time. I really haven't worked with a lot of the greats. I haven't worked with De Niro, Pacino or Hoffman or any of that generation.
Do you know why?
Nobody's asked me. There aren't a lot of movies with two great parts. There are some great ones, of course. In Heat, there were De Niro and Pacino. Cruise got to work with Paul Newman, with Hoffman. My opportunity was Crimson Tide with Hackman. Then I got to work with Julia Roberts. That wasn't bad. And a guy by the name of Tom Hanks. He's not chopped liver, either.
You're rarely seen hanging out with other stars.
I don't go in for that at all. I'm not at the events, hugging and kissing. It's not my style. Sidney Poitier once told me, "If they see you for free all week, they won't pay to see you on the weekend." The point is, to have longevity as an actor in movies you have to have some mystery. Anyway, I'm not interested in all that. I'll do an interview because I'm selling a movie. I'm not selling me. I don't go to Hollywood events unless I can't help it. The only other movie premiere I have gone to is Erin Brockovich.
Of all movies, why that one?
Julia Roberts asked me. I would do anything for her.
Did you become friends filming The Pelican Brief? How did that movie come about?
They just asked me to do it. I said, "Hey, this is a no-brainer." I got to ride the Julia machine. Julia's a moneymaking machine.
Last year Will Smith was almost cast in Runaway Jury, the movie based on John Grisham's novel. Grisham had casting approval and vetoed Smith, and the role went to John Cusack. It has been reported that Grisham insisted on casting approval for Runaway Jury because he hadn't been able to stop your being cast in The Pelican Brief. Did you have a problem with Grisham?
I met John once on the set. There were a lot of stories, but nobody spoke to me directly, or he didn't, anyway, so I don't know if anything came from him. It was a surprise, let's just say, to all involved, that Julia and Alan Pakula wanted me to play the part. People were not overjoyed.
At the studio or at Grisham?
I don't want to put words in people's mouths, but the general feeling was not good. Alan was the director, Julia was the star. I was who they wanted and who they got. But that kind of thing happens all the time, race aside.
So the perception of a race issue could be an author imposing his contractual clout to see a movie that reflects how he wrote the characters in his books.
He absolutely has that right. He wrote the books. Look: If I had been nominated eight times and didn't win, there would be all kinds of charges of racism. But Al Pacino got nominated for an Oscar eight times before he finally won for Scent of a Woman. Does Pacino blame racism against Italian Americans? It's too easy. Does racism exist? Yes. Do I get bogged down with it and give up? No.
Julia Roberts was loyal to you and you're loyal to her. Why?
She's smart, witty, funny. She's somehow fragile. You want to protect her. She's regular. Julia and her boyfriend at the time and my wife and I were together in the Bahamas a few years back. No bodyguards. We just sat around the pool. She's regular. She's my kind of girl.
How about Tom Hanks? Were you annoyed he was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for Philadelphia while you were overlooked?
The studio had two guys who could be up for lead, and they did not want to split the vote. The movie was about Tom's character, and they wanted to get behind him. They asked me to look at the supporting category and my agent said, "No, your role is just as big." I didn't get nominated, but I'd been nominated three times and won already. Tom was known for comedy at the time, and he'd just done A League of Their Own. Philadelphia was one of his first serious roles. Did it hurt? Sure, but I never let it eat me up.
The opposite is true. There have been times when I didn't want to win. When Pacino won for Scent of a Woman, I was up for Malcolm X. I didn't want to win that time. I would have felt badly. It was Pacino's time. If he hadn't won that one he would have been 0 for 8. I was already 1 for 2 or something. When he won, was 1 for 3, batting .333. I was OK with that. When I didn't win some of these awards, other people were angrier about it than I was. I know it's a cliché, but I genuinely feel good about being invited to the party. How many other people can say they've been nominated five times? How many other people can say they have won two Academy Awards? So I'm cool with it. When they called my name for Training Day, I did not expect it at all.
Will Smith told us he asked you whether he should do a gay sex scene with Anthony Michael Hall in Six Degrees of Separation. You told him not to. You said that kissing a guy might hurt his career.
What I said was, "If you don't feel comfortable about it, don't do it." Simple as that. He called me out of the blue. He was apprehensive about it. I didn't tell him whether he should do it or not.
He said he regretted not giving his all to that part, but he felt as if his rap career might suffer if he were to kiss a man.
Maybe, but Tom Hanks kissed Antonio Banderas in Philadelphia, didn't he? That didn't hurt Tom Hanks' rap career a bit.
There have been some reports that you are uncomfortable doing sex scenes in general and, fearing you will betray the African American female audience that loves you, with white women in particular.
That's a lot of nonsense. The sex thing started with the Spike Lee movie Mo' Better Blues. We had some kind of a disagreement about one scene. That was it. Next, when I was working with Julia on The Pelican Brief, the tabloids reported that I refused to kiss her. I was never supposed to kiss her. It was never in the script. What were they talking about?
So there's nothing to those stories?
No, no, no. Look at He Got Game, me and Milla Jovovich. The bottom line is that I haven't been offered a lot of sex scenes. In Out of Time, the film I'm doing now, I'm kissing all over one girl. That sounds terrible. Let's just say I'm doing my job. And I'm fine with it.
As you get older, is it in any way a burden to be considered one of the sexiest men on the planet? Some actors resort to having cosmetic surgery. Would you?
You won't see me getting cut anywhere. No. Not me. I've been blessed with good genes. I look young for my age, anyway. If I keep myself in good shape, I'll be all right. If you're more of a physical actor, an action guy, it's tougher when you get older. You made your bread and butter that way; it's like a boxer who made his reputation on his physical strength alone. Physically, at a certain point, you just can't do certain things. And then all of a sudden you look over your shoulder and a Vin Diesel comes along. I'll be happy to be able to take on some nice character roles. What a great profession to be in, where you can still work at 60 or 70. Pacino is 62, De Niro is 59, Clint Eastwood, 72. One reason I moved behind the camera is Eastwood.
As tough as it was when you grew up, the perils for children are scarier these days. Do you worry about your children?
I haven't had to. They are good kids. Their mother's done a great job keeping their noses clean. They don't drink and don't smoke. My son in college wants to play ball and make it to the pro level. Who knows? He's on the varsity team. I don't know if he'll play, but I know I will be there at the first game. He's good. He ran for some 20-odd touchdowns and 2000 yards in high school. He took his team to the semifinals and was voted the league's offensive player of the year. The team had never been league champions before.
You played college ball. How did you compare with him?
He's a much better player than I was. In addition he's bigger. I'm taller, but I was 155 when I graduated from high school. He's 190. We didn't lift weights in those days. From the time he was born he used to put on his uniform to watch a game on TV. He loves the game.
You sound like you're an obsessed dad.
I've watched his all-star tape 3000 times. People run from me. They say, "Denzel, I've seen it 16 times. Not the tape again." People don't understand. I played, went through Pop Warner, and to see your boy.... I tell him, "You used to be known as my son, now I'm getting to be known as your father." Nothing makes me happier.
So if he wins the Heisman, that's when you'll break down and cry like Halle Berry.
Are you kidding? If he won, I'd go up there with him. I'd give his speech. Just let me hold it. When you're a parent, you know this. He's the oldest, and when that first one is born, you instantly understand the difference between making a living and a life. Acting used to be life. It became a way to make a living. Those little ones, that's life.
How do you stay in shape?
I do a cardio workout. I've been pushing weights.
How much weight?
I'm benching 315.
You have played boxers. Is that a particularly brutal workout regimen?
I'm working out now because the fat man was chasing me down. Gravity works day and night. I have gotten in really good shape for some of my movies. The last time I was pretty fit was for Training Day, but I let it all go when I started directing, sitting on the set all day. I didn't do anything for a year or so. Since I decided to get back in shape, I feel bad when I don't exercise. I need to get in a workout, at least cardio. It helps me get through the day. I was dog-tired this morning, but after an hour of cardio I've got energy. After cardio I hit the weights.
Were you in the best shape when you played Hurricane Carter in The Hurricane?
I was in great shape boxing all day long. Boxing will do it.
In the film you have a six-pack stomach.
Which soon after became a three-pack. I drank the other three. Then I had a keg, which is why I needed to start working out again.
What was the training schedule for The Hurricane?
I would run six miles, have breakfast, train two hours lifting and then work with the stunt guys for three or four more hours. I'd stay in the ring all day doing choreography with them. I was doing it five days a week. I was strong and went down to 176 pounds. When I started working out before this new film, I was at 225. Right now I'm carrying 190, which seems to be a good weight for me. I'm in pretty good shape for 47 years old.
Does it take less time for you to get back in shape because you're a former athlete?
It takes as long to get back into shape as it does to get out of shape. I didn't work out for a year. After a year off, I started training again about two weeks before this year's Academy Awards. I said, "All right. You've got to get into suit." I started hitting it and I haven't stopped since.
On TV it looked as if you fit into your tux pretty well.
It was a big tux. Smoke and mirrors, big time. What's the guy's name? Armani? He's saying, "The tuxedo must be small to look good." Fine, but I got my guy to take three inches out of the back. Everyone is watching the Academy Awards to see who's going to win, and I'm there squirming. I'm squirming not because I'm worried about the award but because the suit doesn't fit.