New Again: Denzel Washington
In New Again, we highlight a piece from Interview’s past that resonates with the present.
Aspiring actors dream about a career like Denzel Washington’s. A graduate of Fordham University and the American Conservatory Theater, the actor smoothly transitioned from the New York stage to the big screen and won his first Academy Award in 1989 for his role in Glory. Shortly after Denzel’s win, model and actress Veronica Webb interviewed him for our July 1990 cover story. Together, Webb and Washington discussed everything from Washington’s status as a sex symbol to African history. They even touched on the project Washington was working on at the time, a movie based on Malcolm X’s autobiography, which would go on to become one of his most critically acclaimed and successful films.
Now 57, Denzel Washington has become the leading man we saw hints of in that confident 35-year-old back in 1990. Since Interview first met Washington, he’s starred in Malcolm X (1992), Philadelphia (1993), The Hurricane (1998), and American Gangster (2007), and won a second Oscar for his role opposite Ethan Hawke in Training Day (2001). While we wait for his latest film, Flight, to come out next week, we decided to reprint Webb and Washington’s conversation. Read on to get a rare glimpse into the mindset of a budding movie star. —Melissa Belk
by Veronica Webb
Right now there’s nothing hotter on the screen than Denzel Washington. With wit, integrity, sex appeal, and box-office draw, he seems poised to be the leading man in Hollywood for the ’90s. And the Oscar, which he won in 1989 for Glory, doesn’t hurt. In the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences only five black actors have been given the coveted statue: Hattie McDaniel, in 1939, for Gone with the Wind; James Baskett, in 1947, for Song of the South; Sidney Poitier, in 1963, for Lilies of the Field; Lou Gosset Jr., in 1982, for an Officer and a Gentlemen; and now Denzel Washington.
VERONICA WEBB: Do you remember where you were the day Malcolm X was shot?
DENZEL WASHINGTON: In 1965? I didn’t even know who Malcolm X was. I’m from one of those kinds of families. My father was a minister. Retired now.
WEBB: What did your father being a minister have to do with not knowing who Malcolm X was?
WASHINGTON: I wasn’t exposed to those things. First of all I was 11. Second of all I wasn’t exposed to politics. I just wasn’t. I didn’t know anything about that kind of religion, the Church of God in Christ.
WEBB: You’re set to play Malcolm X in a movie under the direction of Norman Jewison, right?
WASHINGTON: He’s set to direct it, and Charles Fuller’s writing it.
WEBB: Is there something that attracts you to the character of Malcolm X?
WASHINGTON: I’m intrigued by his life story. As a kid I knew more about Martin Luther King than I did about Malcolm X. Malcolm has never been portrayed in a feature film before. I had to read and study to find out about him. I read his autobiography. I did a play about him—When the Chickens Come Home to Roost. Are you familiar with that quote from Malcolm X? That was the name of the play I did. It was about a fictional meeting between Elijah Mohammed and Malcolm X. It was an interesting play. Something controversial.
WEBB: What’s the content of the film?
WASHINGTON: I don’t know. I have to read the script. It’s based on the autobiography.
WEBB: Which one? Alex Haley’s?
WEBB: Do you think it will shy away from the controversy?
WASHINGTON: I don’t see how it could.
WEBB: It could be washed down. It could be Hollywood-ized, to make Malcolm more accessible.
WASHINGTON: I don’t see how you could tell the story and not be controversial. He was an extremist. That’s how he lived his life. Rebelling against his parents, getting thrown out of school. Being the best at being the worst person he could be, and then turning himself completely around and becoming a man who practiced what he preached. An unbelievable life.
WEBB: Preparing for When the Chickens Come Home to Roost, you prayed like Malcolm, you ate like Malcolm…
WASHINGTON: Well, not exactly. I tried to do some of the things that Muslims do. I got a feeling for what they do, but I don’t really know the rituals.
WEBB: You’re in the new Spike Lee movie Mo’ Better Blues. It’s amazing to me that you’ll be playing Richard III for Joe Papp in New York this summer when the film is released.
WASHINGTON: Why? I’ve always done things like that. It’s just that people are writing about it now. The first movie premiere I’ve been to since A Soldier’s Story was Glory, because at every other premiere I was always doing something else. I like to get onstage once a year. I didn’t get onstage in 1989. I was on there six months in ’88. So you know I had to get back to work and make some money so I could get out onstage again. I like to do everything.
WEBB: You once said that you were disappointed that Cry Freedom wasn’t a film about Stephen Biko, that it was really from the point of view of Donald Woods, a white newspaperman who befriended Biko.
WASHINGTON: Well, I knew that before I did it. I wasn’t disappointed by it. If I was going to be disappointed about it I should have been disappointed before I took the part.
WEBB: Glory is another film about blacks from a Caucasian point of view. When the fuck is that going to end?
WASHINGTON: When black people make Glory. Then it will end, not sooner. What do you expect? These are stories that white directors and producers want to do. That’s their right. Why should they be lookin’ out for us, doin’ us a favor? We should make movies ourselves. Spike’s movies are from Spike’s perspective. Whatever color you put on that is his perspective, which is what it should be.
WEBB: Do you ever think there will be a black owned studio?
WASHINGTON: I don’t know about that. A studio is just a group of people making films. We just have to keep making more films.
WEBB: I think it would be ideal to have a black-owned studio with the same clout as MGM or Disney—whatever.
WASHINGTON: That would be nice, but you still have to have a theater to put them in. What you gotta do is you got to own theaters. I’m not talking about the millions or so dollars it takes to make a movie; I’m talking about the hundreds of millions of dollars it takes to buy the theaters so people can see the movies.
WEBB: I know you admire Garth Drabinsky, the former CEO of the Cineplex Odeon chain.
WASHINGTON: I would just like to be in the same kind of position to do some of the things I’ve seen him do. If you’re talking about black people having power, ownership is where they need to put the focus. If you have the best popcorn in the world and no place to sell it, then ain’t nobody gonna buy.
WEBB: Do you want to own theaters? Actors need things to do later on.
WASHINGTON: I would love to get involved with some businessmen who would want to do something like that. I don’t have a hundred million dollars yet. I don’t know the business side of it, the accounting of it.
WEBB: Tell me about Mo’ Better Blues. I assume it’s highly romantic.
WASHINGTON: I don’t know. I haven’t seen it yet.
WEBB: Well, you know what you did.
WEBB: Are you?
WASHINGTON: Am I what?
WEBB: Are you boning Spike’s sister in the movie? I know you are. What’s the most embarrassing thing you ever had to do on film?
WASHINGTON: The love scenes in Spike’s film.
WEBB: Why? What level are eroticism are you aiming for?
WASHINGTON: There’s nothing erotic about nine people standing around you and a woman, setting up lights and cameras.
WEBB: Then why were you embarrassed? Did the scene involve some kind of freak sex?
WEBB: Do we get to see you butt-ass naked?
WASHINGTON: Everyone was wearing their drawers. We all had our shirts off. I’m just not comfortable with love scenes.
WEBB: You’re turning into a big sex symbol now.
WASHINGTON: I’m turning into, or I’ve been turned into? I haven’t changed. I don’t do anything different. You tell me.
WEBB: You’re the one who’s going through it.
WASHINGTON: I don’t dwell on it.
WEBB: You don’t dwell on it, but you must have come face-to-face with it.
WASHINGTON: Many people are more excited sometimes when I meet them, and that’s good. They’re my fans, but, you know, I don’t walk past the mirror any slower. You know, people heap attention onto you and most of it is hype. I struggle to resist, in order not to be affected by it. Now, I’m trying to be more regular than regular. I look at myself right now and say, “Damn? I used to dress better.” I want to play a homeboy. [He slips into character.] So I’m doin’ one in life—know what I’m sayin’?
WEBB: What does it mean to have the Oscar?
WASHINGTON: I don’t know. Aside from the meaning that your peers like your work, I don’t know what it means. It’s a nice statue.
WEBB: Where are you going to keep it?
WASHINGTON: I’m not saying—not in my house, though. I don’t want anybody come robbin’ my house now.
WEBB: I’ve heard you have a fixation for the work of the late Minnie Ripperton.
WASHINGTON: You just all in my business, huh? I just love Minnie Ripperton’s music. At a time when I was making a transformation, from whatever it was I was doing before acting, I was writing a lot of poetry. I was very impressed with Minnie. I’ve never met her. I’m just very touched by her music. Female singers touch me more than anybody else. I married one, you know. Even now, the ones that come along, like Basia, I’ve listed to. I’ve always liked Patti LaBelle, Regina Belle I love. Angela Botfill—I played her songs over and over; I know her songs better then she does. I started to write some poems to Minnie that I was going to send her, but I never did.
WEBB: Do you regret not having sent them?
WASHINGTON: I think she got them. She knew how I felt. Am I making sense? This is like being on the psychiatrist’s couch. By the way, let’s talk about this new movie I’m doing about Indians and Africans.
WEBB: American or Asian Indians?
WASHINGTON: Indians from India. Did you see Salaam Bombay? The woman who directed that is doing a picture called Mississippi Masala. It’s about interracial relationships. It shoots in Mississippi and Uganda. In 1971 Idi Amin took over and, a year later, threw out all the Indians. The Indians came to Uganda around the turn of the century to help build the railroads. So when Amin came in he kicked the Indians out. He said, “You’re not Africans. Get out.” There were Indians who had been there their whole lives. So they spread out all over and eventually a lot of families ended up in Mississippi managing these motels. I play this little country boy who manages a carpet cleaning company, one of his biggest contractors is one of these motels. I meet the daughter of one of the Indian managers and kind of get together with her.
WEBB: It’s 1971.
WASHINGTON: No, 1990.
WEBB: This has to be an independent.
WASHINGTON: It’s a small film. I’m very excited about it.
WEBB: Are you working for scale?
WASHINGTON: I’m working for about a quarter of what I get on a regular day.
WEBB: What are you doing after that?
WASHINGTON: One of those action pictures where everyone gets shot up and stuff.
WEBB: It’s funny, I’ve heard that action pictures and horror flicks draw a 60% black audience.
WASHINGTON: That’s interesting. Becoming an artist you can lose touch with what the real people want. I’m intrigued by appealing to a mass number of people. Not in all my work, but at least to see if I can do that too. I think about the movies I went to see as a teenager. I didn’t care if they were Academy Award winning movies. I went to see Three the Hard Way. You went to have a good time. Movies like Cry Freedom are interesting and informative. They’re on serious subjects that we’re trying to do something about, but guys won’t spend fifteen dollars on Friday night to take their girls to see that. Making movies like that show that we’re committed to doing something about the issues, but people can see issues on the news for free. Besides, we can’t take ourselves too seriously, even if we are trying to effect change.
WEBB: What were some of your favorite movies that shaped you as a kid?
WASHINGTON: For me it was Superfly. But my father was around and didn’t let us get much farther into watching films.
WEBB: Why not? Sinful content?
WASHINGTON: The Ten Commandments: “Honor thee no God before me.”
WEBB: Did your father feel that film was a form of idolatry?
WASHINGTON: He just didn’t let us go. I don’t know what he thought. It was athletics for me. I played everything: football, basketball, baseball. I was a walk-on in basketball and football in college. I went in and tried out for the teams without a scholarship, and I made it both times. Yes, I did. I was even coached by P.J. Carlesimo.
WEBB: Every project you’ve chosen for yourself has been distinctive. What factors go into choosing a role besides a good script?
WASHINGTON: A little bit of everything: you know, scheduling where you want to be at the time, what your emotional needs are, what’s available. I’ve done some clunkers. The good thing about a clunker is that it doesn’t stick around too long.
WEBB: You lived in Zimbabwe for a few months making Cry Freedom. What did you learn?
WASHINGTON: I’ll never forget Africa! I really felt the desire, the longing, for my roots, even though I don’t know specifically where I’m from. I felt very comfortable there.
WEBB: I assume that, like a lot of black people, you didn’t know much about the African culture you were going into. We’re not taught about it in school, and we certainly aren’t familiarized with it through the images on TV and film. So what did you find surprising? Were there any fundamental differences between Africans and Afro-Americans?
WASHINGTON: Very few differences. Going there, making that film being in Zimbabwe, which is southern Rhodesia, which had just been through 20 years of fighting, I felt that these people wanted peace. They had seen the worst of bloodshed, yet they were still committed to helping their brothers and sisters throughout Africa—throughout southern Africa. Their peacefulness begins with their quietness. It took time to begin to appreciate their soft-spokenness. For instance, a guy would take my hand when we were talking. And I was like “Oh, shit! Why is this dude holding my hand like this?” And see, that’s my hang-up. It ain’t nothin’ to see two guys arm in arm; it’s like it was when you were children. There’s no reason why that can’t extend into Afro-American life, instead of us getting all screwed up about it. My wife and I are still getting letters and visits from people we befriended there.
WEBB: Let’s talk about this Michelle Pfeiffer thing. I heard you refused to do a film with her because of the interracial aspect of the story.
WASHINGTON: That’s not true. It was as simple as this: They came to me with a script a couple of times and I passed on it. Then they came back, and they said, “Let’s work on it,” and we kind of restructured it, but my character still wasn’t saying anything. Michelle had a great character, really strong. My character was weak; he was just there to help the story move along. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the way the story works. But it just wasn’t something I could do.
WEBB: I heard you backed out because you had never kissed a white woman before.
WASHINGTON: See, if you get a white person and you get a black person, that’s what everyone’s going to talk about. Folks don’t know what the movie’s about. Gossip is gossip. I hope we can work together sometime on equal footing. It’s like with Glory. I never would have done some of the things I had to do in that film if it weren’t for the story we were telling.
WEBB: Like getting whipped.
WASHINGTON: Yeah! Like getting whipped! That was beat. But I got into it. See, I believed. I got behind it, and I believed in it because it was fact. And also because I believed in these guys, and I thought this was something I wanted to be a part of. As long as I have that incentive I can create.
WEBB: Do you read black history?
WASHINGTON: The work I’ve done has led me to.
WEBB: You saw the Times article I gave you about the National Endowment for the Art and the “obscenity clause.” Joe Papp didn’t endorse the clause and forfeited $50,000 in funding for the Public Theater. What do you think about that?
WASHINGTON: Well, you know we’re leaning toward flat-out censorship. It’s getting to be like, “We won’t give you money unless you do what we say.” Joe is doing the only thing he can do in that situation, which is fight for his freedom as an artist. I mean, you do have the right to your freedom, though I think you also have an obligation to have a certain amount of taste, which may mean that you don’t make a movie about lopping young boys’ heads off.
WEBB: You ever want to do some bugged, sick, ill, R-rated Travis Bickle type character?
WASHINGTON: I’m doing Richard III.
WEBB: In the movies?!
WASHINGTON: I like the film Blue Velvet. I would have wanted to play some of the parts in that. Something about that film got to me on some weird, kinky level.
WEBB: You studied with Wynn Handman. He’s a good director.
WASHINGTON: What I liked about Wynn is that he could just critique the scene. He wouldn’t make you stand on one foot and swallow eggs backward.
WEBB: What do you do if you’re working with another actor who has a way of working that’s difficult or different from yours?
WASHINGTON: I usually slap him around until he does it my way. No. No two actors are trained alike. I don’t have those kinds of problems. Some things should be left alone. Not everything needs to be categorized, analyzed, and understood. You have to have faith as an actor. If you want to take a leap into what you don’t know, it won’t happen if you have it analyzed to the nth degree.
WEBB: Some people say that an actor’s faith is akin to religious fanaticism.
WASHINGTON: I’m totally concentrated. Does that make me a fanatic?
WEBB: Do you consider yourself obsessive?
WASHINGTON: Obsessive? Protective, maybe. I mean, it’s just acting. All you’re doing is showing off. It’s not brain surgery.
WEBB: I think it takes as much work to become a great actor as it does to become a brain surgeon.
WASHINGTON: Yeah, but I can’t sit around worrying why “my instrument” is this way or that. That’s bullshit. That’s acting class. I’ve always believed that through the specific comes the universal. If you’re specific then you can get something done. That’s the key to Spike’s success. He does what he knows, and it speaks to people across color lines. Fear of failure doesn’t concern me.
THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE JULY 1990 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.
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