Denzel Washington Covers GQ October 2012 (Suit, $3,995, and shirt, $325, by Giorgio Armani. Tie, $195 by Burberry Prorsum. Tie bar, $15 by The Tie Bar. Pocket square, $160 by Brunello Cucinelli. Shoes, $1,360 by Tom Ford.) - Photo credit: Nathaniel Goldberg / GQ
Denzel Washington walks like a cat strutting atop a high ledge. One foot in front of the other, lightly. Head pulled down, slightly. Eyes watching everything. There's an efficiency and effortlessness in his movement. He's like this when he enters the hotel room in New Orleans, where I am waiting to interview him. "Where should we sit?" he asks, and he walks to the window and pulls back the scrim, letting August's white-hot sunlight into the room. Washington, dressed in sweats and a Yankees cap pulled low on his head, drops in a chair and points at one beside him. I sit. We're like two men on the edge of a pier, staring forward, not really looking at each other.
Washington is in New Orleans filming his forty-second movie, 2 Guns, with Mark Wahlberg. He has played everyone from Malcolm X to Hurricane Carter and racked up two Oscars (Glory and Training Day), as well as starred in films as disparate as Philadelphia, Remember the Titans, Crimson Tide, and the forthcoming Flight. And yet what do you really know about Denzel Washington? (Other than the obvious fact that being 57 hasn't cost him a single step.) Thirty years after he introduced himself as Dr. Philip Chandler on St. Elsewhere, one of the most dominant leading men of his generation remains a very public mystery.
What's your first memory of being onstage?
I was around 7, 8, whatever I was. We did a talent show at the Boys Club. Me and another guy, Wayne Bridges—God rest his soul—he's the father of Chris Bridges, Ludacris. We decided to be the Beatles. So we went to John's Bargain Store and bought fake guitars and wigs and did "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
Is there an actor who has influenced you?
There's a scene in The Godfather II. De Niro's in a theater. And he's looking back. It's just a look. I don't think I've ever imitated another actor, but there's nothing wrong with learning from them.
What is the first movie that you recall?
King Kong. The Wizard of Oz was a big one. I remember Caged, these women in prison. I liked that one. But I wasn't a movie buff. Never thought about the movies. When I was in my teens, it was movies like Shaft or Superfly. I wanted to be like those guys. But I never thought about being an actor, ever. I wanted to be Jim Brown or Gale Sayers, not Sidney Poitier. When I started acting, there weren't any big black movie stars. There was a little Billy Dee Williams and some Richard Pryor. That was it.
Are there any roles you've turned down that you regret?
Seven and Michael Clayton. With Clayton, it was the best material I had read in a long time, but I was nervous about a first-time director, and I was wrong. It happens.
And you wanted a part in Platoon?
That and Full Metal Jacket. They were like, "Well, [Kubrick] doesn't send out his scripts." I was like, "Well, then what do you want me to do?" Platoon, I wanted to play the part Willem Dafoe played.
Do you have any code you live by?
I read from the Bible every day, and I read my Daily Word. I read something great yesterday. It said, "Don't aspire to make a living. Aspire to make a difference."
In some ways, you're a cipher. There's not much you put out there.
But that's not my job to put stuff out there. Sidney Poitier told me this years ago: "If they see you for free all week, they won't pay to see you on the weekend, because they feel like they've seen you. If you walk by the magazine section in the supermarket and they've known you all their life, there's no mystery. They can't take the ride." My professional work is being a better actor. I don't know how to be a celebrity.
So if they want to see you that way—
I've got my own things that I will and won't do, but it's not because I "carry the weight of the African-American something" or whatever. I can't. I'm an actor. First of all, I don't take myself that seriously. I take what I do seriously, and I try to do a good job.
You've worked with Gene Hackman. Any other titans you want to shoot with?
All of 'em. Anybody whose last name ends in an o. De Niro. Pacino. I cut my teeth watching them. Going back to the idea of learning things from other actors—Laurence Olivier was an outside-in kind of guy. He'd find a handle, something on the outside. The Method guys were inside-out. I use a little bit of both. For Mo' Better Blues, I'll pick up a trumpet. Not "Oh, what is the emotional innards of a jazz musician?" Hurricane? Start boxing. Sometimes it starts on the outside. Sometimes on the inside.
When the Denzel biopic is made, what would an actor need to have in his performance to make you say, "He got me"?
That suggests I know what it is, and I don't want to know what it is. That's part of the mystery. It is what it is. I don't go, "I gotta make sure I put some of that Denzel Washington-ism in the movie." I don't want tricks. I don't want to lose my mojo.
When you were playing Malcolm X, you said one of the things that helped you "get" Malcolm was noticing that he was always pointing.
That was one of the keys. It wasn't the key. He does a lot of that. And he didn't say "against," he said, "a-ginst." So I started throwing in extra "a-ginst"s, because it made me feel like I was in rhythm.
When you met with Frank Lucas before American Gangster, what were you, as an actor, looking for?
The answers. I found a guy who can knock people off. How do you act that? When we were working on Man on Fire, [director] Tony Scott* sent me a tape about the Iceman, the guy that killed all of those people. Later I saw this footage of a young girl getting shot. She didn't do anything but drop. It's morbid fascination, but that's what I'm looking for. That's what I did in Training Day. After I get shot, there's no last speech. I want that reality.
Training Day has become a new classic.
A lot of credit goes to Antoine Fuqua, the director. He brought the gangster aspect into it. The script was more like a 2000 version of a Lethal Weapon kind of guy. That line "King Kong ain't got nothin' on me"—I made that up. The character's ego, he just did not think he could lose. That was his problem.
Your father was a Pentecostal preacher.
Yes. I went every Sunday as a kid, so I can relate to the people who don't like it because there was a time when it was a job. We all go through our rebellion.
I read somewhere that you said you once felt yourself being filled with the Holy Spirit.
That was thirty years ago, at the church I still attend. The minister was preaching, "Just let it go." I said, "I'm going to go with it." And I had this tremendous physical and spiritual experience. It did frighten me. I was slobbering, crying, sweating. My cheeks blew up. I was purging. It was too intense. It almost drove me away. I called my mother, and she said I was being filled with the Holy Spirit. I was like, "Does that mean I can never have wine again?"
I look at Mitt Romney with his spirituality, and he's chosen not to talk about his faith.
Yeah, he hasn't even brought it up.
But if he just said, "Here's my path," I would love to hear it.
When I see him, he's always uncomfortable. You can see that uncomfortableness. Forget about his being Mormon. He hasn't said anything about his faith.
Was it hard being the son of a preacher?
As a child, no. He wasn't a taskmaster, but there were certain things you couldn't do. He had his own church, and it was a long Sunday, because you had to be there all day.
Why did your parents divorce?
You'd have to ask one of them. Why do people separate?
They never told you....
We didn't have a sit-down. They're a different generation. I didn't ask—you just assumed. For lack of love, or whatever their reason. I never asked. What else would I want to know? I didn't see it coming. But I wasn't looking. I was 14.
And then you were estranged from your father for a bit?
I was away in private school. And my mother came and said, "Go get your keys, we don't live in our house no more." So between 14 and 18, I lived with her until it got to be too much to handle. [laughs] Then I lived with him. And he kicked me out. He said, "You're just bad."
It all kind of came together around the time that I started acting at Fordham. I was 20 and had a 1.8 GPA, and they were going to throw me out. So I took a semester off. And I remember standing in front of the army recruiting office like, "I don't want to go in the army." I started acting because I had done a lot of work with kids. I was at a YMCA camp. And we did a talent show for the kids. And this guy said, "You looked like a natural up there." So I said, "Let me try to act." That was September of '75. And my senior year, '76, I got an apartment on 310 or 312 West 93rd. Just roaches everywhere.
Is it true your first professional on-camera work was a Fruit of the Loom commercial?
I remember something to do with Fruit of the Loom, but I don't think I got that. I did a Mrs. Paul's fish sticks. And I did a Burger King with Jeff Daniels. Or was it Mrs. Paul's fish sticks with Jeff Daniels? That was '77.
Your father died as you were working on Malcolm X.
I was flying to New York to meet with Spike, and when we landed my brother was there. The first thing I thought was Mom died. And he said, "Dad had a stroke." That was April of '91, and he died in August. We started shooting around the time that he died. [pauses] I never shed a tear for my father. That sounds like a book or a song. I never did all through the funeral and all that. There was no connection.
Were you angry with your father when your parents split?
First of all, he worked two or three jobs. So I didn't see him that much. Uh, the things I did, like sports and things, he wasn't really... I guess being a spiritual man, or just because he had to work so much, I didn't see him. My mother didn't see me, either—the things I did, the sports and that. Because they were working. It wasn't like it's been for our children, where you take them to all their events. It was a different time. Once they were separated, I was in school. So 70 percent of the year, I was away. In the summer, I wasn't looking to track him down. I was ready to hit the streets. So you just kind of fade.... Not to say that I didn't love him like a dad. But we didn't play ball, those types of things. Next thing you know, you're at college.
Did he disappoint you?
I didn't think of it that way. Everyone I grew up with didn't have a father. I had a father. My father was a decent man. He was a very spiritual man and a gentleman.
What do you see of your father in you?
I'm more like my mother. She is the toughest woman. She's 88.
Did you bring any of your father into Malcolm X?
Absolutely. Preaching is preaching, be it Malcolm X or... I don't want to generalize and say "the black church," but there's a certain style. And growing up with that, I understood it. Same could be said just for the fact that my mama owned a beauty shop. There was great drama in there. [laughs] I remember certain cadences in the way my father would set up certain things. And when I would hear Malcolm X, I would say, Oh, he sets it up the same way. It's a rhythm. It's almost music.
Tell me about your first job.
I was a paperboy. I was maybe 9. I faded on that quick. There's no money in it. I was 11 or so when I started in the barbershop. That was great theater. Professional liars in a barbershop. There were a lot of father figures in there. I was there with grown men. You know, saying grown-men things. Listening to men talk and lie. I learned to hustle. If you came in, I looked at you like money. Okay, you've got good shoes? You might have a few dollars. I had a little side hustle where you brought your clothes on Saturday; I'd take them to the cleaners and deliver them at the end of the day. Fifty cents here, a dollar there. I was 13 and buying my own clothes. Working in that barbershop, learning how to tell stories...I learned how to act. [laughs] I miss it. I really dug that independence. My oldest daughter—I see her digging her independence. She doesn't like me talking about it, but she's working with Tarantino.
On Django Unchained?
Yeah. I can see myself in her.
That's funny she's with Tarantino, because you had that feud with him on Crimson Tide over what you called his racist dialogue he added to the script.
Isn't that interesting how life goes? But I buried that hatchet. I sought him out ten years ago. I told him, "Look, I apologize." You've just gotta let that go. You gonna walk around with that the rest of your life? He seemed relieved. And then here we are ten years later, and my daughter's working with him. Life is something.
What did you feel when Whitney died?
Whitney was my girl, and she had done so well in recovery. And that is the toughest part about addiction.
Were you friends still?
Not "talk every month" friends, but I talked to her from time to time. And that was a monster drug that got ahold of her, it was a mean one. You can't go back to that one. Nobody beats that. I look at people—and I don't think I'm speaking out of line—Sam Jackson, I've known for thirty-some-odd years, he was down at the bottom. And he came all the way back. And when he cleaned up, he never looked back. But he can't have that beer, because it might lead to the tough thing.
Whitney was such a sweet, sweet girl and really just a humble girl. You know, they made her this thing. She had a voice, obviously, but they packaged her into this whole whatever, but she was really just this humble, sweet girl. Me and Lenny [Kravitz], we were talking about her yesterday, and it's more of an example to me or the rest of us to keep it together. I was listening to her song "I Look to You." It's prophetic. Maybe I'm speaking out of line. Maybe she thought she could have one. And then the next thing you know, her body was betraying her. She didn't know that her body was aging quickly. She couldn't take it. Your body can only take so much. Some people survive [Hollywood and fame], and some people don't.
How do you think Obama fits in now?
Well, the story's not told yet. He's in the beginning of the third quarter. I don't know what his legacy is yet. He's the first—that's a part of it. Like Jackie Robinson. But it just wasn't the first game; it was lasting the whole thing.
Would you ever go into politics?
No. I'm an independent. In some ways I'm liberal, and other ways I'm conservative. We get so locked in on "you have to be this or that." It's ridiculous. I'm not a liberal or a conservative completely. Who is? Or why do you have to be? You assess the pros, the cons, of both sides and you make an intelligent decision.
How did you feel about Obama endorsing same-sex marriage?
What did he say about it?
He said he was in favor of it. That he didn't oppose it.
What does that mean? [laughs]
It's the political way of saying, "I support it."
You know, I think people have the right to believe what they want to believe. And people have the right to disagree with it.
If you had one thing to say to African-American readers of GQ, what would you say?
Take responsibility. One of the things that saddens me the most about my people is fathers that don't take care of their sons and daughters. And you can't blame that on The Man or getting frisked. Take responsibility. Look in the mirror and say, "What can I do better?" There is opportunity; you can make it. Whatever it is that you choose, be the best at it. You have an African-American president. You can do it. But take responsibility. Put your slippers way under your bed so when you get up in the morning, you have to get on your knees to find them. And while you're down there, start your day with prayer. Ask for wisdom. Ask for understanding. I'm not telling you what religion to be, but work on your spirit. You know, mind, body, and spirit. Imagine—work the brain muscle. Keep the body in tune—it's your temple. All things in moderation. Continue to search. That's the best part of life for me—continue to try to be the best man.
pictures and words
Denzel's hair is laidddddddddddddd.