Here is what Denzel Washington craves: peace, quiet, and total control. That means no intruding waitresses batting their eyelashes while serving up coffee (he’s not the cappuccino sort). No ambitious screenwriters slipping him scripts from the next table. Above all, no adoring fans pleading for autographs, when what he really wants to do is get this over with. To talk about his latest starring role as a Gulf War tank commander in Twentieth Century Fox’s Courage Under Fire as succinctly as possible. His way.
He’d rather be playing golf with the brand-new set of clubs resting in the trunk of his black Mercedes. Or at home, with his in-laws; his wife of 13 years, actress-singer Pauletta Pearson; and their children, John David, 12, Katia, 8, and 5-year-old twins Malcolm and Olivia. Instead, while the Washington family gathers in the kitchen of their Toluca Lake, Calif., home to bake a cake for John David’s graduation from elementary school, Washington slips into black sweatpants, a black polo shirt, sneakers, and a baseball hat, takes the keys to his Mercedes (would the Ferrari be too flashy?), and drives 20 minutes from his house to Beverly Hills. There, he will pick up a reporter and submit to an interview. Actually, submission has nothing to do with it. In Washington’s case, doing an interview means being in the driver’s seat. Literally.
Washington, 41, has a razor-sharp, perfect-toothed grin, and a slow-building, giddy laugh called forth more often by his own humor than another’s. The effect — a tilt of the head, a flash of white, a rumbling that begins in the back of his throat and builds swiftly — is one of lightheartedness and cordiality. It can be misleading.
”Where are we going? I don’t know,” he says pleasantly to his hostage, as he pulls smoothly from the curb like a man accustomed to chauffeuring small children. ”Nowhere in particular.” He could be his Courage Under Fire character, Lieut. Col. Nathaniel Serling, whose depression reduces him to aimless driving as he investigates the conduct of a deceased medevac pilot (played by Meg Ryan) who was perhaps more brave and heroic than he.
But Washington has nothing to be depressed about; the buzz is that his Courage performance is Oscar material. Last night, he saw the film for the first time. Unlike other movies he has made, the completed Courage could have come as a surprise to the actor, since he wasn’t present for any of Meg Ryan’s scenes, which make up half the movie. ”I have to see it a couple or three times to really get it,” he says of watching himself on screen. ”But I’m used to it. I mean, I’ve made 20 movies, or something — 21 movies. So I’m kind of used to it.”
Repetition is Washington’s ploy to think ahead a sentence, as well as a deflection of questions that don’t interest him. What did he think of his performance? ”Well, that’s why I say you’ve got to see it a couple of times,” he says. A big smile. ”The first time, I don’t know if the word performance comes into play.” A reckless laugh. It seems to startle him as much as his passenger. ”You know, you just analyze, and you know.”