The actor/director talks about his Golden Globe-nominated drama -- the true story of a debate team at a small black college in the 1930s -- and how he sought to pass his expertise on to a cast of newcomers
Denzel Washington, The Great Debaters
Credit: David Lee

Denzel Washington directed and stars in The Great Debaters, a true story about a small, all-black Texas college debate team that achieved national prominence in the 1930s. The film costars Forest Whitaker and Kimberly Elise and was produced by Oprah Winfrey; it recently scored a Golden Globe nomination for best drama — not bad for Washington’s second directorial feature (after 2002’s Antwone Fisher).

In August 2007, EW spoke with the two-time Oscar winner about his talented young cast, how he managed to avoid getting bugged out on location in Louisiana, and whether he might one day move behind the camera full-time.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you always know that you wanted to play real-life debate coach and author Melvin Tolson?
DENZEL WASHINGTON: No, absolutely didn’t want to play him.

So why did you end up in the role?
It’s called money. It’s called: They’re not gonna give you enough money unless there’s someone of a certain name to do it.

As the director of the film and an actor in it, did you find it hard to wear both hats?
Absolutely. It’s the worst part of it. When I did Antwone Fisher, I really hated it. But on this one, I just tried to embrace it, and have fun. It wasn’t so bad, but I wouldn’t really look forward to doing it again.

You don’t feel like it gets better the second time?
No — not the kind of actor I am. Because I’m dead serious about my acting.

How would you describe yourself as a director, then? Do you approach directing the same way?
I don’t. First, of all, I would try and say this: ”I want everybody to have a good time, I want everybody to work hard.” And if you talk to other people that were on this film, not too many of them will tell you they worked harder than me. I was the first one there, the last one to leave.

Did you know that you were getting into this when you signed on?
You know, you never know. The time to worry about flying is when you’re on the ground. Once you get up in the air, you know, you just got to trust the pilot. And I guess I was the pilot.

Is it true that you had your cast go through a debate camp?
Yeah, Texas Southern is one of the top debating teams now. So we took them down there and just threw them to the wolves, basically, which is how I like to do it in pictures I’ve acted in. I like to be thrown to the wolves, just to see where you stand.

NEXT PAGE: ”I think [Jurnee Smollett] did a great job, and ”breakout” means someone has to give you a job, right? That’s what breakout means. It’s the most difficult for African-American women in this business.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell us a little about young actress Jurnee Smollett, who plays debater Samantha.
DENZEL WASHINGTON: Jurnee was great. And let me tell you, these kids — Jurnee Smollett, and there’s another kid, who’s oddly enough by the name of Denzel Whitaker, he’s the young kid in the movie — you’ll be hearing [a lot about them in the future].

Sounds like he has a famous name already!
I mean, could you believe it? Denzel Whitaker. I told him, ”You almost didn’t get the job, just because of your name.” But he, Nate Parker, Jurnee, Jermaine Williams, are all excellent, excellent young actors. You know, the thing that makes me most proud is that I think I have a good eye for young actors, like when I did Antwone Fisher…Derek Luke turned out all right.

I think so. You may have helped him out a little bit.
A little bit. I think, you know, he’ll be able to eat from now on!

Can we talk a little bit more about Jurnee? People say this is going to be her breakout role.
Time will tell. I think she did a great job, and ”breakout” means someone has to give you a job, right? That’s what breakout means. It’s the most difficult for African-American women in this business. So I wouldn’t dare say that everything’s gonna happen great, because…who would you name that’s had a breakout role that’s her age? See what I mean? But I give her credit. She’s a great, great actress, and God willing, she will break out.

How was your shoot around Shreveport, Louisiana?
It was fine, I like Louisiana. We actually never shot in Shreveport. We shot all over the place, but not Shreveport. Oh, we were in little towns: Plain Dealing, we shot in Tree, Louisiana…Shreveport was like coming back to the big city.

Jurnee had some stories about big mosquitoes and snake wranglers.
Yeah, they’re not too bad.

So you weren’t bit that much?
I was too busy moving, they couldn’t catch me. That’s for people sitting around.

You have two movies out this season…
For me, American Gangster is more of an acting job, and Great Debaters is just a passion, you know. I’d rather talk about Jurnee and Nate and just talk about the good jobs the kids did. My passion is just to see other people do well.

Do you feel like it’s a responsibility? You’ve acted, and now you’re giving the opportunity to other actors?
I’ve always thought that way. It just turned out ironic that I became the guy out front, but I’ve never been that kind of a person. I’ve always liked to see other people do well.

But it also seems like you’re helping them do well.
Well, yeah, I like helping other people do well, but I don’t need to be the guy out front.

So eventually would you just want to be a director? Absolutely. Clint Eastwood’s my hero.

Want more? See the EW review of The Great Debaters

The Great Debaters
  • Movie
  • 123 minutes