The ''The Book of Eli'' actor remembers key moments, like winning his Oscar and working on ''Training Day''
Denzel Washington rarely goes back and watches his old movies. Three decades deep into one of the most acclaimed acting careers in film history, he isn’t especially interested in reliving past moments of glory, whether it’s Malcolm X or Training Day or, well, Glory. ”I might watch a scene if something is on television,” he says. ”But just to sit down and watch my movies — I don’t do that. I’ve never been one to overanalyze what I’m doing.”
At 55, with two Oscars under his belt and nearly 40 films on his résumé — including two he directed, Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters — Washington remains one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actors. On Jan. 15, he stars for directors Albert and Allen Hughes (From Hell) in the gritty postapocalyptic thriller The Book of Eli, as a lone wanderer fighting his way through a world destroyed by nuclear holocaust in order to protect a precious book. EW sat down with the actor and showed him a series of photos covering some of the highlights of his career. The memories quickly started flowing. ”It’s like This Is Your Life,” he said with a laugh.
Academy Awards (2002)
”I didn’t want to go to the Oscars. After Hurricane, I was like, ‘I don’t feel like dealing with these people. I’m just not going to go.’ In order to protect yourself, you almost have to not care. So that night I didn’t care — and of course, they go, ‘Here.”’
Fresh out of college, Washington landed his first professional acting job in a made-for-TV biopic about Olympic sprinter Wilma Rudolph, an experience that gave him his first, awkward introduction to the technical side of filmmaking.
”In this particular scene, I remember I was nervous because I was talking to [costar Shirley Jo Finney] really close and the camera was moving in. I was so green, I started backing away from the camera. They were like, ‘Cut! Denzel, you’re backing away!’ [Laughs] This movie was also where I met my wife [actress Pauletta Washington]. We didn’t get together then — her last day was my first day — but we met. That was 32 years ago. [Deadpan] I was 7 years old.”
Carbon Copy (1981)
Washington made his big-screen debut in this comedy about a white businessman (George Segal) who’s shocked to find he has a long-lost black son.
”My teeth were chipped and broken when I did Wilma. I was afraid I wasn’t going to get the part in Carbon Copy because of my teeth. I couldn’t afford to get them fixed. But they said, ‘We’re going to help you get them fixed.’ I was very proud of my [new] teeth. [Laughs] Sidney Poitier told me the first three or four films you make will determine how you’re perceived in this business. Later on, I was offered another comedy, but it wasn’t funny to me — I thought it was quite racist. I didn’t take it, and I waited about six months and I got Cry Freedom [the 1987 biopic of South African activist Stephen Biko, for which Washington earned his first Oscar nomination]. That movie changed everything. I could have taken that bad comedy and had a totally different career.”
St. Elsewhere (1982-88)
Washington first attracted wide attention playing Dr. Phillip Chandler on this ensemble medical drama set in a Boston hospital.
”I remember early on my agent talked to me about not getting caught up in television. She convinced me not to do The Jeffersons, which I’d read for. But St. Elsewhere had so many characters, you could get sort of lost in the sauce and be able to sneak out and do films. And it was a great show. You’ve heard about Howie [Mandel] not wanting to shake hands or touch anyone? Look at how his hands are all balled up [in this photo]. I wonder if even then he had that issue. [Laughs] I’m not trying to be mean, Howie. I’m just curious.”
Washington’s performance as a former slave who joins an all-black Civil War regiment won him his first Oscar, for Best Supporting Actor. In one particularly powerful scene, Washington’s Private Trip stands his ground while being whipped, staring defiantly and shedding a single tear.
”I remember walking around before that scene, just praying and calling on the spirits of all the slaves, because I didn’t know how to play it. I was like, ‘Okay, fellas, just tell me what to do.’ And I went out there with an arrogance. I spit on the ground. I had this attitude and this strength — it all came out of this meditation. It wasn’t calculated. It was organic. That whip actually hurt, but I was like, Don’t let him win.”
Malcolm X (1992)
Spike Lee’s biopic (which earned Washington a Best Actor nom) was controversial prior to opening. Lee joked he and Washington had their passports ready in case they had to leave the country.
”We didn’t know what was going to happen. Spike was bringing up stuff that was touchy — I mean, really touchy — and with lots of different people, so you never knew where it was going to come from. But it worked out pretty good.”
The Pelican Brief (1993)
Washington’s turn as a muckraking reporter alongside Julia Roberts helped propel this John Grisham adaptation to box office success. According to various accounts, Washington nixed the idea of a love story with Roberts’ character, saying his fans wouldn’t accept an interracial romance, but he disputes that notion.
”That’s some BS. Total BS. I don’t know who started that story. In the book, there was a love affair between the two of them, but I don’t think it was ever in the screenplay.”
In the first major studio movie to address AIDS directly, Washington starred opposite Tom Hanks as a homophobic lawyer representing an attorney fired after contracting the disease.
”[Director] Jonathan Demme said to me, ‘Look, we don’t want your character to go 360 degrees. It’s not like by the end of the movie he’s leading a gay and lesbian parade.’ If we’d done that, it would have let people like this character off the hook. But at the end, he touches [Hanks’ character] — and that’s huge for him. [Pauses, then laughs] I used to mess with Tom. He was barely eating at all, and I would put, like, 200 Almond Joys in his drawer to give him a hard time. I’d pretend to sneeze and all these Snickers would fall on the ground. I’m sure he laughed all the way up to the podium when he won the Oscar.”
The Hurricane (1999)
Washington earned critical acclaim for his turn as real-life middle-weight boxer Rubin ”Hurricane” Carter, who, in 1967, was sentenced to three life prison terms for killing three people in a bar in New Jersey. Eighteen years later, Carter’s conviction was overturned and he was released. When Washington earned the movie’s only Oscar nod, some attributed the snub to controversy over the film’s alleged factual inaccuracies.
”I heard that. We’ll never know, will we? The film was touchy because people were murdered and a lot of people felt that Rubin did it. So you’re opening old wounds. Malcolm X was more dangerous, but Hurricane might have been more controversial.”
Training Day (2001)
Having played the noble hero countless times, Washington finally got a chance to take on the role of the villain in this harrowing cop thriller, which paired him with Ethan Hawke. For his chilling turn as a rogue narcotics officer, he was awarded the Best Actor Oscar.
”My son talked me into doing that movie. He was like, ‘Dad, you’ve never done anything like this.’ I just hadn’t been asked before. The only film that was sort of dark that I’d turned down was Seven. They offered me the Brad Pitt part, but I was like, ‘This is so dark and evil.’ Then when I saw the movie, I was like, ‘Oh, shoot.”’
The Book of Eli (2010)
With his role as a hardened loner traveling through a blighted landscape in the Hughes brothers’ new movie, Washington is still finding new terrain to explore as an actor. Filming on Eli (which also stars Gary Oldman and Mila Kunis) began in February of 2009.
”We shot in New Mexico, and the environment definitely helped. It was bleak. It got chilly and windy. The wind was the biggest deal. You’d have to wash the sand out of your nose and eyes. The world that the movie takes place in, the opportunity to do all this Blade kind of martial-arts stuff, working with the Hughes brothers — it was an interesting combination of things. [Pauses, looks back over all the photos, and smiles] I’ve been in some good ones, huh?”