Denzel Washington (The London Sunday Times Magazine, August 12, 2018)
I order a Lyft car to go to the screening of Denzel Washington’s The Equaliser 2 in Century City Los Angeles. Traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard is murderous and I’m agitated.
“Perhaps you can get to a later show,” says Grace the Lyft driver. No, I say puffing up. It’s a special screening because I’m interviewing Denzel Washington tomorrow. “Oh,” she says. “You’ll like him. His son and my son used to play basketball together. They’re friends. Denzel is a good man, family man. Gave lots of money to the school.”
I decide to run in heels the rest of the way to make the screening and in the opening sequence I learn that Denzel’s character Robert McCall is an undercover Lyft driver. He’s also an avenging angel who rights wrongs violently and proficiently before anyone even asks. He is a dark force for good and he does a lot of his research while driving his Lyft. That’ll teach me to dismiss Grace.
The Equaliser 2 is the first sequel of Washington’s career which has spanned 2 Oscars, 3 Globes and 1 Tony. Although the next day when we meet he’ll shrug and say, ‘Well, nobody ever asked me to do anything twice,” I think it’s because he doesn’t want to admit he’s close to this character and that’s why he was able to so effortlessly revive it.
Also, there’s something perfect for the times that a powerful dark angel exists, a guy who can correct everything that goes wrong with brutality yes because you feel those wrongs. You root for him. It’s cathartic to watch. The fight scenes are powerful, fast, shocking. Washington himself has spent years in boxing training ever since he played Rubin Carter in the 1999 film The Hurricane.
I’m in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel. I hear him before he comes into the room. He’s got a great laugh – large, infectious and loud. And an even larger presence. He’s 6 foot 1 but seems taller in a black suit and black tee.
Washington likes to banter, to distract. He asks questions about the wallpaper with the utmost curiosity. He doesn’t enjoy questions about himself which is odd for an actor, although there’s nothing about him that’s “Hollywood”.
He grew up in Mount Vernon, New York. An odd buffer between the city and the rich Connecticut suburbs. It was mostly middle class. His father was a preacher who worked for the local water company by day and his mother owned beauty salons. They divorced when he was 14. His mother ruled him with tough love and tried to protect him from the bad boys.
He went to college to study medicine, changed to political science, also considered law and journalism and ended up in a job where he could investigate all of these professions. He started off in the theatre honing his craft and, in many ways, feels that’s where he most belongs. He has revived A Raisin In The Sun and The Iceman Cometh on Broadway as well as Julius Caesar. He’ll stare at you but if you stare back he’ll look away.
We’ve met a few times before and he wants to know what city is my home. I ask is LA anyone’s home? He muses, “I used to tell people who would say oh you live in Hollywood. There’s no place called Hollywood. Hollywood Boulevard has some little stars that people walk by and look at.”
Does he have a star? “Do I?” he tries to recall. “No, I don’t, but I have hand and footprints. “Why don’t I have a star?” he wonders.
I tell him that I loved The Equaliser 2 which I did. “Oh good,” he says, suddenly staring at the large TV screen that’s in the room. He absolutely cannot take compliments and when I call him out on that he says, “Do I look like I didn’t believe you?” No, you look like you can never take a compliment. He concedes, “No, I’m not good. But enough about me.”
We laugh but that’s really as he prefers it. An interview that’s not about him. Then he comes back to my Lyft driver and works out that it is his younger son Malcolm, 27 who’s twins with actress daughter Olivia, who played basketball a decade ago, although he won’t admit what he donated to the school or what basketball team he gave money to as Grace said he wouldn’t.
He’s been married to Pauletta for 35 years by film industry standards, even if there was a lot of partying that’s rock solid. His older son John David, 33 started as a football player but got his big time break in HBO’s Ballers and is upcoming in Spike Lee’s movieBlacKkKlansman. His eldest daughter Katia 30 is a producer. She worked on her father’s movie Fences and Django Unchained. In all they’re a super successful family, revered by people like my Lyft driver for their unity and kindness but I were ever dare to say he’s a role model he would hate it more than he would hate being given a compliment. Partly because being a role model is a compliment, partly because although he’s very aware of the platform he has as a famous actor and a famous black actor, he never takes advantage of it. That’s just him.
He started off his career where people thought he was a goody two shoes having total swallowed his bad boy past. That’s why I think he’s especially linked to this avenging angel character, McCall.
“No,” he dismisses. “You just want to make something good that people will enjoy. We had great success the first time around and when people say hey let’s do this again, why not?”
Equaliser 2 is better than Equaliser 1 I tell him. “I’ve been hearing that but why? Is it because now you know the guy or is it because it’s more personal?” All of that and it’s actually more emotional. You invest in his relationship with his best friend – Susan played by Melissa Leo and you invest in the father/son quality of the relationship he has with Ashton Sanders’ character.
Sanders shone in the Oscar winning Moonlight. He’s the kind of actor whose silence fills the screen with something deep.
In this movie Sanders is a teenager on the brink. He can go to art school or he can join a gang. In real life Sanders is an artist as well as an actor.
“Some of the drawings may have been his. He’s very talented and he’s in a unique place with all the success he’s had right off the blocks. He’s a good dude. I wish him well. He’s got his head screwed on right.”
When I last met Washington, almost a year ago, he was very solid with Sanders and industry people told me he was mentoring him. Washington didn’t like that word but clearly he identified with him.
“I’ve been where he’s going. He asks me questions because things are changing for him. His friends are changing. I have been down that road.”
I wonder if Washington saw in Sanders his own youth? He and his three best friends were all in a band. The others did not fare well. One died through drug related AIDS and at least two of the others spent many years in jail. One of them at least I know Washington helped out by buying him new teeth and there’s always the thought it could have been him had his mother not tough loved him right out of that bad boy set.
Was that the bond? “It was a natural thing. We were spending all this time together and between takes we were talking.”
On screen they looked as if they were extremely close but they’re actors. “I think you can tell when it’s not genuine. At least I can.”
In the movie Sanders character is poised to join the gang with the bad boys and Washington’s character saves him from that. Art reflecting life. It is remarkable of four friends, three are in jail or dead and the other is a full on movie star, reportedly worth $220 million. That’s why the scenes with Sanders are so impactful. How things could have gone.
“It just shows you, in my case growing up I had someone who really cared about me and was willing to make sacrifices to see me succeed and my character takes on that role. In my case it was my own mother but he didn’t have that. He had no example of what it was to be a man.”
And he thought it was all about being a gangster. Washington nods slowly. This is sensitive, empathic Washington. You don’t see him for long and he refers it back to the movie.
“There’s this shot when I look down on him and the guys come and pick him up. That’s how it happens. You know, a kid is isolated alone and trying to fit in and here come the guys. ‘Come with us where the fun is’.”
Washington has always found the fun in being serious or in straight up laughing at me. Laughing at my rambling questions, laughing at my attempts of accents but it’s not a cruel laugh, more playful and curious.
In The Equaliser Robert McCall likes to read books. Washington replaced what was in the script with a book called Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
It’s a book written to the author’s teenage son about the feelings, symbolism and realities about growing up black in America. It discusses the racist violence that has been embedded into the American culture and this is the book that Washington chooses to give Sanders character. It’s not obvious. It never is. But this is as close as Washington gets to using his powerful platform as an African American.
Washington likes detail. He’s not a natural preacher like his father although he could be a wonderful preacher. He is partial to an intriguing Bible quote and he himself once went to church with his mother and had the experience of speaking in tongues.
He says he met author Ta-Nehisi Coates randomly and then became intrigued. “I thought, that’s what our story is about – coming of age. My character in the movie reads books anyway so I thought this is a good book to give the kid.”
Because it’s about growing up as an African American? It’s about being black?
“Was there a question in there?” Well I’m just checking in which way the book relates as I haven’t actually read it. “Oh…ok,” says Washington, still not really wanting to go there. It’s not an ugly pause or a silent one. He doesn’t knock any questions back without laughing. In fact, he chortles quite a lot.
He recently did a very funny interview on the Jimmy Kimmel show talking about how he saved the Oscars in 2016. The Oscars he saved were the notorious wrong envelope Oscars where Kimmel was hosting and was mystified when Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty read out La La Land for Best Picture and there seemed to be something wrong. Washington looked at Kimmel and gestured to him to get Barry Jenkins the director of Moonlight.
“I saved the Oscars. I didn’t win one. I must have been up for one because I was right down at the front.” He was absolutely up for Best Actor and Best Picture for Fences. He directed Fences adapted from the stage by August Wilson.
His first Oscar nomination came for freedom fighter Steve Bilko in Cry Freedom (1988) and then for political martyr Malcolm X in 1993. His first win was for Training Day in 2002 although I think he should have won in 2000 for The Hurricane and 2013 for Flight.
These days he likes to mix up his film work with some directing and the stage where he started off has become increasingly important to him. He’s just finished a couple of month’s run of The Iceman Cometh on Broadway.
He likes to add personal details to scripts such as in this year’s Roman Israel he added the concept of his characters love of peanut butter. In The Equaliser he walks into a room and knows who’s there because of the smell. Asparagus tips and soy sauce and a specific ladies perfume. That was not in the script. It was from Washington because that’s what he does. Smells out the room before seeing it.
“You don’t mean me personally? You mean the character.” I meant both.
Today I looked up the definition of Denzel. “It means a fortress, right?” No actually. It’s a small town in Cornwall, England.
“Really?” he says, disappointed. He was much happier with being a fortress. “I feel like now I’m a little hut on the side of the road and in my mind, I was a fortress.”
Antoine Fuqua the director said that Washington and his Robert McCall character were alike because they like to do good and they didn’t want to be seen doing good. Is that so? Another quizzical look.
Fuqua directed him in Training Day, Magnificent Seven and both Equalisers. Fuqua went on to say, “Denzel wouldn’t want me to talk about it, because he doesn’t want to take credit for it, but he does a lot for people. He taught me something he learned from Nelson Mandela: a shepherd leads from behind – not from the front. He takes that idea and quietly helps people along the way. I think that was important to him to express in Robert McCall.”
Washington corrects. “A leader like a shepherd, sends the fast, nimble sheep out in front so that the rest will follow, not realising they are all being led from behind. A good shepherd doesn’t lead from the front. That’s from Nelson Mandela but I don’t know where he got it from.”
We discuss Mandela’s possible career as a shepherd and the qualities of his leadership and Washington is quick to correct, “But I don’t want to assume I’m a leader.”
I always assume he’s a leader. “Thank you. But a leader of what?” Of course, there are so many ways in which he could be a leader but he doesn’t want to assume any of them.
Instead he tells a Biblical story about pigs being led off the edge of a cliff. “You’ve got to watch who you’re following.”
He took a decision on his 60th birthday (he’s now 63) to give up alcohol for what he calls his fourth quarter. “Moderation is the key. If you drink too much water you’ll drown. I’m not drinking alcohol.”
Has it changed his perspective? “On life? I hope so. I’ll put it this way. When you’re toasted you need a day to recover. You get a hangover. So that’s two days out of your life. I don’t have time to waste. Let’s say there’s 365 days in a year so in 10 years that’s 3650, so how many days do you want to waste?”
Does he still have dream roles? Something he would look forward to or any projects he wants to direct?
“I want to get back to doing some Shakespeare off the top of my head and plays by great writers. Be able to interpret August Wilson, Eugene O’Neill and William Shakespeare. That’s what I’ve been doing the last few years – acting in movies, acting in the theatre, directing movies so those three. That’s plenty.
On most days he boxes. You can tell because of the way he spars onscreen. Very nimble. Listening to music is also a big part of his day.
“When I was on Broadway I’d stay up half the night because I didn’t get home till 11.30 and I wouldn’t sleep till 3 or 4. My character doesn’t go on for the first 50 minutes so as soon as the play would start I would turn off the sound and start playing music.”
If his Equaliser character had a theme tune what would it be? “He’d stay away from certain music because it would bring him too many memories. He doesn’t want to open up to those emotional things.”
And just in case I was going to ask what Washington’s theme tune would be, he pre-empts me with, “Isn’t this a big TV? My TV at home is smaller than this TV but my room is bigger.”
I don’t have a TV. I watch everything on my MacBook. “Really?” he says incredulous. Yeah, because if a TV dominates the room it’s too distracting. “That’s a good point. You go to dinner and look what happens. Everyone’s sitting around a table like this.” He mimes texting.
Is that because you know the people you’re having dinner with so well you feel comfortable with them or you’re trying to avoid them? He laughs. “You’re speaking from experience and you’ve been on both sides,” he says knowingly and then checks his pockets.
“I don’t even know where my phone IS!”
On a recent red carpet, he said of fake news, “If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper you are misinformed. That quote is a hundred years old. Interesting, isn’t it? There’s fake news about me every week. I’ve died or something. Fake news doesn’t even have to be first anymore. It’s just got to be sensational.”
No wonder he’s wary of a newspaper interview.
Does he think that the film industry has changed in the post Weinstein era? “I hope so. I think there are just more rules in place. Time will tell on this one but it’s good right now.”
His daughter Olivia is an actress just starting out, honing her craft. Does he feel that she is safeguarded as a young woman in the industry?
“Yes, plus I will break somebody’s back if they mess around with my daughter. Let that be the message to put out there. Their back will be broken.”
And all this from the man who says he is not an avenging angel.