Denzel Washington (January, 2018)
We’re in a high-rise New York hotel room. Outside is bitter cold. Denzel Washington is wearing an exquisitely tailored black suit and neatly coiffed hair. Very much the opposite to how I’ve just seen him in his new film Roman Israel Esq. It’s about a lawyer who is weirdly brilliant and also just weird. It’s about being a truth teller and how his life becomes undone. For most of the film he wears an oversized burgundy suit that seems to belong to part of the last century and sports a mini fro.
He immediately takes issue. “Burgundy? You think that was a burgundy suit…?” The eyebrows raise. “I thought it was maroon. You don’t think there’s a difference between burgundy and maroon?” He’s straight off the top, on sparkling combative form and continues, “And what do you mean mini fro? That was a fro!”
I tell him of a chance encounter with the film’s hairstylist in the lobby who said ‘it was a collaborative idea. “Huh!” said Washington affronted. “It was my idea and my hair. Mini! That was seven months of hard work. It was the full fro. It was Billy Preston. I don’t want to talk to you now.” He theatrically folds his arms and leans back into the mock mid-century grey and teak couch.
“I did a lot of work. I should have kept it but they cut it off. Maybe it’s a black community thing. When my first son was born we cut the pieces of hair from his first year and you keep it. I guess it’s like keeping baby teeth.”
But this is adult Washington hair. He is 63 and coming into what he calls “the final quarter”. I’m not sure how his system of quarters works but turning 60 was a landmark for him. He wanted to concentrate on his physical and mental wellbeing, making sure he would explore more of the works of great American playwrights on stage and stay healthy enough for the physical demands. He doesn’t look like he’s nearing his final anything. He has a brooding and charismatic physical presence. He laughs a lot and when he laughs his eyes dart and his smile is very sparkly. He loves to chat. I’m not sure if he loves the process of the interview. Sometimes if he feels he’s being interrogated he just changes the subject completely.
We circle back to the topic of hair. Isn’t it a bit spooky to keep hair? “I didn’t but I should have.” In a way this wasn’t Washington’s hair, it was Roman’s. The flawed lawyer savant he plays in the eponymously titled Roman Israel Esq. it was a movie written for him by director Dan Gilroy who felt Washington was the only person who could play it. It’s a nuanced and powerful performance which earned him a Golden Globe nomination. Gilroy was inspired by Washington’s 2012 Award winning performance in Flight. Gilroy was excited to see Washington do vulnerable. The scene that got him was the one at the end where the pilot with a sense of entitlement was brought down and admitted to being an alcoholic.
That kind of vulnerability sustains Washington’s portrayal of Israel throughout the film. He’s generous on the brink of crazy. Smart on the brink of broken. Compulsive about peanut butter sandwiches eaten over the sink and the contents of his old fashioned big iPod. Somehow, he makes you root for him in the way that only Washington can do. This character is peculiar yet he is so human.
Washington is never one for analysing or at least not in public. He doesn’t so much want to sit down and talk as sit down and play. And remind me of past interviews that I’ve done with him, particularly ones that did not go so well. He looks at me with a ‘Come on what have you got for me?’ expression. He often repeats a question as if he’s been asked it for the very first time but I’m sure there’s not a question he hasn’t been asked. Still we try.
His football team is The Cowboys who were in the news recently for kneeling for the flag as a protest. Owner of The Cowboys threatened to send the kneelers home. What does he think?
He shrugs? “You gotta pay the cost to be the boss. You can take a knee but don’t complain if you go home, you know? It’s a free country. You have the right to protest. Are they being benched? I don’t think so. You can’t bench a whole team.”
Washington dances around the political issue. He’s very wary of being a spokesperson for black issues. He just won’t go there. He’ll try and change the subject but at a talk he gave at the national theatre last year he said, “look black people don’t be talking about what the white man won’t give you. I got roles.”
Washington has been married to Pauletta for 35 years – before his film career began. In public they show the kind of solidarity that comes with being together for such a long time. They have two sons and two daughters, all college graduates. His oldest daughter was a producer in the Oscar nominated Fences in which he both starred and directed. His oldest son played in the National Football league but now has a TV career. His youngest son graduated from the American Film Institute in directing and worked with Spike Lee and his youngest daughter has made her way in both film and stage.
What advice did he give to his youngest daughter Olivia about her acting? “I actually said be the best, learn to act on stage not film. Don’t compromise, don’t be intimidated. It’s going well for her. She’s just finished the Taming of the Shrew with the Chicago Shakespeare Company. She is a working actress,” he says proudly.
As the father of a 26-year-old daughter does he worry about the entertainment industry? Does he worry about the recent revelations where the powerful have abused the vulnerable? He’s nodding sagely. Does he think that the #metoo backlash will have a significant effect on the way the industry works?
“I’m sure it already has. I’m sure there are those who thought they could get away with anything and they don’t feel that now. I mean I hope they don’t. I think it will change the industry for good. Hmm Harvey,” he reminisces. “It’s about 10 years. I haven’t talked to Harvey in about 10 years.” And with that Weinstein is dismissed.
Washington is next up in a play on Broadway – The Eugene O’Neill heartbreaker The Iceman Cometh. A play for which the now disgraced Kevin Spacey received plaudits. How does he feel about stepping into Spacey’s shoes? “Whoah,” says Washington. “I’m not!” his eyes ignite with ferocity.
But he’s playing the same character. “And?” he laughs. “I’ve played Othello and you don’t think about the other actors who have played Othello. There have been many Othello’s.”
Some people have made or at least remade their career on playing that role. I was thinking Lenny Henry. “Yes I heard about that man. In fact I heard about him doing Fences. I’m glad to hear that Othello reinvented him because he was a comedian. I met him in the eighties at one of those Nelson Mandela concerts. Lenny Henry and Ben Elton were the MC’s. it was a big concert to raise money for Mandela’s children’s fund.”
Just this morning I saw Washington on the news talking about parts that he didn’t get. He almost didn’t get Cry Freedom. Attenborough said ‘If I don’t find an African you’ll do.’ “I don’t remember it like that. It was more like a meeting but I came in prepared to audition and it was a good meeting.”
So Washington’s come a long way from maybe you’ll do to having a movie written for him. “That’s what I’m hearing now. I’m glad I didn’t know that ahead of time.” Why? Because he would have felt too responsible? Too burdened?
“I don’t know.” (Director) Gilroy had said if Washington wouldn’t do it he would have shelved the project. “Yeah I’ve heard that.”
Washington does this often, distances himself from compliments, distances himself from responsibility – he knows deep down it really is all about him. It’s just that he doesn’t want to know.
I tell him that I was at a Bafta Q&A where Gilroy said he had an epiphany moment while watching Washington’s performance in Flight the way he balanced power and vulnerability and that’s when he wanted to play someone who was flawed.
Washington of course doesn’t know how to take this compliment but simply says “Oh really, that’s excellent. Would you like a gummy bear?” He offers me one from a jar on the coffee table separating us. He sees me poke around and asks me, “Does colour matter to you? You see I’ve been stealing all the red ones.” He arranges the pot of gummy bears out on the table so we can see the colours. “What’s your second pick if you don’t get a red one?” Orange. “Yes!” he says excitedly. “Orange is the obvious second choice, but sometimes I like to go for the yellow one. It’s kind of neutral. But look at this! A pink one.” I take the pink one. “Roman would know exactly how many were in there, the calorific intake of each one and what was the law behind the company that made them. Roman was trouble, poor guy. Just trouble.”
I would have said he was more troubled than trouble. “Mmm…” Washington savours the thought. Gilroy said Washington came up with the idea of making him obsessed with peanut butter sandwiches.
“Dan started adding jars of peanut butter everywhere. I came in one day and there were 20 jars in my kitchen so the idea must have been collaborative.”
So much peanut butter though. Can he ever eat it again? “I didn’t actually eat much of it. I like peanut butter though but peanut butter and honey. Do you know the actor Delroy Lindo? He and I went to theatre school together – The American Conservatory. We didn’t have much money. We had bread, half a gallon of milk, peanut butter and a jar of honey and that’s what we would live off for a week.”
Didn’t he get bored with it? “That suggests I had options. I was more bored of starving. Washington grew up in Mount Vernon, a suburb of New York. His mother was as hairdresser, his father an ordained preacher. His mother saw that he fell in with a bad crowd at school and sent him to a strict military school. He doesn’t see much of his three best friends from school anymore. At least a couple of them have ended up as bad boys. “We used to ride the trains together, jump the turnstiles, go into town and hang out. When I did Julius Caesar on Broadway one showed up at the play. He’d been in the penal system for 28 years. Another one died, the third one is a chef doing OK and I am the fourth one.” Quite a difference between four friends. Washington has a primary school in New York named after him. 10 years ago, the Columbian Gorillas insisted they were only prepared to release three hostages if Washington was the negotiator. Washington is of course more than an actor and a director and sometimes he speaks like he too has been ordained. And the rest of the time he jokes around.
Three years ago he gave up alcohol on his 60th birthday. “I just had enough. Some things you can have enough of. Not peanut butter yet but all alcohol. I gave it up on my birthday 3 years ago December 28th with the idea of putting my best foot forward I tried everything else, let’s try this.”
He wanted to make his final quarter a healthier one? “Yes, yes. That too,” he says, now studying the gummy bears that remain – mostly green and a weird white one.
Alcohol stopped giving him pleasure. He still likes boxing. He first discovered it when he played boxer Ruben “The Hurricane” Carter in the movie Hurricane. And has made it part of his regime. He looks powerful of course – tall, strong, but at the same time there’s something very soft and endearing. He’s a music fanatic too and was advisor on the movie’s soundtrack which is a mixture of 70’s classics and cool jazz.
“My character is constantly listening to music so I just liked to use different songs so that we could build a library of what my character would listen to. We had 28,000 songs.” Does he have a vintage large iPod in real life? “I have all of the iPods pretty much.”
So just as you’ve got Washington down as this one-time bad boy who now likes to look after himself, the survivor of the friends, the one who remained the ultimate cool dude, he reminds you of a religious experience he had. I’d never thought of Washington following his father’s footsteps. I’d always had him down as more of a rebel but he is in fact there is a religious side to him and at one point he says the Holy Ghost came inside of him.
“Yes,” he says matter of factly. I ask him why is he making this sound as if it’s normal. “Well, you know, I was in church and in church at the end of the service they ask if you want to go into the prayer room and they talk about speaking in tongues and then – other than the overwhelming power of the experience what I remember is letting go. Not having any doubt. Not being cynical, just thinking OK let’s go for it and see what happens so yes I spoke in tongues.”
What exactly does this mean? He spoke in different language? “Yeah a foreign tongue and I remember calling my mother afterwards. I remember sweating and getting really emotional and I remember calling my ma and saying this is what happened and she said ‘oh yes that’s right.’ And I said my cheeks filled up and she said ‘that was a purge. Purging the bad spirits coming out of you.’ She was very, not matter of fact because this was serious but she was giving the explanations to the things I had experienced very calmly. Things I didn’t understand and she explained to me so succinctly and that seemed to be proof it was something she had seen and experienced before. She could describe it without having seen it. I think we get far away from what’s natural when some things hit us. We think they are actually supernatural but you have to allow it, be open. It’s not like I’m the expert on it cos there’s lots of things I don’t know.”
Does he think he was ready for it? “It was ready for me. It was actually a bit overwhelming. I was like wait a minute. I’m not ready for this whole commitment.” When did this happen? Was it in the 80’s? “Actually I’m not sure. I just remember thinking does this mean I can’t go to the club? Does this mean I can’t have wine and the answer was no. I had lots of wine through most of the 80’s as I recall.”
Did it change him in any way? “It gave me concrete proof that the Holy Spirit exists and that it’s real. No question about it. I’ve gone back there and I wonder did they let some mist off in the room that gave you a funny feeling? I don’t know. I remember some people in the room not going through the experience I had but it was real for me.”
His mother had an experience in her hairdressers where one of her clients wrote in automatic writing about Washington’s future. He corrects, “Well I don’t know if it was automatic writing but she had a prophecy which was that I would preach. She said I would preach to millions of people.” Well he does, kind of. “Kind of, yes.”
His phone rings and he jokes, “ah that’ll probably be my mom now…the prophecy also said that I would travel the world and that through my work I would speak to millions of people. At this time in my life I’m now unafraid to talk about it. She said that I would have millions of followers. Maybe she meant thousands and then added too many zeros. Maybe she said I was actually going to preach to ten people ha ha ha. I try not to use the word preaching. It sounds like I know more than you. I’m just sharing my experience.”
Preacher or not, he is a kind of mentor to Ashton Sanders who was in Moonlight. He’s working with him now in The Equaliser. “I don’t know if I’d use that word but I like him and he’s very talented. He’s a good kid and I’ve been where he’s going. He’s talking about how things are changing for him. You know how his friends are changing. I’ve been down that road.”
Does he mean that he has to readjust his circle of friends and get rid of the users? “No, not anything like that.” It’s just who does he talk to? Who has walked the walk he’s walking? “Of course I don’t tell him what to do but I can share.”
We have spoken before that he might have walked a different walk had his mother not taken him out of school that time. “Yes, that’s true. Two of those friends did jail time and the other one lost his teeth. That was a few years ago now. I got him some good teeth but I haven’t seen him recently. I have one or two old friends from my twenties not that far back. When I moved to LA I stayed friends with all the people I came up with in the 80’s.”
Are they actors? “No.” I read somewhere that said Washington is not friendly with any white actors. He looks at me with an ‘as if’. “That’s not what I said and I don’t even remember what I was asked. I might have said I wouldn’t surround myself with just acting friends and he twisted it.”
People are saying that last year was the Black Oscars because the year before it was all super white. “What do you mean the Black Oscars? What people say this? Who are these people?” I suppose media people say that there were more black nomination in 2017 to counteract the year before when there were none. He looks at me as if I’ m mad, shrugs and says, “we’ll see what happens… None of it’s up to me. I’ve done my job.”
Does he care about awards? “Of course people care about them. First of all, it’s an opportunity for the industry to celebrate those who have achieved. I don’t know if it’s a measuring stick… I remember they all used to go to Swifty Lazar’s party at Spago’s after the awards. There used to be a parking lot and you could drive up and look down over Spago’s and I remember seeing people going in – Warren Beatty and people like that and I said to myself someday I’m going to get in there. It wasn’t so much about getting the award, it was like I wasn’t invited to the party and I needed to be.” He laughs. “One day I’ll be able to get in there I said.”
Now they don’t have parties at Spago’s. That particular Spago’s doesn’t even exist anymore but I think we can say if it did he would definitely be at the party. Does he think when he looked down he manifested his award-winning future? “No I think I was already headed that way.” Was he always driven? “Yes, driven but you know you can get bored and sometimes you have to reboot or refresh. Like going back to theatre woke me up. When I went back to Broadway I was like oh I remember now.”
He rebooted his Broadway career with Julius Caesar in 2005 and then there was Fences and A Raisin in the Sun. I saw him in a packed out short run of the latter with my mother. I think we paid $700 per ticket.
I wonder if he loved Obama as much as I did. Does he think that the US will ever recover from the loss? He looks puzzled. “What do you mean recover?”
Obama was a good guy in charge. A good President and a good man and now we have the opposite. “Well it’s early days yet…” Really? At this point the Fire and the Fury had not been released but Trump had pulled a few corkers like the flight ban from certain countries and not quite being able to explain his relationship with Russia and his potty mouth on Twitter.
“It’s not like Barack and I are old pals you know. I think he watched someone and was inspired by someone and someone will be inspired by him.”
Does he really think that the current regime is inspiring? “Is it not?” he says ambiguously. OK, politics is not an inspiring conversation point for Washington. Although he’s sat in front of me, in his head he’s already left the room. Although he looked pretty mesmerised while watching Oprah’s Golden Globes speech. Ostensibly it was her acceptance speech for her Cecille B De Mille award but many are viewing its galvanising passion as a bid to run for the presidency in 2020. In response to the #metoo audience all wearing black she spoke about how speaking your truth is the most powerful thing to do and warned the abusers, “Time is up.” But then he comes back to explain his position on the black president followed by the orange one.
“There’s a pastor talked about this. I think his name is A R Barnard and I think it’s Daniel Chapter 10. He says that God puts Kings in a place for a season and reason and we don’t always know the reason so this is what it is right now. There’s a reason behind it and I say to people if nothing else we should be more unified. All the more reason to work together.” He beams, rather godlike and then laughs. And it’s one final gummy bear before he goes.