This story first appeared in the Nov. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Way back in his early 30s, Denzel Washington decided to give up alcohol — intriguing, given that he plays a pilot whose alcoholism is connected to a heartstopping crash in his new movie, Flight.
“I made a commitment to completely cut out drinking and anything that might hamper me from getting my mind and body together,” he said at the time. “And the floodgates of goodness have opened upon me — spiritually and financially.”
There’s just one problem: Today, Washington questions whether he ever said that. (Indeed, it takes hours of wading through microfiche at the Los Angeles Public Library to track down the source, a November 1986 interview with Essence magazine.)
“I semi-quit,” he laughs, brushing it off as he rises from the couch where he’s been sitting this late-October afternoon, in a suite at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills. He crosses the room to pour a coffee, moving with the mixture of charm and danger that makes you unsure whether the real Washington is the man in Remember the Titans or Training Day, relaxed and untroubled by the issue, seemingly like everything else.
His response shows just how hard it is to fathom this superstar, even though he calls himself “a simple man.” Lob a question at him, and he’ll lob it right back. Ask whether anything scares him, and he turns the question on this reporter then cautions, “We attract what we fear.”
Try to probe too deep, and he deflects you like a skilled pugilist — unsurprising for a man who boxes almost daily. He’s as guarded about his politics as his private life, only saying that he’ll vote for the same man he supported in 2008. (Records show he donated $2,300 back then to the Obama campaign.) He also won’t say whether he favors gay marriage, which would seem to clash with his much-publicized religious views. “I have my own beliefs, and I keep them to myself,” is as far as he goes.
Both exceptionally intelligent and exceptionally elusive, he doesn’t hang out with Hollywood hotshots, seems barely familiar with the name of a leading executive and claims most of his friends in entertainment are ones this reporter “wouldn’t know.” Intimacy is reserved for a chosen few. Why, you never learn.
Asked whether he was close to the late director Tony Scott, who directed him in five movies from 1995’s Crimson Tide to 2010’s Unstoppable and who committed suicide Aug. 19, he says, “We didn’t have a beer every other week.” Washington did not attend Scott’s funeral, which was a private affair involving only family and the closest of friends. He does say, though: “I was shocked by his death. I’m still shocked. If you had given me a list of 25 people, I don’t think I’d have picked him. You don’t know. You just don’t know. You don’t know what’s inside a man’s head.”
But his carefully cultivated veil of protection has served him well, allowing him to remain at the top of Hollywood longer than any of his contemporaries — and headed in the direction of one of his heroes, Clint Eastwood. Now 57, wearing casual black pants and a billowing shirt, he is handsome but no longer the chiseled Adonis who stole audiences’ hearts when he first came to fame in 1982 with NBC’s St. Elsewhere. Yet his charisma remains undimmed.
It has helped win him two Oscars — for 1989’s Glory and 2001’s Training Day — and made him rich; he earned $20 million for his February release Safe House. He remains unique among stars in his proven ability to open films, whether action or drama. Not even peers Tom Cruise and Will Smith have shown such range and consistency at the box office.
Some of his money has gone to aid the causes he believes in — including the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, on whose board he serves, after it supported the young Denzel during a troubled adolescence; and the Pentecostal West Angeles Church of God in Christ (located in south L.A. and also attended by prominent African Americans including Magic Johnson), to which he donated $2.5 million in 1995.
Although he doesn’t read much, he studies the Bible daily and says he has just been pondering Psalm 56, with its plea: “Be merciful unto me, O God: for man would swallow me up; the fighting daily oppresseth me.”
To escape, he heads out to sea. He doesn’t own a boat and prefers to rent but says the ocean gives him a sense of peace, quipping, “because it’s far from land.”
He likes a good game of chess — which fits this man who always seems two to three moves ahead of you — and also is an avid sports fan. (He was even asked to play basketball with President Obama, but “my knees are shot,” he notes.) His eldest son, John David, plays for the Sacramento Mountain Lions, a team in the United Football League.
Beside that, while he says “I don’t like to self-analyze,” he keeps a journal — “sometimes, not all the time” — but won’t reveal its contents. And he carefully follows the news, watching the evening broadcasts as well as CNN, perusing The New York Times daily (“That’s where most of my news comes from”) and even dipping into The New York Post, “if I really want to feel sleazy.”
His life follows an irregular schedule as he shuttles between a home off Los Angeles’ Mulholland Drive and his Upper West Side apartment in New York City. He tends to rise around 9, then heads to the gym, a regimen he follows more intensely when preparing for a movie (though he gained about 20 pounds for Flight). After that, “I come home, shower, get something to eat and make phone calls. If I’m working on a script, I’ll work on that.”
He recently wrapped Universal’s mob drama 2 Guns opposite Mark Wahlberg and in the spring starts shooting Sony’s The Equalizer, based on the classic TV series about a former covert CIA operative.
Keeping busy is important to him, and he’s aware of the dangers that loom for those who don’t. “L.A.’s a tricky town,” he reflects. “The more successful you are, in a way, you don’t have to do anything. Which I don’t think is healthy.”
Flight came to his attention through his late agent, Ed Limato, a man he calls “the closest thing to a father figure I had after my father passed.” (Limato’s death in 2010 was a blow to Washington, who remains with WME, where he is repped by Patrick Whitesell and Andrew Finkelstein.)
“The last two screenplays he brought me were Safe House and Flight,” recalls the actor. “He said, ‘Denzel, you’ve got one that’s very commercial and the other that’s very dramatic.’ I read them and agreed.”
Washington had his own scary experience on a plane during the late 1980s — though nowhere near as harrowing as this movie with its 20-minute crash. “I took a British Airways flight years ago; I was on my way to London,” he remembers. “We blew an engine. We were up over Seattle, and then we lost another one. They basically said 747s could fly with one engine — but they brought it back to LAX.”
With Flight, initially writer John Gatins (Coach Carter) wanted to direct. But when Washington heard that Robert Zemeckis — whose most recent liveaction film, 2000’s Cast Away, included arguably the most spectacular plane crash in motion picture history — wanted to do it, he was thrilled. “I’ll put it to you this way: When they said Bob Zemeckis … ” He starts to clap.
The two, who did not know each other well, met in New York and were joined by Washington’s youngest daughter, Olivia, now 21 (he and wife Pauletta have four children, ages 21 to 28). “We went out to eat,” says Washington. “It was small talk, get-to-know-you kind of stuff. We didn’t dig in till later. Then the process began. You want to know who the filmmaker is before you start because any director worth his salt is going to come in and change some stuff around.”
Zemeckis officially boarded the project in spring 2011 and made some changes to a screenplay that Washington says already was nearly in place, in contrast to Safe House, where he played a sociopathic CIA agent gone rogue: “With Safe House, we had more work to do to get that right. But Flight [which opens Nov. 2] was in better shape to begin with.”
Paramount gave the team a budget of about $30 million, though “we actually made it for $28 million; Zemeckis came in under budget,” says Washington. Both had to slash their salaries to get it made, but “if we are successful, you get the rewards,” meaning a hefty backend.
To prepare, Washington immersed himself in technical flight manuals and also spent about 20 to 30 hours using a Missile Defense Agency flight simulator in Atlanta, where the movie was shot in late 2011.
He was surprised that “you don’t steer going down the runway because the steering only controls the flaps and the wings. There’s foot pedals for right and left. You gotta balance them. The first couple of times, I got off into the ‘grass’ a little bit!”
One thing he never tried out was landing. “Our technical adviser said, ‘There’s no point in us practicing landings ’cause you crash the plane anyway.’ ”
Zemeckis says he was impressed by the actor’s “very, very detailed preparation — not just technically, but he even asked for his props weeks ahead of time so he could walk around with a cane and get a feel for it.” He says as an actor, Washington is “completely devoid of vanity. He brings a truth to his performance alongside real gravitas and realism.”
Curiously, this man known for his willingness to immerse himself in a role spent relatively little time talking to alcoholics. “I wasn’t playing an alcoholic,” he argues. “I’m playing a guy who drank. People call him an alcoholic; he’s in denial.”
But isn’t he still an alcoholic? Washington pauses. “That’s the title they give him,” he concedes.
Still, he learned from others’ experiences. “People volunteer stuff,” he continues. “You don’t realize how many people have had problems. Someone gives you their story, ‘My old man used to beat the hell out of us and drink all day.’ ”
He also turned to YouTube to observe how a drunk behaves: “You’ll see all kinds. One poor guy — I don’t know if he was on alcohol or a stronger drug — all he’s trying to do is put his slipper on for about five minutes. It taught me as much as I could have learned from anybody because when you watch someone in the middle of it, you are watching his behavior.” He leans forward and does a dead-on imitation of an inebriated man struggling to place his tumbler on a table.
Washington says he stopped drinking throughout the 45-day shoot, as he did on some other films including Malcolm X. “We’ve all tied one on,” he acknowledges. “But if I had been drinking while I was shooting, it’d be harder to stay disciplined, just to get up in the morning. You are a little more hung over, grouchier. I knew this was an excellent opportunity, and a really good story. So it was something I wanted to do right.”
He smiles slyly, with that ever-present concoction of danger and charm. “But I haven’t given it up forever.”
Born in 1954, the son of a Pentecostal minister and a beauty salon owner, Washington never even considered a career in acting during his youth. In fact, the only job he seriously contemplated was becoming a preacher. Hanging out with a tough crowd in Mount Vernon, N.Y., eight miles north of the Bronx, he struggled at school, especially after his parents split when he was 14.
He has said conflicting things about his father, Denzel Sr., and in a recent interview observed that his dad once proclaimed, “You’re just bad.” Today, he says: “He was a gentleman. A hardworking gentleman. He was at work all the time.” He adds of his parents, “I love them both.” His father died in 1991; his mother is now 88.
Lennis, Washington’s mother, clearly had a stronger influence. Not only did she have the strength to bring up Denzel, his younger brother David and older sister Lorice, she also put him into a private boarding school and got him involved with the Boys & Girls Clubs, two factors that changed his life.
It was his mother who indicated there might be something special about him when Washington says he saw an angel as a young child. “I was 5 or 6,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what to believe. My mother explained it to me. She said, ‘It’s your guardian angel.’ ”
Washington actually called his mother when he found himself in conflict with then-Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein over the deal for the actor’s 2002 directing debut, Antwone Fisher — an experience he admits was one of the few things that “petrified” him. “We just kept going back and forth, and I said, ‘Why don’t I have my mother call your mother and let them work it out?’ ” And they did.
Emerging from high school, Washington was accepted as a premed student at New York’s Fordham University. Despite switching majors to journalism and playing on the basketball team, he failed to excel and only managed a dismal 1.8 GPA. “I wasn’t very good at what I was studying, wasn’t that interested,” he explains. His professors suggested he take some time off.
While working in a barbershop and even as a garbage collector (“It’s real work; it paid well”), Washington had a second otherworldly experience when a regular at his mother’s salon told him his words would be heard all over the world — an unlikely prediction at this low point in his life.
“She was one of the oldest church members in the town,” he recalls. “And she just prophesied I would travel the world and speak to millions of people. That was March 28, 1975. And I started acting that fall. Not to say that acting is preaching, but I have traveled the world and spoken to millions.”
Washington returned to school at Fordham after a brief hiatus and soon discovered the thrill of acting when he appeared in a student production of Othello. It amazed him how the audience responded — something that has drawn him back to the stage again and again, as in 2005, when he played Brutus in a Broadway production of Julius Caesar, and in 2010, when he won a Tony for his co-starring role in August Wilson’s Fences. (He wants to return to the stage next year but hasn’t decided in what and says he longs to play some of the great Shakespeare parts, including King Lear.)
Leaving Fordham, he was granted a scholarship to San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater; soon, he had an agent and was working on television in small roles including the telepics Flesh and Blood, and Wilma, on which he met his wife, actress-singer Pauletta Pearson, in 1977.
By the early 1980s, he was starring as the affable Dr. Phillip Chandler on St. Elsewhere. With the Civil War drama Glory in 1989, he became a bona fide star.
“I’ve never known any actor whose ability to be present in a scene was so profound as to blur that line between seeming and being,” says Glory director Ed Zwick, who also helmed Washington in 1996’s Courage Under Fire and 1998’s The Siege. “Often I have become so engrossed in his performance I have forgotten to say, ‘Cut!’ ”
Washington has had an enviable track record, though he’s turned down some roles he now regrets, including Michael Clayton. He followed Glory with several films for Spike Lee, including 1992’s Malcolm X, and with such hits as Philadelphia (1993), Crimson Tide (1995), Remember the Titans (2000), American Gangster (2007) and Safe House.
His failures — including such pictures as Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), The Preacher’s Wife (1996) and Siege — never have been career-ending, and Washington’s sheer volume of work has allowed him to move on quickly.
On set, he can be distant or embracing. “It depends upon the role,” he says. “In Safe House, I played what I thought was a sociopath, and I wasn’t in a chitchatting mood unless I could manipulate you, unless I could win. That’s what a sociopath is. It just goes back to the way I’ve worked for a very long time: stay with what I am doing. Nobody goes, ‘Man, he sucked in that picture, but I bet he was nice to everybody!’ ”
Despite his commitment to the work, at one point in the early 2000s he thought of quitting. “I was bored,” he explains, calling it part of “a midlife crisis or whatever it was.” But his interest surged with his return to the stage and going behind the camera. So far, he has directed two films, Fisher and 2007’s The Great Debaters, and is contemplating a third but won’t divulge details. “Directing and then going back to the theater reawakened the muscles,” he says.
Success and failure seem of less importance than they once were. He has little left to prove to anyone — except himself. Deep down, one senses his desire to push himself to the limit, whatever the risk, whatever the cost.
As he warned an audience in a University of Pennsylvania commencement speech in 2011: “You will fail at some point in your life. Accept it. You will lose. You will embarrass yourself. You will suck at something. There is no doubt about it.” But, he noted: “If I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back. I want to fall forward.”