Wearing a faded baseball cap and scuffed sneakers, Denzel Washington fits right in with the crowd of wannabe Michael Jordans milling around the hard asphalt at the Venice Beach basketball courts. In fact, he's such a regular guy--or at least acts like such a regular guy--that he goes unnoticed as he stands at the edge of the courts, his watchful eyes hidden behind a pair of sunglasses.
"I used to love to play," he says, watching a bare-chested young hotshot strut downcourt after his 20-foot jumper swishes through the net. "But my knees." He winces. "It was so easy to run up and down, all day long. But no more. My playground days are long gone."
As an actor, Washington has always made it look easy, displaying the same effortless grace as his childhood hero, Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers, who could glide past tacklers like a man dodging puddles in a rainstorm. At 41, Washington is a Hollywood prince, the industry's only A-list African American movie star. Nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for "Cry Freedom," winner of one for "Glory" and nominated for a best actor Oscar for "Malcolm X," he has shared the screen with the top actors of his era, from Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia" and Julia Roberts in "The Pelican Brief" to Gene Hackman in "Crimson Tide," while using his star clout to get financing for movies such as "Devil in a Blue Dress" and Spike Lee's "Malcolm X."
Sitting for an interview just an hour after his first viewing of his new film, "Courage Under Fire," Washington is friendly but guarded, hiding his feelings much as his baggy Speedo sweatsuit conceals his sinewy 6-foot frame. His admirers tell you to watch his most expressive feature--his eyes. But even when he tucks away his sunglasses, letting you see his soft, chocolate-hued eyes, he is not an easy man to read. As with many of the characters he plays on screen, his relaxed demeanor masks a complex jumble of emotions.
Whether the topic is racism in Hollywood or his reluctance to play love scenes on screen, Washington doesn't so much dodge a question as wrestle with it--he won't be pinned down to a glib, predictable answer. It's a quality you see in his acting--he's elusive.
"The most interesting thing about Denzel is that you see his work more clearly when it's been edited than when the film is being shot," says producer Sam Goldwyn Jr., who has made three films with Washington, including "The Preacher's Wife," due out this Christmas from Touchstone Pictures. "You're not sure what you're getting when you're shooting the film, but when you go into the editing room, this miraculous transformation has occurred--the whole performance is there. He was acting all the time. You just didn't notice it."
Washington hates this image he has as a "private" guy. "Where does that come from?" he wonders, nibbling on some pasta at a Venice eatery one afternoon. "I read that in so many stories. I'm this deep, dark, private guy. Is it just one story and then everyone picks up on it and uses it?"
He pokes a fork into his pasta. "I'm just a regular guy. I don't take myself seriously. I take my work seriously. But there's always this other stuff that gets mixed up with it."
It's hard to get away from that other stuff. To be a black celebrity in a white world is to live a life beset by contradiction. Washington lives in a house once owned by William Holden and has dinner with Michael Jordan after Bulls playoff games, and when he and his wife, Pauletta, visited South Africa last year, they renewed their marriage vows in a ceremony conducted by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
But when he's in New York City, heading uptown, he can't always get a taxi to stop for him. He commands $10 million a movie yet maintains that Hollywood is pockmarked by racism, just like the rest of America. When he met Quentin Tarantino on the set of "Crimson Tide," he gave the young director a verbal spanking for his repeated use of the N-word in "Pulp Fiction."
Black celebrities are often held to a higher standard--anyone who is not a crusader must be a sellout. Washington quietly gave $2.5 million to his church in Los Angeles, but when he went back to his old playground in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., he was barraged with job requests and complaints that he was not doing enough for his community. He has the power to insist that his films hire a sizable percentage of black crew members, yet when it came time to choose a director for "The Preacher's Wife," a black-cast remake of a Cary Grant comedy called "The Bishop's Wife," he picked Penny Marshall.
"It wasn't that I didn't think of a black person," he responds, his eyes glinting with a hint of annoyance. "I just saw Penny as the right person for the movie. On 'Devil in a Blue Dress,' I knew it had to be a black filmmaker--that's why we went with Carl Franklin. Carl knew things about the neighborhood that you wouldn't understand, just as Martin Scorsese knows his world better than anyone else."
Washington says he fully supported the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Academy Awards protest. Even if the timing "could've been better," it was important to open a debate on the issue. But he realizes that race is just one factor in studio decision making. In fact, when asked about the budget dispute that sank a film biography he and Spike Lee had planned to make about Jackie Robinson this year, Washington acknowledges that he had not wanted to play the role anyway.
"I couldn't get behind it," he says of the story about Robinson, who broke baseball's color line in 1947. "It was a good script, but I'd already been down that road with Malcolm X and I just couldn't see myself as Jackie Robinson."
He smiles. "Plus, I'm too old to slide."
Washington leaves the subject with a laugh line. But later he returns to the topic, revealing a far more intriguing reason for abandoning the project. Having seen young audiences ignore his critically lauded 1940s-era detective film "Devil in a Blue Dress," he is persuaded that young black moviegoers don't identify with black heroes of the pre-civil-rights era who were forced to turn the other cheek when faced with racist taunts and slurs.
"You can't change the story--it's part of history," he says. "But I think young people, especially young African Americans, just wouldn't go see Jackie take the beating he had to take without seeing him fight back. To them, it's a so-what thing. Yeah, they called him a nigger. We know that already. Why should I spend my $7.50 to see that?"
For Washington, ignoring race would be like ignoring the existence of gravity. "It's a racist society," he says. "Everything in this country is about color, from the Los Angeles Times to Sony Studios to General Electric to the 30-some-odd black churches that have been burned down in the past 18 months.
"And if it's not a level playing field in America, it's certainly not in Hollywood. I'm in an all-white world in both places."
But in personal terms, has being black hurt Washington's career? He flashes a 1,000-watt smile and says, "Does it look like it?"
Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his role as an AIDS-stricken lawyer in "Philadelphia," but when he reminisces about working with Washington, he makes it clear he thinks his co-star matched him step for step.
"It was incredibly invigorating," Hanks recalls. "It was the first time I'd worked with a guy from my generation who had this great body of work behind him. Denzel would throw something with some spin at me, and I'd put a little spin on it and throw it back. It was like Denzel was testing the parameters of the scene and it was my job to keep up with him."
If a script is fuzzy about plot or character development, expect Washington to notice it.
"He's a very cerebral, analytical actor," says Kelly Lynch, who co-starred with him last year in "Virtuosity." "At our first rehearsal he came in with about 50,000 questions. He would want to know--why do I walk through this door? Why am I saying something this way? He always wanted to understand the behavior of his character."
Edward Zwick, who directed Washington in "Courage Under Fire" as well as in the earlier "Glory," describes him as an actor who trusts his instincts. At the end of "Courage," there is an emotional scene in which Washington's character, a beleaguered Army colonel named Nathaniel Serling, returns to his wife and family after a long absence. Bags under his arm, he walks up to the front door, past a toddler's bicycle parked by the front steps. Before shooting the scene, Zwick slid the bike to the ground to give the sequence a homier feel.
When the camera rolled, Washington strode up to the steps, then reached out and righted the bicycle before going inside. "We'd never spoken about it," Zwick recalls. "But it was the perfect, unspoken gesture, to say that his character has returned home and is ready to resume the responsibilities of being a father."
People who have worked with Washington say he is two people on a film: intensely focused when at work, easygoing and playful when off duty. (On "Preacher's Wife," he teased Whitney Houston so much she called him "goof-daddy.") But when he's playing a scene, co-workers give him a wide berth.
"You always roll your eyes when you hear about actors not wanting people in their eye lines when they're doing a scene," says David Friendly, who produced "Courage" with John Davis and Joseph Singer. "But when you watch Denzel, you know you don't want to be in his eye line. His concentration level is incredible."
What makes Washington's performances so striking is that he does so much with so little. He's like a jazz musician--what he doesn't play is just as important as what he does.
"I remember early on one of my acting coaches telling us that if you had two guys threatening you, who are you going to really worry about--the guy shouting and cursing in your face or the quiet guy, who just looks you right in the eye?" Washington explains. "It probably had a big influence on me, because that's the guy I identify with--the quiet guy who looks right at you."
Throughout his career, Washington has played flawed, reluctant heroes, men who lose their way but recover in time to do the right thing. Early in his career, as Steven Biko in "Cry Freedom" (1987) and Trip in "Glory" (1989), his heroes bristled with anger. More recently, he has broadened his range of emotion, revealing buried layers of warmth and vulnerability, especially in his roles as Malcolm X, as a homophobic lawyer in "Philadelphia" and as private eye Easy Rawlins in "Devil in a Blue Dress."
In "Courage Under Fire," which opens Friday, Washington plays a Gulf War tank commander who destroys an Iraqi tank, only to discover that he has killed his own men. Devastated, he is told to keep quiet about the incident until the Army completes an internal investigation. While awaiting its outcome, he is ordered to review the Medal of Honor candidacy of a helicopter pilot, played by Meg Ryan, who was killed in combat. Was she really a hero? The accounts of her surviving copter team don't provide an easy answer, sending Washington on a search both for truth and a way to make peace with his conscience.
"The movie is really an examination of courage," says screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan, a Vietnam veteran who got the idea from a documentary series he had made about Medal of Honor winners. "I know from my experience in Vietnam that in war we are sometimes cowards and sometimes heroes. And we all make mistakes. But if you're an officer in wartime and somebody dies because of a mistake you made, how do you get past that?"
Duncan sent the script to producer Joseph Singer, who gave it to Washington.
"He read it in 48 hours and said, 'I want to do the movie,' " Singer recalls. "What really impressed me was that Denzel wanted the movie to be great, not just his character. Every time he and Ed went over a new draft of the script, Denzel had constructive and generous suggestions. He was always open about giving up scenes--his scenes--to help the movie."
To make his character as real as possible, Washington spent time with Army officers, observing war exercises, learning how to handle a gun and operate a tank.
"Once Denzel gets into character, it's hard for him to shut down," Singer says. "When he was out there in the desert in his tank, you really believed he was a leader of men in a real war. The Denzel Washington I knew was very far away."
On the set, even the crew quickly absorbed Army jargon. "We got into the spirit," Friendly recalls. "You'd hear a crewman say, 'Can we get an Evian for Ed Zwick?' And someone else would immediately reply, 'Roger that.' "
The production, unfortunately, was not as technically authentic as the filmmakers had hoped. The movie's war scenes were shot late last year in the desert outside El Paso. The filmmakers had hoped the Department of Defense would provide them with such essentials as M-1 Abrams tanks, Apache and Blackhawk helicopters, service uniforms and use of a military base--freebies that would have lopped several million dollars off the film's estimated $52-million price tag.
But the Defense Department, worried about the film's portrayal of the Army's cover-up of a "friendly fire" incident, insisted on numerous script alterations. In the film, Washington has a drinking problem; the Army said the script should mention the Army's rehab program. The Army was also critical of the script's portrayals of various soldiers, specifically objecting to a scene in which Ryan is derided by her own men for being "butch."
After months of negotiations, the filmmakers abandoned hope of getting Army approval. They bought 12 British Centurion tanks, which were dressed up to resemble their M-1 Abrams counterparts. They also rented a pair of Cobra helicopters, which they "armed" with fake rocket launchers made of aluminum tubing and plastic pipes.
The combat look was apparently quite convincing. When two pilots arrived at a Nevada airstrip last January, ready to fly the helicopters to the set, they were surrounded at gunpoint by local law enforcement officers, who believed the helicopters to be armed and stolen. The pilots were detained until they produced paperwork showing they were on loan from an unimpeachable source--the U.S. Army Center of Military History.
Spike Lee likes to tell the story about going to see "Mo' Better Blues" in a movie theater and hearing women scream with horror when Washington's character is being pummeled by thugs--"Not the face! Oh, no, not the face!"
Women never have any problem finding superlatives when discussing Washington's sex appeal. "Denzel has the sexiest, most intelligent eyes in show business," says Kelly Lynch. In "Virtuosity's" original script, Lynch's character was supposed to have a romance with Washington. But as the script evolved, she says her co-star developed misgivings. "I wouldn't say he was so uncomfortable about it--he just thought it was silly."
But how did Lynch feel about it? "Me kissing Denzel?" she says with a laugh. "Oh, I was ready!
"I have a 10-year-old daughter, and normally she doesn't like the idea of my kissing other men in my movies, even someone like Tom Cruise or Billy Baldwin. But with Denzel, all she wanted to know was--'Do you get to kiss him? Do you?' "
Rarely has such an adored sex symbol had such a meager sex life on screen. In "Courage Under Fire," Washington never meets Ryan's character--she is seen only through flashbacks. In the book version of "The Pelican Brief," Washington's and Julia Roberts' characters have a romance; in the film version, they are chaste.
In the book "Devil in a Blue Dress," Easy Rawlins has a torrid sex scene with the woman he is hired to locate; in the movie it is gone. Washington insists that the decision was made at director Carl Franklin's urging, though Rawlins does have some largely off-screen sex with another female character in the film.
It's a slippery topic, since it's complicated by race and commerce: Most of Washington's co-stars are white, and it's possible that Washington's reluctance to play a lovemaking scene is shared by the studio executives who finance his films.
Washington insists that he hasn't nixed any sex scenes for reasons of sex alone: "I just haven't had one I wanted to do. I've never taken a scene out or turned down a film because of a sex scene. I just haven't run across the right script. Maybe that says something about Hollywood, doesn't it? I'm just not seeing the scripts."
Are there prospects for some love play between him and Whitney Houston in "The Preacher's Wife"? "Don't get your hopes up," Denzel replies. "I'm an angel, and she's married to a preacher. I don't think you're gonna see a lot of sex come out of that."
Sex appeal issues aside, as he enters his 40s, Washington is old enough to appreciate the variety of serious roles he has had as an actor.
"I didn't want to be 'large'--I wanted to be good," he says. "It's what I like about Michael Jordan. He puts in the work so he knows the science of his craft."
Washington says he continually reminds his four preteen children: Pay now or pay later, you got to put in the work.
"Sure, I just did a $60-million movie," he says, referring to "Preacher's Wife," "but it took me a long time to get here. Whether it's sports or movies, the younger generation wants everything right away--they want to get paid."
Washington doesn't often let down his guard, but once he does, the floodgates are open.
"You can still win, if you don't get too frustrated or angry," he says. "I know, 'cause I was angry when I was coming up, and anger is an important part of being ambitious. But you can't get consumed by it. You need more than just anger. You need to put in the work."
His eyes have a searching look, as if he is wondering whether he has conveyed the urgency of this sermon.
"It takes time. I've been acting for 19 years, and look at me--I'm just getting good at it."