Denzel Washington Talks 'Training Day's' Original Ending, His Son's Acting Career and Diversity

Mark Seliger © 2012 Paramount Pictures
Denzel Washington

The actor-director discussed his son's HBO series 'Ballers,' and shared personal stories from his career at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

Denzel Washington took to the stage Sept. 17 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts to share personal stories from his career and his new ventures including a 10-year deal with HBO. Fresh from wrapping up shooting on his next role as a cowboy in The Magnificent Seven in New Mexico, Washington returned to Los Angeles for An Evening With Denzel Washington to share anecdotes with USC Cinematic Arts professor Dr. Todd Boyd about his son following in his acting footsteps on HBO, hosting Nelson Mandela for dinner and the original ending of Training Day.

The Q&A was the first in a series of talks for Arts & Ideas: Conversations at the Wallis where Washington is an artistic adviser. The actor was introduced by his good friend, television director Debbie Allen. Here are some of the key takeaways about Washington's career:

1. Washington is proud of his son’s role on HBO's Ballers.

Washington’s son, John David Washington, co-stars with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the scripted NFL series created by Entourage's Stephen Levinson. Denzel exclaimed that when his son was nervous about following in his footsteps, he reminded him about the successful career of Kirk Douglas and his son Michael Douglas.

“My son is starring in an HBO series Ballers," said Washington. "It’s amazing to me, looking at him. I’m like that’s my boy. I remember he said to me years ago ‘Dad your shadow is so big and I don’t know if I can.’ I said, 'My shadow is big?' I said, 'You’ve ever heard of Kirk Douglas?' He’s like, 'No.' I said, 'You’ve heard of Michael Douglas right?' He said, 'Yeah, Michael of course.' I said, 'Google Michael Douglas and then come back and talk to me about my shadow.'"

Washington also expressed admiration for his son making it to the NFL where he played for the St. Louis Rams in 2006.

“My son has fulfilled my dream," said Washington. "He made it to the NFL. I wanted to play football. I played baseball, basketball, football, ran track, everything sports growing up in the boys [and girls] club. I never thought about being an actor at all.”

2. When asked about Matt Damon’s recent comments on diversity, Washington expressed that diversity starts with the writers.

"If you're going to depend on someone outside of you to write for you, you're going be waiting a long time," answered Washington. "We have to write about what we know. I guess Steven Spielberg could have directed Goodfellas and Martin Scorsese could have directed Schindler’s List, but it’s a culture. You write about what you know first."

3. He calls Viola Davis “one of the all time greats,” and he's a fan of Dakota Fanning.

“She’s a powerful actor, one of the greatest actors I’ve ever worked with, “ said Washington of Davis, whom he will be directing in his upcoming film adaptation of Fences in the spring. “I caught myself watching her and that’s only happened to me a couple of times.”

“One of which was with Dakota Fanning,” added Washington. “I was sitting there in the scene going, 'This is a grown woman. She’s only 10 but she’s like a little person.' She’s grown, but she’s one of those actresses.”

4. In the original Training Day script, Washington said his character does not die.

Boyd commented on the ending of the popular film, saying that if Washington's character would have walked away, there might have have been a part two — but the actor disagreed. 

"In the original script he did, but I was not having it," said Washington. 

5. Washington and his wife, Pauletta, once hosted the late president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, at their house for dinner.

Washington recalled when he and his wife of 32 years, Pauletta (whom he met on his first TV movie, Wilma), opened their house to the activist and former president of South Africa for dinner. “I got a photograph of some of the most powerful people in America at our house that day,” said Washington. “Everybody was there.” 

Washington and his family also visited Mandela in South Africa in 1995. 

6. He was not allowed to watch movies while growing up.

“My father was a minister in the Church of God and Christ,” said Washington. “My mother was a singer in church, so we weren’t allowed to watch movies.”

The actor was only allowed to watch certain Christian films. "King of Kings, Ten Commandments and that’s about it," Washington added. "I never went to the movies as a child, ever.“

7. James Earl Jones, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are some of his early influences.

"Once I got into theater at Fordham University, I saw James Earl Jones do Oedipus the King at St. John the Divine Cathedral. I went backstage and he didn’t know me. I guess he sensed I was this young curious actor, and he let me hang out in the dressing room. I said, 'I want to be him.' I didn’t have that power or size that he had."

"I wanted to get into [acting] like anybody’s last name that ends with an O: De Niro, Pacino.”

8. Washington prayed to his ancestors to get him through filming Glory.

Washington expressed that the crew on Glory had their heads held down in awkward silence before he was set to film a scene where his character, a freed slave, gets whipped. In order to prepare for the difficult scene, Washington decided to go in his trailer and pray to his ancestors. "I said, 'look, I don’t know what I’m going to do when I go out here but you all just be with me and I’ll do whatever you all say,'" he said. "I came out of the room and all I felt was strong and powerful."

Washington's role in Glory ended up winning the Academy Award for best supporting actor. 

8. Washington prefers acting onstage over film and television.

The Training Day star told aspiring actors that the best way to improve their craft is to perform onstage. 

“I started on the stage. I prefer the stage. I’d never thought that what has happened would happen,” said Washington, who explained that he took a break from acting onstage after his kids were born. "Get on the stage," he stressed. "You learn how to act onstage. Not in film, not in TV."

Watch the full video of the Q&A below.

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