THR Cover: Denzel Washington on the Bible, Tony Scott and the Dangers of Success
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 heart-stopping 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 Barack 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, writer John Gatins (Coach Carter) initially wanted to direct. But when Washington heard that Robert Zemeckis -- whose most recent live-action 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.”