"We're all actors and we're here to work" says Denzel Washington when I ask him, as we sit down to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast, if the actor who plays his son in Fences, the new film that he directed and stars in, was intimidated by working with him. The 61-year-old is, of course, a trailblazer for actors of color: An A-list movie star, following in the footsteps of his mentor Sidney Poitier, he became one of the most bankable stars of all time, with a filmography collectively responsible for more than $3.6 billion in worldwide grosses and a consistent track record of excellent work, which has resulted in a Tony and two Oscars. He continues, "There's no difference. He's an actor. I'm an actor. I'm just a more popular actor right now, but there's really no difference. All that 'movie star'/'celebrity' stuff is stuff they call you; that's not what I am, that's a label that I'm given. The only title I use is 'Actor.'"
Washington was born to working-class parents and raised in Mount Vernon, N.Y., where he dreamed as a kid of playing professional football. He joined the Boys Club at age 6, first performed at 7 or 8 and then, following his parents' divorce, stayed with his mother and began to get into trouble. ("The streets were my father," he remarks.) He says he was saved by his mother's sacrifices: She scrounged up the money to send him to private school, summer camps and then to Fordham University, where he found his path in life. "I was actually working my way towards the arts without realizing it," he explains. "I went from pre-med to pre-law to journalism to theater."
His involvement with theater started when, after flunking his sophomore year, he spent his summer as a YMCA camp counselor and performed a skit for campers, whereupon a colleague encouraged him to pursue acting. Washington returned to Fordham and made a name for himself in productions of Othello and The Emperor Jones. Based on the response of others to his work, he says, "I found out I had ability." Subsequently, he won a full scholarship to pursue graduate studies at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, which propelled him into professional work at the New York Shakespeare Festival and off-Broadway. He loved the stage, which he imagined would be his future, insisting, "That's where you learn how to act."
Circumstances allowed for Washington to act for the screen — big and small — as well. He made his film debut in 1981's Carbon Copy. Later that same year, he returned to the stage in two off-Broadway productions, first as Malcolm X in When the Chickens Come Home to Roost and then in Charles Fuller's A Soldier's Play, which won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. During the run of A Soldier's Play, two major things happened in Washington's life: He was offered a part in its film adaptation, which was to be retitled A Soldier's Story (1984); and he agreed to appear — for what he initially thought would be just 13 weeks, but proved to be six years — on the TV series St. Elsewhere (dubbed at the time "Hill Street Blues at the hospital").
It also was while starring in A Soldier's Play that Washington first met Poitier, one of his heroes. The first black movie star ever to achieve A-list status and win an Oscar advised the young up-and-comer to choose his first film roles carefully, since they would forever define his screen persona. He did, and they did: Washington played a proud soldier in A Soldier's Story, for Oscar winner Norman Jewison; a confident PR expert in Power (1986), for Oscar nominee Sidney Lumet; and fearless South African anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko in Cry Freedom (1987), for Oscar winner Richard Attenborough. Cry Freedom brought him his first Oscar nomination, for best supporting actor, which helped to propel him into stardom.
As Poitier continued to mentor Washington — warning him, in 1986, to guard his privacy, with the great line, "If they see you for free all week, they won't pay to see you on the weekend" — Washington's career continued to soar. He played a Union Army soldier in Edward Zwick's Glory (1989), for which he won the best supporting actor Oscar (a prize sealed by a whipping scene in which he shed a single tear). He made two movies in three years for Spike Lee: Mo' Better Blues (1990) and Malcolm X (1992), the latter of which brought him his first Oscar nomination for best actor. And then he starred opposite white A-listers in two 1993 movies — Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia, with Tom Hanks, and Alan J. Pakula's The Pelican Brief, with Julia Roberts — breaking out of what he described as the "Biography Man" genre and beginning to appeal to a broad audience.
Not long after that, Washington embarked on a collaboration, with filmmaker Tony Scott, that firmly established him as a heroic movie star. They made five action-thriller films together over a period of 15 years — Crimson Tide (1995), Man on Fire (2004), Deja Vu (2006), The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) and Unstoppable (2010) — before Scott took his own life in 2012. Washington says of the time they shared: "He knew his part, I knew mine and we worked well together," adding, "It was an excellent marriage." (The actor explains that he picks his films using a "formula" through which he attempts to predict the film's likelihood of profitability, and also based on the "payoff or arc or change" his prospective character experiences. A man of great faith, he often insists on some form of comeuppance for villainous characters, noting, "I turned down [the 1995 film] Se7en because it was so dark and evil.")
Between blockbuster projects like those, Washington also pursued a number of other ventures. He periodically returned to Broadway — in 1988's Checkmates, 2005’s Julius Caesar, 2010’s Fences and 2014’s A Raisin in the Sun. He began to gravitate toward darker movies — among them, Jewison's controversial biopic The Hurricane (1999), for which he received another best actor Oscar nom; two crime films, Antoine Fuqua's Training Day (2001), for which he won the best actor Oscar, and Ridley Scott's American Gangster (2007); and Robert Zemeckis' drama-mystery Flight (2012), for which he received his sixth and most recent Oscar nom, for best actor. And he reluctantly began directing films of his own — 2002’s Antwone Fisher and 2007’s The Great Debaters, in which he also played supporting parts.
Washington's latest film draws upon all those experiences. He has been a great admirer of the playwright August Wilson since seeing Wilson's work for the first time in 1984 — a Broadway production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom — and he especially loved Wilson's play Fences since seeing James Earl Jones plays its protagonist Troy, a one-time Negro League baseball star turned Pittsburgh garbage man, on Broadway in 1987. When Washington first saw Fences, he was around the age of Troy's disgruntled son Cory; in 2009, when producer Scott Rudin pitched him on starring in a revival as Troy, the actor realized he already was two years older than the script described the character. "I'm like, 'Well, I better hurry up,'" he says with a laugh. He played the part on Broadway in 2010, and won the best actor in a play Tony for his efforts. Then, Rudin lobbied him to direct and star in a film version, which he agreed to do, and which has been a primary focus of his life since 2014.
Nearly 15 years after Washington directed a film for the first time, he stepped onto the set of Fences, having regathered most of the principal cast of the 2010 Broadway version — including Viola Davis, who also won a Tony for the 2010 production, as well as Stephen McKinley Henderson and Mykelti Williamson. He felt greater confidence in the director's chair than he'd felt on Antwone Fisher or The Great Debaters because, he says, "Now I know what to worry about and what not to worry about." His acting responsibilities in Fences are considerably larger than they were in either of his prior outings, but he insists they didn't distract him from directing because he'd already played the part 101 times in 2010. "I couldn't have directed it if I hadn't done the play," he explains. "I didn't worry about my performance because, again, we did the play and I won the Tony." He adds, "I was there to support August Wilson and to support Viola and the other actors. It was August first, other actors second, me third."
The finished film has been embraced by critics, audiences and awards voters alike. "I like the film," says Washington, who personally has received best actor Critics' Choice, Golden Globe and SAG award nominations and is a slam-dunk to receive his seventh Oscar nomination on Jan. 24. One of only six males who ever have won Oscars in both the lead and supporting acting categories — the others being Jack Lemmon, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey — he says, upon being asked for his opinion, that he's skeptical about the legitimacy of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that exploded over the last two years when few films about people of color and no actors of color received Oscar noms. "What movies were up in those last few years that should have been [nominated]?" he asks, continuing, "It's something for people to talk about, too. If we [Fences] win a bunch, then they'll say, 'Oh, it's because —' You see what I'm saying? It's always gonna be something." He adds, "You don't want to be nominated just because you're black." Regardless of how the Academy evaluates Washington's film, he insists he's content. "This might have been professionally the best year of my career," he says with a smile. "I had some other great years, too. But [this one particularly was] fulfilling."