Denzel Washington’s Enduring Cool

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By Juliette Wills | 6:14 pm, January 11, 2017

Back in 1999 when I was writing for UK men’s magazine Loaded, I was all set to interview Denzel Washington to coincide with his new film The Hurricane in which he played Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter, the boxer wrongly convicted of murder.

I’d interviewed some big stars in my time, but I was seven shades of excited about this. I got my questions together, baked a banana loaf to take to him (a bit random, granted) and got an early night.

At 4.00am, six hours before I was due at the fancy hotel in London to meet him, I came down with gastroenteritis. Devastated and a hot mess, someone else got to do the interview and despite my best efforts, I never got another chance. Whenever I tell anyone about my missed opportunity they totally get why I’m still upset a whopping 18 years later because everyone wants to meet Denzel Washington.

In this era of fake news, that’s a fact. (Actually Washington nailed the era of fake news at the recent premiere of Fences with his observation that, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you do read it, you’re misinformed.”)

Before the interview that never happened, I’d wanted to know how he relaxed when he wasn’t filming. Did he sit in the garden with an iced-tea and the radio beside him? Did he like to cook? Did he have any pets? (I’d heard he was a dog man) and where was his favorite place to go on vacation? Did he have any fears or phobias, any weird allergies, could he speak another language, sleep easily, what did he drive? Which character throughout his career would he say resonated most with him?

Man, I had so many questions. Still have. I was even going to suggest that if he ever got bored with making movies, he open a dental practice called ‘Dental Washington’ with his million dollar smile on a billboard.

Washington is one of those actors whom nobody dislikes, and if they do, they’ve got something wrong with their brain. His range is mind-bogglingly immense, his on-screen presence so intense and charismatic that whomever he’s playing—from boxer to gangster, submarine officer to soft-hearted vigilante—you can pretty much guarantee that nobody gets the urge to pop to the kitchen for a snack while he’s on screen.

In fact, you’ve almost got to feel sorry for anyone starring alongside Washington as they don’t stand a chance of stealing the show, of being remembered for their performance over his.

Personally, I think Chris Pratt in The Magnificent Seven breaks that rule for the first time. Washington himself describes Pratt as having a quality where, “You just like him. He’s a good man; a decent, wholesome funny big dude.”

Some might say the same about Washington, a man who laughs raucously through interviews, doesn’t appear to take himself too seriously (he keeps his reading glasses in his right sock) and has no qualms about not answering impertinent or downright dumb questions on the red carpet if he doesn’t want to.

He plays the game, but he plays it on his own terms and in a career entering its fifth decade, he’s more than earned that right. You get the impression with Washington that he puts as much effort into a movie as Santa Claus does delivering gifts on time.

When Spike Lee cast Washington in Malcolm X after seeing him take on the role of the African-American human rights minister and leader in a 1980s play, Washington devoted an entire year to researching the part ‘to get it right’, and boy did he do that (though nominated for an Academy Award he eventually lost out to Al Pacino).

Washington’s latest movie Fences came about after he and his on-screen wife Viola Davis starred in a Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer prize-winning play. It tells the story of Troy (a garbage man) and Rose Maxson, a married couple living in 1950s Pittsburgh. Washington and Davis have received Golden Globe nominations for their performances in the film and Davis won.

I once joked that “Denzel Washington is so charismatic they could make a film about him taking out the trash bins and people would pay to see it,” and lo, there it is (kind of).  For a movie drama based on a 35-year-old Broadway play, Fences has done well at the box office grossing $40 million.

That’s not surprising. Who can resist a beat-up looking, raggedy-assed Washington talking non-stop while hanging off the back of a garbage truck.

Washington deservedly has a decent haul of awards under his belt: two Golden Globes, a Tony Award and two Academy Awards. And that’s just so far. Outside of work he’s been married to Pauletta, a classically-trained piano player for 33 years. They have four children, all of whom appear to be as driven as their 61-year-old father.

As a teenager Washington admits that he was headed for trouble. His father was a preacher, and his life revolved around going to church, sometimes three times a day. While a devout Christian these days, Washington Jr., like most teenagers, rebelled against his father’s beliefs.

Three of his closest friends wound up in jail doing long stretches; he credits his mother, who ran a beauty parlor, with saving him from a life behind bars by enrolling him in private school before he went off the rails.

“My parents also taught me right from wrong,’ he once said, “and although I was mischievous, I was always conscious not to go to far, not to hurt anybody.”

In interviews Washington comes across as a decent chap: kind, generous, fun, funny and focused. He’s the kind of person you’d never dare ask for a photo if you saw him in a restaurant because if he (rightly) said no you’d have to live with the disappointment for the rest of your life.

Let’s face it, the man is so charismatic he could probably charm a charging rhinoceros to stand down just by fixing him that megawatt grin and saying, ‘Well, listen here, mister, you need to think about what you want out of life, and I don’t think you want to kill me. Now, am I right, or am I right?’

The Magnificent Seven was filmed in Louisiana through the searing Southern heat. All the actors found it tough; their only respite from the sun being a few minutes’ break between scenes in the air-conditioned saloon.

Washington inadvertently summed himself up perfectly when asked if he thought of himself as ‘cool’. His response?  “As a black man with a black hat with a black shirt with a black vest with black pants, black boots, black socks, black underwear, black boots on a black horse in 105 degrees—all you can be is cool!”

You can’t argue with that.