Denzel Washington is undoubtedly one of the finest actors working today. And I don’t think the ladies would disagree with the “finest.” Dignified, charismatic, strikingly handsome, Washington is a commanding presence onscreen.
He started his career as Doctor Phillip Chandler on the acclaimed series “St. Elsewhere,” which led to the role of Steven Biko in the Richard Attenborough film, Cry Freedom. His Oscar-winning turn in Glory secured Washington’s status as the pre-eminent young black actor in Hollywood. Within a few years, Washington was able to transcend the trappings of being considered the “pre-eminent young black actor” to become a leading man in such films as The Pelican Brief, Crimson Tide and The Bone Collector.
He has worked with several of Hollywood’s greatest directors, including three stints with Spike Lee, a gig in Carl Franklin’s stylish noir thriller Devil in a Blue Dress, and a lead role opposite Tom Hanks in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia.
The story of wrongly-convicted boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, The Hurricane is Washington’s third film in which he plays a black martyr, following his two Oscar-nominated roles of Steven Biko and Malcolm X. The Hurricane also marks Washington’s second performance under the direction of Norman Jewison, who cast a young Washington in A Soldier’s Story in 1984.
Denzel Washington chatted with us about The Hurricane, boxing and how to sell a movie.
How are you doing, Denzel?
Good. And I was really naked in the scene in the prison! That was me. That was my backside. That was me. That’s important to me. Someone accused me of using someone else in there. I trained two years. Two years! Almost two years. A year-and-a-half, two years. Check the butt!
You’ve got a great ass, but what does this…?
Nah, because somebody said to me today, “Now, that double…” Hey, there ain’t no double! That was me. I even turned around in the scene so you could see my face. It’s the butt! Look at the butt! (laughs)
Well, I will say this: in the beginning of the movie, when you were in the ring the first time, and you took off your robe, it was Damn! How did you get that cut?
Boxing. Boxing. Real boxing. Hitting and getting hit.
Did you have a trainer?
A gentleman by the name of Terry Claybon, who actually played Emile Griffith in the first fight. Terry was an undefeated amateur--and professional--and developed cataracts and had to retire. Became a trainer. Got a young woman now, Frieda the Cheetah, who is gonna fight in January for the world title. And he’s got another young fighter, Antoine Leech, who’s undefeated.
So I take it you’re a boxing fan?
Yeah. I love boxing. I’m even more of a fan now having been in the ring. I have a healthy respect for what they’re doing. It’s the most difficult sport I’ve ever done. I’ve played football, baseball, basketball and track, did everything on the high school and college level. None of it is as tough as this. It’s will power. It’s conditioning. It’s speed, obviously, and your natural abilities and all those things, but it’s your will. It’s imposing your will on someone. It’s pure, too. It’s just you and him, or she and her. There’s no time out. You got three minutes, then you go sit down, you know? I like fighting.
Do you entertain dreams of being a boxer?
I was in the ring yesterday.
What’s your reach?
(throws a jab, holds his fist out) I don’t know. I don’t know.
Being an actor, aren’t you afraid of getting jacked in the face?
I actually got some headgear that had a little nose thing across it so I wouldn’t bust my nose.
Do you still have that six-pack stomach?
I got a twelve pack. I got a twelve pack. (laughs)
Did you study old films of Hurricane to get down his style?
I didn’t really imitate his style, other than the fact that he was a left-hookin’ fool. He was actually a southpaw. He was a converted southpaw, which was one of the reasons his left was so powerful. But Rubin’s like five-eight, a buck-fifty-five. I’m like six-one. If I got down to one-seventy-five. One-fifty-five, I would’ve looked… it wouldn’t have worked. I’m just too big for that. And, you know, everybody has their own style, so I didn’t feel a pressure to imitate his style. One, because I just said, “not too many people know it,” you know? And I had to adapt it to what I could do and what I couldn’t do.
I understand you tried to secure the rights to Hurricane’s story about nine years ago. What initially attracted you to this story?
For all of this to happen and it all to come down to this kid who happened to buy this book, it was just a fascinating story. Rubin had gotten out for like nine months or so during the re-trial. So when they locked that door on him again, when he got triple life again, he began praying. He began to meditate and practice Islam and he read the bible and Buddha and everybody else he could get his hands on. To this day, he still meditates extensively. When he did that, that’s when something seemed to reach out to him. Because he wasn’t even answering mail. He had stacks and stacks of mail and wouldn’t answer anybody. He said this one letter was just jumping out at him, like talking to him, “Open me. Open me.” And it’s just the one letter that he opened out of hundreds of letters that he had and it was from this kid and it touched him at a time I think when he was ready for it. So to me, that’s the spiritual aspect of the film and that’s what I was going after.
Did you and your co-star, Vicellous Reon Shannon share the same kind of father/son relationship that Hurricane and Lesra did?
I think so. I mean, I guess I’m old enough to be his father, I think.
In interviews, he says he looks up to you.
Does he? (grins)
He said he learned a lot from you.
Did he? (grins from ear-to-ear) Now that’s a proud father. I remember meeting Sidney Poitier when I was young in this business. He said some very important things to me like, “If they see you for free all week, they won’t pay to see you on the weekends.” And that the first two or three or four films in your career, that is how Hollywood is going to look at you, so be very careful about the roles you choose. There was one role in particular that I just didn’t feel good about and they were gonna pay me a bunch of money--it was to be my fourth film. And I called Sidney and he said, “If you don’t feel good about it, don’t do it.” And I said, “Yeah, but…” “Don’t do it.” So I waited. I waited like six months and I got Cry Freedom. So I try to pass that kind of stuff onto Vicellous.
What movie was this?
It was a movie that wasn’t even made. If they did, it came and went so fast I didn’t see it. But I don’t think it was made around that time.
You started your career working with Norman Jewison on A Soldier’s Story. Fifteen years later, you and he are working together again. How is it different now?
I thought I knew everything when I worked for him the first time. You know, I was younger and I just thought I knew a whole lot. And now I know that I don’t know that much. But it’s mostly my own maturing as an actor and in front of the camera. In A Soldier’s Story, I had done the play for three hundred performances, so I thought I knew every nuance of the play, but I didn’t understand how that applied to film. Obviously, I’ve made a couple of films between then and now, so I know a little more about it now.
And you’re a movie star now.
You know, people don’t come up to me at the park and say, “Hey, you’re a movie star.” I don’t even hear the word movie star basically until I do interviews. That’s the truth. I mean people may react to you in odd ways, like falling down or fainting or something, crying. But that doesn’t happen in this town, I think. People react to you more like, “Oh, he got my job. I was supposed to play Malcolm X, I want you to know that. I was gonna do it, but I had this movie of the week.”
Are you talking about Wesley Snipes?
Wesley Snipes said that? Could’ve been.
The Hurricane received an R-rating, which is definitely going to limit its audience, especially with kids who, frankly, should see this movie. What do you think the MPAA saw as a problem with this movie?
It concerned me in not allowing kids to see it and I think young adults, teenagers should. Probably the language, but it’s not like kids don’t… problematic. Teenagers nowadays are getting shot at in schools. What’s problematic about this movie? My son saw the film. Have you talked to Norman about this? I’d be interested to know why we got an R.
How do you get audiences in the theatre for something like The Hurricane, which is a drama, first, and perceived as an African-American film, second?
You gotta show that butt, gotta show that butt! Show that backside! Write about that butt! That’s your job. Write about that booty! (laughs)
A lot of that is your job and my job to talk about it. From my side of it, I think it’s not “Oh, you’ll learn so much.” It’s not a sermon. It’s a strong film, and it’s entertainment.
It’s a fine line as the promoter, if you will, to not make it too precious or too sweet or too… it’s still just a movie. You know, get some popcorn and a soda and go to the movie. I think it’s a very good movie, and hopefully it can stand on that. So, I don’t think… what am I saying? Talk about the butt!