Denzel Washington Q&A: Can SAG Award Winner Notch Third Oscar?

Michael Buckner

When was the last time you could consider Denzel Washington an underdog? That’s the role he has played in this Oscar race, as Manchester By The Sea star Casey Affleck collected enough of the Best Actor awards to consider him a clear front runner. Until the SAG Awards, where Washington prevailed for his overpowering performance in Fences, the adaptation of the August Wilson play which Washington also directed. The SAG Award is considered a strong tell over who’ll win on Oscar night, but it looks like a real toss up going into the final weekend of ballot casting. Here is an interview with Washington that ran December 14, in which he discussed his ambitions for a film that has since proven to be one of the bright spots in a great career.  

In a long career, full of iconic performances and Oscars, that has established him on the shortlist for Greatest Living Actor, Denzel Washington may well have outdone himself with Fences, and much of it is because he has put the focus on the talent around him. It’s the most ambitious of the three films he has directed, this adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning August Wilson play that he and most of the cast first performed on Broadway. That run won Tony Awards for Best Revival, for Washington’s performances as Troy Maxson, the former star Negro League player who hauls garbage in 1950s Pittsburgh, and for Viola Davis as his long suffering wife, Rose.

At the film’s first Guild screening in Westwood, Washington took the stage after for a Q&A, and spent most of it doting on his cast, and especially its two youngest members, Jovan Adepo and Saniyya Sidney, who play the Maxsons’ children in the film.

Washington is in a good mood when we meet on a Saturday—him dressed in a flannel shirt and an all-black Yankees cap—because his kids will meet him when we’re through. They are all finding their way in the family business.

Last time I interviewed Washington, it was still more about building his brand as an actor. His disciplined strategy of starring in consistently performing mid-range dramas had finally brought him to the $20 million-a-film pinnacle; slower than a lot of peers who took shortcuts by starring in the big budget spectacles and sequels Washington avoided.

While the intensity of his performances hasn’t wavered a bit—he has plenty of fire and brimstone moments as the existentially tortured, tragic Maxson—Washington has evolved. You hear stories about how, when his son John David was breaking records at Morehouse before a brief NFL career (he’s now an actor), his father practically wore out his highlight reel, and all the friends he forced to watch again and again. You can almost feel the influence of his evolving life in Fences.

What was a better moment for you: hearing your name called twice during the Oscars, or watching your son break loose for a long touchdown?

Well, I’ll tell you. I once went to an Angels game and they’re playing the Yankees. Now, I’m the only one sitting there with all-Yankee gear on, right, in Anaheim. And we’re close. So Jeter’s in the batter’s box, and there I am, bragging about my son John David. “Oh, Derek, he’s 8… my son is the D Division 2 player of the month,” or something. I’m bragging to everyone, really, out loud, but mainly to my good friend, Derek Jeter. I’m going, “Yeah, my son’s the number one rusher in the…” And Derek, who’s going click, click, click, tapping the dirt from his cleats, he looks up and he goes, “Yeah, well, he must have got it from his mother’s side.” And then, as God is my witness, he gets up and hits a home run. While I’m taking flack. “Oh, Denzel, oh.”

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Paramount Pictures

Isn’t this the moment where you unzip that bag you should be carrying, and you put one, and then the other, Oscar on the dugout roof?

What I did was, I looked around at everybody, like, “Don’t say anything. Nobody say a word.” You know, no, “Hey, that’s your good friend, your buddy, Denzel?”

Reminds me of another time, I think I was with Spike [Lee] when he was doing one of those first Michael Jordan commercials. We were in Chicago and the Bulls were playing the Lakers, and the Lakers won that first game. We went out to dinner, afterwards, with Michael. Now this guy is famous. I was a bodyguard. He was Michael Jackson famous. He owned Chicago. He had the police, the off-duty guys, give us an escort to an Italian joint. He had the whole back section, and I was trying to get him to drink. I was like, “Yeah, let’s have a toast…” Uh uh. He was focused. And then he came back to LA, beat us three straight, and that was his first ring. I remember we did a toast, and he’s like [fakes a swallow]. I said, “You didn’t drink, c’mon.” It was great to meet him, but to see that level of focus. He’d been close so many times by that point. It had always been the Knicks or Boston, always breaking his heart. And they finally got in, and it wasn’t so good for the Lakers.

People have told me that you are the same way when you’re on a set and in character. Don’t distract Denzel.

Well, yeah. You’d better be focused. But a game is 2 or 3 hours of concentrated time. A movie can be a 14-hour day. When you’re younger, you try to stay that focused for 14 hours, you get worn out. So you learn to pick your spots. Maybe relax in the trailer. You work your way right up to the take and you hit it, then you regroup. What’s important to me is, you build up to that moment, and then you hit it. In that way, it’s like getting up to bat, you hit it and then you go back and sit down.

Why, when you’re acting, do you prefer solitude to camaraderie?

Well, people take your energy, like I was trying to take [Jordan’s]. Not to say that people try to mess you up, but I found I had to create space. If you’re too friendly with everybody, then they’ll think you’re that way all the time. You might be getting ready to shoot a scene where your mother dies, and somebody’s telling jokes. You don’t want to be in that place. So you got to protect that.

I know some people can go, “Oh, he’s moody, he’s…” Yeah, well, nobody goes to watch the movie and says, “Man, he sucked, but I heard he was nice to everybody. He brought cookies every morning.” So, how’s the movie? “Oh, he’s terrible.” [Laughs] It’s true. You’ve got to protect your performance.

It’s a little like directing. If you let people in, everybody has an opinion. The guy in craft services, the caterer will go, “I’ve got a couple ideas…” You’ve got to protect against that.

How did you learn to protect that and establish those lines?

You stay between your ears and you stay quiet and you don’t engage with a whole lot of folks, all the time. They see that, hey, he comes out ready. He works like this, leave him alone. By the way, I did wear out my son’s highlight reel. I was looking for it the other day and couldn’t find that old VHS tape. I gotta find it, it’s got all his highlights, even high school. It’s the ex-athlete, wannabe athlete [mindset], and you live through your kids. But my wife, Pauletta, is worse. You ever see that clip they ran on Letterman, when she got knocked down? She’s on the sidelines, and the play is coming her way. It’s a sweep to him, and she starts heading down there. She’s going to meet him at the end zone. The guy chasing him runs out of bounds and bangs into her. Knocks her down. She jumps right back up, faster than he did. She stood over him like, “Get up, punk, you can’t even hit.” When he was running touchdowns in Pee Wee football, she beat him to the end zone many times.

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Paramount Pictures

How does all this influence the family dynamic in Fences?

Well, that’s the love between a mom and her son. There’s a scene in Fences where Troy just walks out. He’s angry, he knocks stuff down, and Rose is sitting there at the table, upset, and she doesn’t realize her son’s watching. Then he walks in, he says, “Are you all right?” I told him I wanted him to just kiss her to death, until she can’t take it no more, until she’s not mad anymore. And Jovan said, “Oh, I’d love to.” So, he started kissing, and she didn’t know he was going to do it, and she’s trying to be mad and so she starts breaking. She said, “Just go on upstairs and clean up.” He leaves and you see that look on her and it’s like…

A truthful moment?

It’s like I tell people, a mother is that son’s first true love. That son is the mother’s last true love, pure love. He comes out and this woman’s taking care of him. Now, a wife has a love for her husband, but not like that.

Hearing you talk, it seems obvious that you’re a better director because of your evolution as a parent. You’re still a big star with all the accolades, but is it a stretch to imagine you’re more interested in their accomplishments now?

It becomes about your kids. My son, John David, stars on that HBO series Ballers. I’m living through them. Olivia’s acting. I’ve got two who are behind the camera. Katia is an associate producer on Fences. Malcolm has graduated from AFI in their directing program. He’s working for Spike, getting the coffee, hustling, whatever he’s got to do.

Pauletta has jumped back out there too. She just did a play, and she’s singing. Everybody’s working.

Fences started when Scott Rudin sent you the movie script that August Wilson adapted from his play. When did you decide to direct, and why first perform the stage play on Broadway?

When he first called me, he sent my agent August Wilson’s screenplay and asked that I read it. “Do you want to act in it? Do you want to produce it? Do you want to direct it?” I said I wanted to read it first. Let me try that. When I read it, I realized I had never read the play. I’d seen it in the ’80s with James Earl Jones and Courtney Vance, when I was in my twenties. And there’s Troy Maxson, age 53. I’m 55 and thinking, I’d better hurry up. I’ll be too old. So, I call Scott and I said, “You know, I want to do the play.” He’s like, “You want to do the play?” He said, “Let me go raise the money.”

How long did that take?

Felt like a day. They had to book a theater. It wasn’t long after he called me.

When during the Broadway run did you decide to direct the film?

I remember it wasn’t during that run. We finished that in 2010, and I know it wasn’t then because what happens is, you go do a play, and I end up losing money for what my overhead is, then I’ve got to go do a movie so I can catch up. I wasn’t ready right away, because when you direct, that’s going to be another year and a half of no money.

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Davis and Washington during the Broadway run of Fences. Schwab/StarPix/REX/Shutterstock


I mean, what they pay you and what my overhead is, I lose money. And between preparation, shooting, and post-production, and everything right on through to what we’re doing here, now, you’re not making money. I’m losing more than I’m making.

It is remarkable how this is set in the ’50s, with issues of segregation and blue collar angst that might seem antiquated. Instead, there is a timelessness and universality to it. If you grew up with an awkward relationship with your father, you will see yourself in there somehow.

More than the race thing, I think the universality was the father/son, husband/wife elements. Pick a color, it doesn’t matter. Older guy falling for the younger chick, that father/son tough love relationship. The latter, especially with my generation. Fathers didn’t hug their sons. My father never gave me a hug. “Get out of here, boy, what are you talking about? Why don’t you go hug the lawn mower?”

Sounds familiar…

I could imagine me saying, “Dad, I love you.” “What’d you say?” “Oh, nothing.” That didn’t really happen, but…

How much of that informed your scenes with Jovan Adepo, who plays Troy’s aspiring athlete son Cory?

I probably brought it all, subconsciously. My father was a gentleman who worked three jobs, so he was always running from one to the other. What does ring true is, I remember he worked for the water department and he told me he could get me on. And in 25 years I could become a supervisor, you know, that way of thinking. My mother’s like, “He’s going to college.”

But it was similar in that he wasn’t educated. My father had fifth grade—whatever—education, and grew up in the south. So yeah, in those regards he was like Troy; this big guy, not a yeller or a screamer, but hard working, blue-collar guy who could only see as far as he could see. Not a really great reader. I remember my mother asking him to look at something, and he starts fidgeting for his glasses, and she’s like, “Never mind, I’ll read it.” I think he used to do that to act like he was wasting time, so she would read it. I don’t know for sure.

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Paramount Pictures

Oh… I can hear my mother now, “What’s that article you put out? Your father could read.” So don’t say that I said my father can’t read. I don’t want to hear from my mother! “Your father could read.” That’s her.

There are more loves and kisses and hugs from my wife’s side of the family. They’re all huggers and kissers, and crying. I was like, “what is this? I’ve got to marry her.” Her father, everybody there would cry, and there’s none of that on my side.

Was that an awkward transition?

No, I loved it. I don’t know if I became that right away, but when my first son was born, I was, “Hey, you kidding me?” Maybe my father felt the same way and it was just that he was working all the time. I don’t remember, as a child, going, “Oh, my father doesn’t love me.” There’s no stories like that.

So like Troy Maxson, he provided, but he wasn’t going to put his arm around you?

I didn’t understand it then, but I remember him sitting in the driveway, with his foot out of the car, the door open, listening to the baseball game. When I got older I realized, this was the only time he got to himself. He leaves the job, then he’s got to come home and eat, change, listen to my mother, and then go to the next job, you know, his night job. So, that time in the driveway, listening to the ball game, was his only time to himself probably. He got to listen to one boss, then he comes home and my mother’s in the house, so he’s got to listen to another boss. Then goes to a job and listens to another boss. I just remember that, coming out, and he’s just sitting there and listening to the baseball game. That was his moment.

Jovan Adepo bears the brunt of those scenes where Troy mercilessly channels his bitterness into breaking down the athletic aspirations of his son Cory. You wonder what it might feel like for a young actor to go toe-to-toe with an actor as strong as yourself. As the director, what goes into helping a young actor be appropriately defiant and prideful, without withering when Denzel Washington is really bringing it?

Well, 80 percent or 90 percent of it is casting. That’s when you’ve got to see what the other guy has, and that is where I would push the young actor. And he was able to push back. It felt more honest. Some guys came in and left me feeling like, what are you so mad about? “Well, you know, me and you don’t get along,” and I’m like, “You mean the whole movie, you’re going to be walking around like that, pissed off? You’re going to wake up like that?” He just was the right one and had the right flexibility. And he looked like he could be Viola and my son.

It’s just like I tell people in casting, I only need one person. There’s only going to be one Cory. So, you can bring a million of them in here and I’ll know when it’s the right one, and he was just the right one.

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Paramount Pictures

Didn’t he nearly work with your Magnificent Seven and The Equalizer director Antoine Fuqua?

I forget how I brought it up to Antoine, but he said that [Jovan] was the best actor who read for… I don’t want the kid that got the part to feel bad, but it was Training Day, the TV show. He thought Jovan was the best actor, but he didn’t feel he had the street thing that Antoine wanted; that edginess. I said, “Well that’s great for us because we’re in ’57 and he shouldn’t have that.” He’s not a street kid. That’s not who Cory is, because his mother has done a good job.

You are bringing the first work of August Wilson’s to the screen, but it sounds like it won’t be the last.

All 10 of them. The other nine I did a deal to make those films at HBO.

Will you direct all of them?

No. They put that out, that I was going to be in them and direct them. No. I’m just producing them. We’ll hire the right directors. In fact, I’ve got the first version of a screenplay for Ma Rainey, which we’ll do first.

That is some legacy to uphold. You got to meet August Wilson?

I only met him one day, back in 2005. I flew up to Seattle and I spent a day with him, before I did Fences. He was working on a play, which turned out to be his 10th play, I think, Gem of the Ocean. I don’t know if they said he was writing something with me in mind or my agent said, “I think it’s a good idea to go up there and meet him.” Whatever the reason, I spent a lovely day with him.

I remember it was pouring rain up in Seattle. We sat inside and we sat out on the porch and just… I don’t even know if we talked about business, but it was just a great day with this genius who was just the most regular guy. I remember he just smoked cigarette after cigarette. It was like he was from another era.

It was kind of awkward. It’s like, what am I there for, really? I don’t want to say, “Hey, can you write something for me?” And he wasn’t saying, “I’m writing something for you.” But I was asking him about his process; how do you go about it. And he said, “Well, I just shut down the house and lock all the windows and doors, and I listen to the characters and I write down what they say.” I wanted to say, “You got some of their numbers? Maybe I can give one of them a call.” But it was just a lovely day, and he wrote Gem of the Ocean, and as it turns out, and I forget why, but I didn’t do that play. And then Scott Rudin called about Fences.

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Paramount Pictures

August Wilson himself wrote the script, but a play is not a movie. What was the biggest challenge in turning it into a film and not having it seem… stagey?

It was a process of asking, “Where else could these scenes take place?” It could be out in the park. It could be walking up Broadway. I did a lot of writing, wrote other scenes, cut them, and boiled it right back down to what he had written. But in the play, everything takes place in the backyard. So, when things are falling apart, he’s sitting on the back porch, drinking, in the play. So I put him at the bar, drinking. He’s still sitting alone, drinking, and Bono, his friend, comes to see him. Well, if he wasn’t home, he might come to the bar to see him. He’s still a friend that’s looking out for his buddy. So, in fact, in the movie we use a part of the old line. He said, “I stopped by the house and nobody was there. I figured…” And then I cut him off, so you know that Bono is this friend who cares for him, loves him, and he can see what’s happening, long before Troy could see it.

You’ve done Shakespeare on stage and screen. Fair to say you wouldn’t change his lines?

No. No.

August Wilson is new to movies, but were you as reverential with his words, the ones good enough to win Tony Awards and the Pulitzer?

We didn’t have to change them. He doesn’t talk about where it happens, it’s just, his friend came to see him because he cares about him. In the play, his friend leaves and Troy’s sitting there on the steps by himself, but it’s sadder, in a way, when he leaves him at the bar, and now he’s sitting there drinking, and it sort of helps inform the next scene, which is, now he’s home and the boy comes home, and he realizes oh, he’s drunk. In the play, he’s sitting on the porch, drinking. Bono leaves him that way, and then the boy comes in this way. But now in the film, it feels like more of a passage of time. In the bar you see him taking shots, and then by the time we cut to the house, he’s got a pint half-full or whatever it was. So, you go, “Oh, wow, here he goes.”

He’s ready to have his fuse lit.

He’s ready to have his fuse… exactly. I like that. He’s ready to have his fuse lit. He’s all teed up, and here comes the son, to light that fuse.

Some of the film’s strongest moments belong to Viola Davis. When Troy betrays her, she becomes Woman On Fire. It is so intense, I found myself feeling shame for my own male species. So what was that like?

When she was giving it to me? With those tears, and what did she say, “It didn’t take me no 18 years to realize the soil was hard and rocky,” and she keeps going, and she doesn’t stop. And what does he say? What can he say?

There’s nothing he could say. As a director, how do you help her build to that perfect moment?

We all had the luxury of having done the play, to great success. So, as a director, I knew what worked. So it was, don’t over direct, don’t screw it up, let her rip. And just make sure you’ve got the camera in the right place because she’s going to bring it like she does. In the scene itself, I didn’t have to do much talking to her. Maybe after, she asked me, “What do you think?” I’m like, “Let’s do another,” and I might have said, “Let’s try a softer one.” But you don’t want to mess with it, get in there and start directing now.

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Paramount Pictures

You have worked opposite great actors in intense scenes. Gene Hackman comes to mind, in Crimson Tide.

There was a moment where he was doing his thing, and he looks at me, and I realized it was my turn but I was watching him. Viola is another. Dakota Fanning is another. When she was in Man on Fire, I’m like, she’s not 10. She’s sitting there and she’s looking at me like, yeah, like, it’s your line.

There are those actors like Gene and like Viola that you get up there with. It’s interesting you mention Gene because there’s a battle; a combat that goes on between those two characters. In [Fences] it’s even more intense because that was just two guys and ego. This is love and betrayal, and she’s right, and so you really don’t have a leg to stand on, and so it becomes, how do you take it? You take it like a man. Good luck.

We’ve been talking sports, and you hear baseball players talk about when they get in this zone, where the game slows down, where they can see the pitch coming so clearly, and it’s impossible to get them out. Do you find that as an actor, in some of the great scenes that you’ve done, you get in the same kind of zone?

Yeah, but when you’re in the zone, you don’t realize it at the time. You’re just there, and maybe the director talks about it later, or even after a take. When we did Glory

And that incredible moment…

Oh, you’re going to talk about that one? Ok, there you go. Well, we did the scene, went through the whipping and all that, and they said cut or something, and I looked up and I remember Ed Zwick, I don’t know, but he seemed to be tearing up. And I was like, “Well, what do you think?” He’s like, “Let’s do another one? What do you say?” It was there and we knew it.

That’s how it felt here, not just with Viola but with a lot of the actors. Mykelti Williamson, Stephen Henderson, you know? As the director, you make sure you got film in the camera because, as an actor, you don’t want to hear, we didn’t get that.

Mel Gibson said that directing and starring in Braveheart left him so exhausted he couldn’t talk to anyone for weeks. Your first two films as a director, you played supporting roles. What toll did the dual roles take on you when you were the central figure onscreen?

It might’ve been tougher for him in Braveheart because it was so physically demanding and it wasn’t like they did Braveheart for five months on Broadway. So he was figuring things out on the day. I didn’t have the anxiety of, is this going to work? For me, the anxiety was, am I going to screw it up? I wasn’t searching for Troy, or trying to reinvent him. We had to catch up Jovan as Cory and the little girl [Saniyya Sidney]; they were the two new actors. She is a firecracker. We did the scene, when they’re singing and then Jovan starts breaking down. I said, “Look, you just take care of your big brother.” She was like, “OK.” And she gives him the hug and did all that stuff. She’s just so innocent, she doesn’t even realize she’s under pressure.

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Paramount Pictures

Your cast said your guiding message to them was, remember the love. You had to look really hard for the love, in Troy. What did you mean by that?

Well, you start on page 1, not on page 70. Yes, these things are going to turn, but without the love there first, the audience isn’t invested. This way, it breaks your heart because you realize how much they love each other, and this guy’s just a little screwed up. But if they don’t love each other… What you don’t want is for the audience to go 10 minutes in and think, well, why are they together? Or, when they break apart, you don’t want them saying, “Yeah, I could see that coming, that’s not that much of a stretch.” The more love—especially love between both of them—the more you realize what Rose has put up with, for the sake of love.

Maybe that’s the genius of the play.

Maybe you’ve got to ask women a lot of these kind of questions because I don’t know how they think. But… It’s like a simple line, between Troy and Rose. He does all this talking, blah, blah, blah, and says, “Rose will tell you.” She says, “Troy’s lying,” and never looks up, and he doesn’t stop and go, “No I’m not.”

They’re one person. That’s what breaks your heart, because they’re really a great team, and he’s the one who screwed it up.

Was there a director in particular who helped nurture your desire to get behind the camera?

You take a little bit from everybody.

What did you take from Tony Scott, for instance?

Maybe to think outside the box, where you put the camera. If sometimes it takes a little too long to figure out where to put the cameras, don’t worry about it because the actors are going to bring it when they get there. Sometimes he’d do set ups that might take 3 or 4 hours with 3 or 4 cameras, but then when you got in there, you could do the whole scene. I tried to find places where, especially in this film, we could do the whole scene, so you could get a good run at it.

Do you see yourself taking risks like he did? You look at Man on Fire, from the frenetic camera work to the placement of subtitles on screen. You don’t see filmmakers impose a style in a risky way like that. How helpful was he in pushing you to move past your comfort zone?

I’m paraphrasing, but I remember Ridley telling me that Tony was the most technically advanced director, and this is Ridley Scott, calling Tony the best at that of anybody he knew. I don’t dare think of myself in that way. Like I said, I just steal from the best. If you’re going to steal, you know, take a little Tony Scott, a little Ridley.

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Paramount Pictures

A little Spike Lee and Antoine Fuqua?

Yeah, exactly, and you add yourself in there. Antoine and I were talking about the opening shot [in Fences], and he said, “I would be above.” I said, “Yeah, like God’s point of view?” And that’s the first shot of the movie. I remember us talking about it and I liked that idea.

You know, it was Spielberg who told me, “Steal from the best.” So I steal from Spielberg too. And Spielberg’s talked about stealing from Kurosawa. He said, “We all steal from Kurosawa, Denzel.” He said, “There are no new shots.” There are only so many. Yeah, we can put on the ceiling, on the floor, over there, over here. You’re sitting there, I’m sitting here. Do we shoot it like this, or like that, or through the glass? There’s only so many ways to skin the cat, and the key is that it doesn’t come off like, hey, look at me, the director!

Especially in a movie like Fences, you don’t want to be taken out, suddenly, and go, “Oh, that’s a Denzel shot! But what’s that got to do with the story?” You want it to feel seamless. At the same time, it’s two hours of people talking. So how do you make that work? How do you pick up the pace?

When you compare Fences to your first two films, Antwone Fisher and then The Great Debaters, what did you do here that you might not have been able to on those other films?

I just know more. You start to learn what not to worry about. When I did Antwone Fisher, I worried about everything. I didn’t know what a director was supposed to do and so I’m like “Oh, maybe I’m supposed to do this?” You’re worrying about things you don’t need to be worrying about. You learn from experience to delegate authority. Here, I put the best around me and let them do what they do. In that first go round, I wasn’t even sure what they do. Not to mention, what I was doing.

You had Viola in that movie, as the mother who abandoned Antwone Fisher. She had not been on my radar, but it was a “who is that?” moment, when the son confronts the mother. You described how Troy had to take her fire in those memorable Fences scenes, but in Antwone Fisher, she displayed so much guilt, shame and despair, without saying a word.

That’s right. I don’t remember if she auditioned, I’d have to ask her. She must have, unless I saw her in a play.

What do you remember about that scene?

I knew to leave her alone, and it was good that I wasn’t in that part of the film, I remember it was cold and we were in Cleveland in an abandoned housing project. It was freezing, and I remember she just stayed in character, just stayed with it, and it was just like, you know what, just leave her alone. She’s delivering. I’m watching the monitor and I’m like, “Man, she’s killing it.” I had to work with Derek Luke more in that scene, because he has a big speech and he had ‘prepared’. I think he decided he wanted to cry in the scene, and I remember saying to him, “You have the right to feel everything you feel after what she’s done to you, but don’t let her see you sweat. Don’t give her the pleasure of seeing it.” He got that note, and ran with it.

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Derek Luke and Denzel Washington in Washington’s directorial debut, Antwone Fisher. Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock

I don’t think the scene would have had such power had you gone the other way. Is Viola the best actress you’ve worked with, in terms of being able to summon tears and extreme emotions?

Well, forget the tears, because you can just put some water on there and have tears. But in Antwone Fisher, it’s actually that there’s just one tear, and it’s not until he walks away. He says everything, and she never breaks. And then I went to a shot where he walks across and you’re left on him. Then, I cheated his steps [to the door], and I stayed with her. And you hear his steps, doom, doom, doom, and choom [the door closing]. And then, the tear came. It’s just the way it played, and when she played it, and I built the timing into it with the steps and the door.

I looked at it and realized, “Wow, she waited until he went out, to drop that tear.” It didn’t hit her until he went out the door, like in the scene in Fences when Cory’s singing with his sister, and it doesn’t hit him until it hits him. He’s singing [their childhood song] “Old Blue Died”, and suddenly he starts breaking down. He’s thinking it’s going to be just fine, and then he starts thinking about his father. And this little girl is doing it so brilliantly, saying, “come on Cory, come on, you could sing it.”

Was it automatic that the adult actors in the play were going to be in the movie?

It was for me. I decided, yeah, I wasn’t leaving those guys behind. They were the reason we were a success. Who could have been a better Gabriel than Mykelti? Who’s a better Bono than Stephen? I wouldn’t do that to him. No way. He’s the bass player of the band, the foundation and the wisdom. I love that, and we used it. He’s always watching. Listening to the wife, and then he looks at me, but I didn’t even see him looking. He’s just always doing things quietly, but he could see where this thing’s going.

He’s a great actor, and I’m happy for him and for Russell [Hornsby] and for Mykelti because it’s their turn. They’ve been chopping wood a long time, and now it’s their chance to shine, and people are responding to it. As for Viola, she wasn’t going anywhere. People are like, “Who is this Stephen Henderson, and where’d he come from?” He’s been chopping wood for a long time. He is the classic character actor, and now it’s his turn.

It looks like Viola will compete in the Best Supporting Actress category. I recall you not getting nominated in the Best Actor category for Philadelphia. Your co-star, Tom Hanks, won and it seemed you might have been right there had you gone in the Supporting Actor category. Your longtime agent, Ed Limato, said simply, “Denzel is not a supporting actor.”


Did you ever regret that?

Being put in [that category]? No. No. And in this case, it’s her decision. I told her I don’t agree with it, but it’s her decision. She’s a grown woman. And you know what? Her performance speaks for itself, in whatever category. You can start a new category. You saw the movie.

You stick to your principles, from the way you built your star power with movies of a certain budget range that consistently perform, to the way you stay out of the limelight. Then there’s the advice you took to heart from Sidney Poitier…

You mean, if they see you for free all week, they won’t pay to see you on the weekend?

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Paramount Pictures

That’s the one. Robert De Niro just made a deal to star in a David O. Russell series with Julianne Moore. Movie stars increasingly are doing things for streaming services and cable. How does Poitier’s advice square with a fast changing business?

Well, he told me that when I was 20, too. De Niro’s not 20.

Does any of this changing shape of stars lead you to alter your path?

I’m busy. I’m trying to take care of August Wilson right now. That sounds a little pretentious, but you know I’m in that world [with his other plays]. And I’m booked for a couple years anyway. We’re going to do another Equalizer in 2018. I’m doing a film in the spring called Inner City. Dan Gilroy, this great writer who did Nightcrawler and directed it, it’s his second film. This is his second film.

Nightcrawler was a crazy ride.

Oh, and this is a good one too. He really likes those dark corners of LA. And I play a character… I call it Cornel West with Asperger’s. He’s this lawyer stuck in the Civil Rights era, only it’s now, and he still dresses like it’s the ’70s with a big afro and a little Asperger’s going on.

How come we’ve never seen you in spandex. Everybody’s doing these…


Yeah. The superhero thing…

Oh! I was like, where are you going with that? I didn’t even go to Action Hero, I went to the dark side of spandex. Asking myself, “How did you know? I swear, it was only that one time!”

Oh, my. Never had the urge to play a superhero?

Not so much now. No.

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Or Star Wars?

That’d be nice. That’s different than spandex. If Spielberg called me and asked me, you know, yeah, whatever.

But I don’t know about the spandex part. You don’t want to see that. That’d be motivation, though; I’d have to get it together. Who’s the oldest spandex guy? Is it Ben Affleck, is he the oldest Batman? Michael Keaton was young when he did it, and so was George Clooney? I’ve never seen a 50-year-old guy in spandex. You don’t want to see a 60-year-old guy in spandex. No. No. I don’t think so. With the high boots and the socks and everything.

Last year, we saw this outcry over a lack of diversity in Oscar nominations. Feels like this year is much different. Did you see it as a crisis last January?

No, and it didn’t start in January. We just talked about it in January. Why did it start in January? Because of the Oscars? But think of how many other years. I’ve been there when I was the only guy there that looked like me, so, that’s not new. At the same time, it’s good for us this year.

Did the Academy reforms to diversify the voting body go far enough? Do you have a voice in the Academy?

It’s all a good thing. I’m not actively involved; I don’t go to meetings. I haven’t been asked to, but I haven’t volunteered either. Cheryl Boone Isaacs has been fighting a good fight, and she has made a lot of changes, and it takes time.

The key, though, is material, and getting movies made. What awards they get, we’ll see, but the key is that it starts on the page. We need to nurture and develop good writers, across the board. When you have these giant blockbusters, you know writers want to eat too, so you say “Hey, let’s write like a nice little family drama about this black family.” OK, but how am I going to eat?

Didn’t Spike Lee hit it on the head when he said that nothing changes until there are more decision makers of color at studios?

No question. It is all of the above: writers, directors, producers. You know what’s interesting? My son graduated from AFI, in the director’s program, and with two black directors, but there were about 6 or 7—not just black—producers of color. I wanted to see more writers, actually, but those tracks are all being developed. I’d like to think that especially with the networks and cable and everything else, there are more opportunities. So, it’s a heck of a lot different. I was talking to my wife about that the other day, how it was when we were coming up. And now, the opportunities with a show like Empire, with the Tyler Perrys over here and the Spike Lees over there. There are 500 channels, so there’s a lot more opportunity.

You mentioned how, some years, you were alone. I can see Sidney Poitier is a touchstone person for you. In his heyday, he was really alone.

Yeah, him and Harry Belafonte.

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Paramount Pictures

You ever discuss what that was like?

No, not directly. I remember, one of the great pieces of advice he gave me came early on in my career. He said, “You know, the first four or five films you make or that you’re in will determine how you’re perceived in this business. So remember that in your early decision-making.”

Very shrewd. How did that help you?

Actors want to be loved and they are hungry and they want to eat. Black, white, blue, or green, we’ve all done things we look back and go, “Oh boy.” But sometimes you needed to do that to get to the next level. I guess in my case, Sidney was saying, “Be patient.” Because he saw something in me that made him say, “Hey, it’s worth taking your time.” And I listened to him.

It has certainly worked. We all get older and it doesn’t seem like you are slowing down. You are aging well, and you’ve still got a good head of hair.

[Smiles, removes his Yankee cap to make sure]. I guess I do have a good head of hair.

You can certainly direct more often. Clint Eastwood made the transition, and in his 80s, is still knocking down one good film after another.

I’ve watched what he’s done, and have followed it closely. When I got into directing, I said to myself, sooner or later, they’re going to stop calling me as an actor, but [Eastwood] can call himself. I mean, he had his biggest hit as a director or actor at 80, with American Sniper. He’s my hero. I want to be that guy when I grow up.

I don’t know how he got into directing, but he realized he had to expand. I didn’t just get into it for that. I was asked to do it by Todd Black, the producer of Antwone Fisher. That’s how it started, but now that I’m in it, I also like it.

You can get bored over here. I’m not bored with acting, but once I got behind the camera, I appreciated acting more, or I should say, I appreciated directors more. I thought, this is hard. Let me get back over here and just sit in my trailer and wait until they call me. You realize how much it takes.

At the same time, you know, when I was a kid, I was a coach. I like seeing other people do well. Here, I’m enjoying seeing Viola and everybody shine. It’s OK. I can be the behind-the-scenes guy. It doesn’t matter to me. I’ve had enough opportunity to shine, but just to see other people do well, with great material, obviously, that has become very, very satisfying for me.

Maybe more than you could have when you were earning your stripes as an actor?

Maybe. It’s just a process. I wasn’t thinking about directing then. I was trying to make it as an actor, and there was never a plan at 22. It wasn’t until Todd Black really got me thinking about directing, and I kept dragging my feet. And then, on Antwone Fisher, they pinned me in a corner finally.

What was your hesitation?

Just because you make a hit movie doesn’t mean you can run the studio. We keep going back to sports, but how many players thought they could become managers, and it doesn’t work out? A lot of times it’s the guy who wasn’t the big star who became a great coach. The guys who were big stars weren’t necessarily good coaches, and they got out of it quickly. Magic, Jordan. Look at Steve Kerr, Phil Jackson, Luke Walton. Average players, great coaches.

Those stars can be impatient, but I find as I get older, by-lines mean less to me than helping a young person grow. You had that opportunity with Fences and it was clear from a cast interview you did in that first screening that there was some patriarchal pride in seeing others shine.

That’s how my nature is. I think I’ll always want to act, which is why this is nice. Act on stage, act in film, and direct. If you get tired of this, then you go over there. You’re like, “I ain’t looking to direct right now,” so you come back over here and let somebody else worry about that.

And like you said, I get a lot of gratification. I’m happy when I’m up there watching Stephen and all those guys talk. I’m good with that. It feels good. It’s not like oh, wait, be quiet, this has to be about me, me, me. This is our moment. All of us. August Wilson wrote a masterpiece. We see great, great performances here, and I won’t even say it’s an old-fashioned movie, just a good family story, and I’m proud of it. I’m proud of everybody. I think we took care of August Wilson. That was my job.

It has been a long time since Training Day, but those loud, heated conversations Troy has with God? It is kind of nice to see you can still howl at the moon.

Yeah, well, now it feels like the moon is howling back.

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