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Hollywood Confidential

Published: Thursday September 18, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday September 18, 2014 MYT 2:02:02 PM

Denzel Washington, the durable actor

‘When I was 30 years old they were still asking me for my ID,’ says Denzel Washington.

‘When I was 30 years old they were still asking me for my ID,’ says Denzel Washington.

Two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington on the secret to his thriving career, youthful looks and happy marriage.

Denzel Washington, obviously pleased that he has a hit on his hands, arrives early for his Hollywood Foreign Press interview at the Trump International Hotel in Toronto, Canada. He’s there for the Toronto Film Festival and aware that his new movie, The Equalizer, is also a critical success.

I can remember the first time I interviewed him. He arrived half-an-hour late, a barefoot boy with cheek. Yes, he was shoeless and with attitude. That was for Glory (1989) for which he went on to win both the Golden Globe and Academy Award.

In Toronto, he’s surprisingly forthcoming and uncharacteristically good-humoured. Although at first he was reluctant to talk about the past (“I don’t really look back; I’m a forward thinking person”), he then shared some never-before-revealed recollections of working with other directors, in particular Richard Attenborough, who cast him as South Africa’s revolutionary hero Stephen Biko in Cry For Freedom (1987), filmed during the Apartheid era.

“The late, great Richard Attenborough was the first to give me the first opportunity to go to Europe and to Africa. He wanted me to come to London. I was doing (the TV series) St Elsewhere at the time, and the late Bruce Paltrow (Gwyneth’s father), allowed me to leave the show to do three movies,” he recollected.

“For Cry Freedom I met with Sir Richard in New York, and he told me he was looking for an African to play the part – he had an obligation to do that – but if he couldn’t find anyone he wanted me, and I was like OK, that’s a great compliment. He didn’t find an African that he wanted so he asked me to come to London to see how I looked with Kevin Kline (who played Donald Woods) but when I got there they had scheduled me for a costume fitting.

“So I’m like, ‘Well, do I have the part? And he says, ‘Oh, yes, you have the part.’ Nobody had told me. So that was my first time going to London, and after that it was my first time going to Africa. I just remember the smell. I remember landing and I’m in Africa. It was a heavy air, hot and intense, but I remember even more meeting a young African telling me, ‘I could have been an American. I could have had a Cadillac.’

“I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ and he said, ‘Oh, my great-great-grandfather, he got away from the slave owners. They were chasing him, and he got away, and he didn’t get captured, but had he got captured, I’d be an American, and I could have had a Cadillac.’ I never forgot that.”

A surprising political reflection coming from someone who’s always avoided political grandstanding. In a long career, possibly the most durable of any superstar in Hollywood, he has won two Oscars (for Glory and Training Day) and been nominated four other times for memorable performances in Cry Freedom, Malcolm X, The Hurricane, and last year’s Flight.

Is it any easier today for African Americans to break into the business?

All I know is I had to work very hard. Everybody has to work very hard no matter what colour you are. When I was nominated for Malcolm X and Al Pacino won, people accused the Academy of racism, but I didn’t. I said Al Pacino has been nominated eight times and hasn’t won. I’ve been nominated twice and have already won once.

It’s easy and sometimes convenient to say it’s racial, but it is also a business. No matter what colour you are, if you don’t do good business, you’re not going to get more opportunities. It’s called show business. It should be called business show.

What was it about The Equalizer that grabbed you?

Well, the script was a good, fun read. It’s easier to know when it’s something you don’t want to do. If you’re on page four for an hour, you know it’s not happening. I can usually tell, although I’ve passed on a couple of scripts that ended up being big hit movies.

You will be 60 next year. Is that a milestone?

I was talking with Laurence Fishburne about it, and he told me, ‘In Asian cultures they talk about that as being the age of mastery.’ OK, that makes sense. That’s when you learn to simplify your life. When you’re young, you’re constantly running around, and when you start getting older, you think you’re doing less, but the reality is you’re just as effective or more so than you once were. So I embrace it. I mean, it’s life.

What’s the secret of your amazingly youthful looks?

Good genes. My mother’s north of 89 but she looks great. My daughter is 26, she looks 13. She still gets carded. When I was 30 years old they were still asking me for my ID, so I got good genes.

And your happy marriage (to the same woman for over 30 years)?

It isn’t always easy, but probably being away from each other sometimes is good. And now I’m especially happy that my wife is going back to work, because she’s a great talent.

When we met, she was doing Broadway shows. She did a very successful show called All Night Strut, which ran for six months. She was too talented to just be a housewife, but she made a commitment to put her career on hold to raise our children, and she did a brilliant job. So the short answer I guess is, just try to get along, be friends, and talk.

> Philip Berk, eight times President of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, hobnobs with celebrities to report exclusively from Los Angeles. The Equalizer opens in cinemas nationwide on Sept 25.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Denzel Washington, The Equalizer, Movies, Hollywood, Oscars, Antoine Fuqua, Training Day

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