EVEN with A-list Hollywood credentials and a fifth Oscar nomination, Denzel Washington still believes there are more important things in life than the movies, as Siobhan Synnot finds out.
How ironic that on the day I’m due to meet Denzel Washington, Heathrow throws a wobbly. Snow has fallen, as forecast, so all flights back to Scotland are cancelled, including mine. This month only two things might stop you boarding a plane: frozen drizzle, or seeing Washington waving cheerily from the cockpit.
Washington has been hearing this a lot since he made Flight, the Robert Zemeckis film where he plays a brilliant pilot who successfully lands a catastrophically damaged plane despite the fact he’s flying high himself on a cocktail of drink and drugs. It hasn’t changed Washington’s own feelings about flying how-ever. “I was once on a private plane and it was so rough I had to sit down the flight attendant and calm her down,” he says. “I remember thinking at the time, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be helping me?’ But I think the time to worry about flying is while you’re still on the ground. Once you’re in the air, there isn’t much you can do.”
Denzel Washington would make a terrific pilot. He certainly has that trust-me confidence, the machismo and the glamour. I can hear him down the corridor, wisecracking and greeting people in his familiar emphatic staccato cadence, and even if 58 is a little old for a commercial licence, in the flesh, he looks a decade younger despite a whistle-stop tour of Europe which means he has barely slept in the same country two nights running.
Almost immediately, he’s happily dismantling any notion that he could be part of the Harrison Ford and John Travolta club of actors who fly the friendly skies. Washington spent 20 to 30 hours training on a flight simulator in Atlanta so he would look as if he knew what buttons to press when taking off, but didn’t bother learning how to land “because we crash the plane anyway”. He spent even less time researching alcoholics “because my guy doesn’t think he has an alcohol problem – he thinks he’s holding it together”. Instead he watched drunks on YouTube – and quit alcohol altogether for the duration of the film.
“It’s funny being back here,” he says, as we gaze at the white flakes coating the banks of the Thames. “Because this is where I last tried to drink in a film. Back in the 1980s, I did a movie called For Queen and Country and it was freezing cold. So we were doing a scene and we drank a couple of Scotches or something. We were doing great, but the director was like, ‘Cut, cut. What are you doing? What’s wrong with you?’ We had thought we were brilliant, but he said, ‘No, you’re not. You’re drunk. That’s it for the day. Let’s go home.’”
In the movie business, they don’t get much bigger than Washington, a rare star who can still open films on the strength of his name alone. Not even Tom Cruise and Will Smith have his range and consistency at the box office nowadays.
The films that launched him tackled big subjects like apartheid (Cry Freedom), Aids (Philadelphia) or civil rights (Malcolm X), and his Oscar wins for as a civil war soldier in Glory (1989) and the charming corrupt police officer of Training Day (2002) were regarded as milestones, but Washington stubbornly adheres to the mantra that he is just an ordinary Joe.
Sometimes he overdoes this a bit – there’s a quote from him a few years ago where he describes being at home with his family and taking out the bins as “my idea of heaven”. But you get the picture: he’s keen not to appear starry, and is reluctant to overcomplicate his work. “It’s only acting, not rocket science,” he shrugs. “There are more important things than movies.”
Next month, however, he is off to the Oscars with his fifth nomination for Flight, and he admits that a third gold statue would be nice, although he can’t allow himself to think too far beyond that. Besides, the main difference an Oscar makes to a career is that you get further up the list for good scripts, and Washington already gets first look on most projects. “The first time I won, my agent had it all mapped out,” says Washington. “He said, ‘Denzel, we’re going to go to Spago, we’ll put the Oscar right in the middle of the table and people are gonna come in and we’re going to get WORK.’ And he was right – a producer came in, came across and said, ‘We want to do something with you, and we’re going to find something for you.’ An Oscar means your agent has more ammunition.”
His four children watch more films than he does, he says, and all of them have ended up in the business. His eldest son – a pro-footballer – produces films, his eldest daughter worked on the production side of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, while his younger son is studying directing, and youngest daughter, Olivia, 22, has followed him into acting.
“When she was younger, she and her girlfriend wanted to do that show The Simple Life,” he says, referring to the US reality show where wealthy socialites Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie tried their hand at a series of low-paid manual jobs. “I said, ‘You’re not doing that’, and she said, ‘But I want to be an actress.’ So I said, ‘That’s not acting. But if you’re serious about acting, we can talk about that.’” When she was preparing audition pieces for drama schools, Washington made her perform in front of him. “I said to her, ‘I will be honest with you and if you aren’t good, I will tell you.’ Unfortunately for me, she was excellent.”
He has done his best to prepare her for the worst, because Hollywood is a notoriously tough environment for actresses. When Washington first rose to fame, his leading women included Whitney Houston (The Preacher’s Wife), Julia Roberts (The Pelican Brief) and Meg Ryan (Courage Under Fire). Twenty years on, only Roberts still has a place on the A list.
Olivia Washington has the advantage of her father’s name, and has inherited the striking features of his wife, singer-actress Pauletta Pearson, but Washington is acutely aware of what Hollywood casting directors tend to favour. “I’ve told her, ‘You’re black, you’re a woman and you’re dark-skinned – so you have to be a triple threat. And don’t rely on being a little pretty girl: you better have some chops.’”
Earlier this month he took her to the Golden Globes, where fatherly pride led to some cute gushing on the red carpet about his daughter landing her first small role in a film, while Olivia stood beside him wearing the expression universally recognised as ‘embarrassed daughter’. Later, she got some of her own back by telling a camera crew that her father was “the biggest nerd ever”. Will he be taking her to the Oscars? “I hope not,” he says drily. “She’s got school.”
A devout Christian – he reads the Bible every day – Washington makes no apologies for straight-arrow parenting. Olivia’s twin Malcolm once complained about the ban on ‘explicit music’ imposed in their house. “My son said, ‘Dad, I don’t hear it here at home, but I hear it everywhere else.’ I said, ‘Well, at least you know the difference.’”
Washington’s own upbringing was even more rigorous. Raised in New York, his father was a preacher who expected his children to attend his church every Sunday, for his day-long sermons. When his parents divorced, his mother raised Washington and his siblings single-handed.
Washington was the quietest of the three children but after his parents’ divorce, something snapped. “I got into fights. It wasn’t like I was running around looking for fights, but I did have some anger.” His mother despatched him and his sister to boarding school, where he rebelled at first then turned his life around, qualified for university and discovered acting. None of his three best friends from his old gang fared so well: one was murdered, one died from an Aids-related disease, while the third is serving a 25-year prison sentence.
His father, Denzel snr, died some years ago, but his mother Lennis is still going strong. “She’s very independent and doesn’t want anyone’s help,” he says, feigning helplessness. “She won’t go down to the senior citizens’ centre because she says she ‘doesn’t want to stay with old people’ – but she’s 90.”
In 2002, when Washington was trying to direct his first movie, Antwone Fisher, the project became stuck in a long dispute with the notoriously stubborn Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Eventually Washington grew frustrated by the stalemate and told Weinstein that in future his mother would be dealing with the issue.
Amused, Weinstein staked his own mother to represent his side of the argument and, between them, the two matriarchs managed to get the film rolling again. Does Lennis now feel qualified to give Washington career advice? “She gives me every other kind of advice,” says Washington, with feeling.
He’s quite enjoying this portrait of the put-upon son, but, on the other hand, few mothers can boast that their son had President Obama call up, asking them to come out and shoot basketball hoops with them (Washington cried off: “My knees are shot”).
Also, how many times do the rest of us have Nelson Mandela calling, inviting themselves over to tea? “He asked if my wife could fry him some chicken,” says Washington. “It was like a royal visit. There were helicopters overhead. I’d told my kids they could invite two or three friends each, but then, of course, word had got round and parents and aunts started showing up. And then one of the security guys came to me and said, ‘Sylvester Stallone keeps riding up and down outside your house. Should we let him in?’ In the end we had about 50 people in the house, hanging on his every word.”
Despite the banter, Washington can be intimidating. If he’s bored answering a particular line of questioning, you know all about it, and he doesn’t like conversations to get too personal either. When I mention the tragic death of the British film director Tony Scott, the light dies in his eyes. “I don’t want to talk about that,” he says, quickly. Over 18 years, Washington and Scott made five films together, including Crimson Tide, Unstoppable and Man on Fire, with Washington’s acting gravitas counterpointing Scott’s hyperactivity. They were circling a sixth project when Scott suddenly and shockingly jumped from a bridge on 19 August last year.
I tell him I met Scott a few times, and that he seemed nice, but surprisingly shy and uncertain for a director of high-velocity blockbusters. Washington nods, and softens a little. “Yes, that was part of who he was,” he says. “He was also passionate, enthusiastic and crazy. If he wanted me on his picture he’d bug until I relented. In fact, he was working on me just before he passed away. He wanted me to do his movie about narco subs, where they build submarines to move drugs around, and he’d put a packet together for me. He’d used images of me in Crimson Tide and made up a little movie to convince me to do his film. So I’ve got this little package of images and tapes that I haven’t had the heart to look at yet. And I’ve got the last note he wrote me, a week or two before he died …” Washington’s voice thickens.
It’s a film that will never be made now. Instead, he has just finished a film called 2 Guns, with Mark Wahlberg in New Orleans. “It’s got guns and jokes,” he says, relieved to switch topics. In the past, Washington has played cops, soldiers, angels and even Beelzebub, but he hasn’t done much knockabout comedy. “So this could be a tragedy,” he quips. “It’s new territory for me, which makes it a little scary for me, but I knew Mark Wahlberg was very good, so I kinda follow his lead. We do some stupid stuff, but I laughed a lot.”
Maybe the reason that Washington is so good at playing complicated men is that he’s used to freighting two apparently conflicting values at once. He’s an average millionaire. A shrewd businessman, who gives away large chunks of his fortune to charity. A man who smiles a lot, but keeps his other feelings under wraps. I’m not surprised when he says he likes to relax by playing chess because he’s so clearly a man who likes to have a few pieces in play.
Even his exasperation can be charming. Earlier, he cuts short a question about celebrity. “I’m an actor, not a celebrity,” he corrects. “I don’t have anything to do with that kind of stuff.” He’s right: he’s not what you’d call an enthusiastic self-promoter and, unlike many A-listers, you never see Washington endorse luxury watches, aftershave or male moisturiser. But I must look a little crestfallen, because at the end of the interview, he picks up the box of Scottish biscuits I’ve brought along as an ice breaker.
“My name is Denzel Washington,” he says earnestly to an invisible camera, “and when I need a break, I like a Tunnock’s Teacake”. Then he shoots me a sidelong glance, and winks. This is not a man who should be scared of comedy.
Flight is released on Friday