“If you don’t trust the pilot, don’t go, you know?” And then Denzel Washington laughs.
He’s got that hearty laugh—if you’ve seen his movies, you know it. He’s just given us a nice piece of advice and you can forgive him if he has “pilot” on the brain; he plays one in his new movie, Flight, which hits theaters this holiday season. He’s referring to that point we reach when we either have to commit or back away from working with someone new.
He made that decision some months ago about Flight and its director, Robert Zemeckis. You’ve seen at least one Zemeckis film: Pick from the Back to the Future Trilogy, Forrest Gump or the recent animated retelling of A Christmas Carol, among many others. Even after more than 30 years in the business, Washington had never worked with Zemeckis. Both men have Oscar-laden résumés.
“Needless to say, Bob Zemeckis’ work speaks for itself, so I trust the pilot on that level. But before you take on a new project, you sit down with a director, you meet, you talk, you eat food and you get a vibe on a person. But it’s a small town, so word gets around on people pretty quickly. You’ll have a sense of someone—and they’ll have one of me—before we sit down. When I heard he was interested, it was really a no-brainer.”
No matter how Flight performs (the awards buzz has already begun), the bond Washington’s forged with Zemeckis is yet another career asset for a man who has created and maintained fruitful working relationships with some of the best talents in an incredibly competitive industry.
But Washington learned the power of relationships very early on. The son of a beautician and a Pentecostal minister who divorced when he was young, Denzel’s future could’ve been much different if not for those who took an interest, looked out for him and mentored him along the way—starting when he was just a youngster going to his local Boys & Girls Club in Mount Vernon, N.Y.
“I look back now and think about all the time after school that I spent at the club. I started there when I was just 6 and stayed for 12 years. Many of the boys I grew up with—friends who didn’t take advantage of the opportunities the club offered—ended up in trouble with the law and spent many years in prison,” Washington wrote in a 2010 article posted on CNN.com.
“Mentors like [club director] Billy Thomas told me I could do anything I wanted to do. That sounds like a simple thing, but as a kid I wasn’t hearing that a lot. They gave me the positive support that I needed.”
Washington did not completely avoid trouble, though, hanging out with neighborhood kids and getting into minor fights. His mother packed him off to boarding school where he quickly straightened up. From there, he went to Fordham University and caught the acting bug after performing in a show one summer while working as a Boys Club camp counselor.
After graduating, he landed a role in the TV movie Wilma (where he met Pauletta Pearson, an actress, singer and pianist who would become his wife). He also did some off-Broadway work and commercials—you may remember him as “Grapes” in the Fruit of the Loom commercial. Then, in 1982, came his breakout role as Dr. Philip Chandler in the hit TV series St. Elsewhere.
Washington proceeded to forge an enviable career, earning Academy Awards for best supporting actor in Glory in 1990, and for best actor in Training Day in 2001, among accolades that also included being named People’s Sexiest Man Alive in 1996.
Still, he remains humble. “We all get where we’re going with a push from someone else,” he says in his 2006 best-seller, A Hand to Guide Me, which he wrote in support of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. “You can draw a line from every great success back to some rock-solid foundation. A parent. A teacher. A coach. A role model. It all starts somewhere.”
And it doesn’t end—not for anyone seeking professional success as well as personal fulfillment. Denzel Washington understands this.
In one sense, actors have it a lot harder than most folks when it comes to working well with others. Projects come and go, and actors need to generate genuine working chemistry immediately after meeting another actor. It has to work or the whole project is in jeopardy. Could you work at a world-class level with strangers mere hours or days after first meeting them?
Denzel Washington does. Looking at his filmography, some of his most powerful onscreen performances were opposite or directly dependent on a co-worker he’d never worked with. Not necessarily the director or the writer or the crew—though all are instrumental in making a film. We’re talking about the actors he’s gone toe-to-toe with to produce some of the most memorable scenes in recent film history. Examples: With Tom Hanks in Philadelphia; with Ethan Hawke in Training Day, in which he won a best-actor Oscar; with Gene Hackman in Crimson Tide.
“The bottom line is that all the people you just mentioned are very good,” he says with a laugh. “I was at a very different point in my life the first time I worked with Gene Hackman. That was a movie called Power, back in 1984-85, so I was like, ‘Wow, Gene Hackman’ ”—the typical young gun’s reaction to working with a legend, but a reaction that would change as Washington’s experience and confidence grew. “Then when I worked with him on Crimson Tide, I was like, ‘I’m in a heavyweight battle; I’m out here with a world champion; I gotta be ready.’ ”
This is where talent can help build the relationship very quickly. Hey, we don’t know each other, but I’m good, he’s good, and we’re both pushing for the same thing—let’s get going. That’s some fertile common ground, and you can grow just about anything in it. That’s what happened on Philadelphia. “Working with Tom [Hanks], it was more like we’re contemporaries,” he says. “We had a great director in Jonathan Demme and two really great parts.
“I’m working with somebody I really like right now in Mark Wahlberg [on the upcoming film 2 Guns]. Everything you hear is true: nice guy, hard worker, very talented, obviously very successful. And you know? We’re rollin’.”
Washington is especially good at cultivating these decades-long back-and-forths with directors. He was known as the go-to actor for the late Tony Scott (think Crimson Tide, Deja Vu, Man on Fire, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and, most recently, 2010’s Unstoppable), but he has lengthy track records with other directors, too. He pauses… and then rattles off the stats:
“Tony and I did five pictures together, Spike [Lee] and I have made four pictures together, Ed Zwick and I made three pictures together—Glory, The Siege and Courage Under Fire. And Jonathan Demme and I have made two.”
What’s the secret to those relationships? Three things, Washington says. “People you like, people who are good, and the material.” Then he laughs again. “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.”
One other factor contributing to long-term relationship success is an understanding that you don’t have to work together on every project. “Spike and I go back to 1989 now. And there have been films I’ve said no to. And I’m sure there were films where he said, ‘No, Denzel’s not the right guy.’ We’ve known each other a long time, we work well together; we’ve had success. Same thing with Tony. When he called, I listened. But I haven’t done every part he asked me to.”
(My interview with Washington came prior to Scott’s untimely death in August. In a statement, Washington called Scott a great director and genuine friend, “and it is unfathomable to think that he is now gone. He had a tremendous passion for life and for the art of filmmaking and was able to share this passion with all of us through his cinematic brilliance. My family sends their prayers and deepest condolences to the entire Scott family.”)
Hollywood can be hard on relationships. Denzel and Pauletta Washington seemed to understand this from the start. When I mention that showbiz marriages should be measured in dog years, Washington cracks up. “Any marriage!”
Well, by that measurement, he’s been married to Pauletta for nearly 210 years (OK, in 2013 it’ll be 30). They also have four children: John David, 28; Katia, 24; and twins Malcolm and Olivia, 21. By all accounts, great kids. Smart, driven and well-adjusted. Obviously, every parent of such children would say it was “by design,” but in this case, Denzel and Pauletta went to great lengths to make sure Dad’s career didn’t bring in the negative influences that fame and showbiz culture can breed.
“My mom used to say, ‘Keep it simple,’ and we kept it simple,” he says. “We raised them the way we were raised. We decided early on that my wife would put down her career and be a stay-at-home mom so the kids would have that stability. She made them breakfast and got them to school, and they said their prayers every day. Our kids’ friends are the kids they went to school with, or the kids they played with at the rec center. Athletics was my side of it. I had all of them play sports, and I coached them. We try to maintain a normal—whatever that is—home. Our parents wouldn’t have it any other way. My wife’s parents are gone now, but my kids got that opportunity to spend time in North Carolina and be in a little house and sleep on the floor and be with Grandma and Granddaddy and get all those lessons from them.”
This isn’t to say that having an Oscar-winning actor for a husband or father doesn’t have its… impact. Early on, when Denzel was working, depending on the character he was playing, his wife’s common refrain was, “Who’s coming home today?” (It was particularly painful for Pauletta when Denzel was working on Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues and brought a trumpet home to practice; Pauletta was a child prodigy as a concert pianist. “Oh, the trumpet was killin’ her,” he giggles. “Just killin’ her!”)
The simplicity mantra—and their faith—made it all work, especially with the kids. “You have to let them slip and fall, learn on their own and earn on their own. That’s why I was glad they all went to school back East because they couldn’t come home after class. They had to fend for themselves. Malcolm went to Penn in Philly, his twin sister’s in New York City, John David went to Morehouse in Atlanta, and Katia went to Yale, so she was in New Haven. They all worked it out on their own.”
One parenting tactic that Washington looks back on fondly: Once a year, he had his kids write down five things they might want to do or be when they grow up. “That gives you an inkling of what they’re interested in as they get older. John David was into pro football—a hard life, trying to make a team. Malcolm played basketball, but he never wrote down NBA. He wrote down MBA! He wanted to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company. His twin sister wrote down actress, model, fashion designer, so she ended up studying acting.”
The bottom line is that the separation the Washingtons maintained between show business and family business helped feed all their successes (and still does). And although Denzel and Pauletta decided he would be the breadwinner, that didn’t mean his role was any more important.
“There’s a quote I read a long time ago,” Washington says. “It was from a book about James Cagney, I think. It talked about him as ‘an ordinary guy with an extraordinary job.’ I like to think I’m that kind of a person.”
Denzel Washington is one of the best at what he does. He has the adulation, awards and paycheck to prove how he is valued by his peers and fans. That’s enough to send anyone into a self-destructive tailspin—not from self-sabotage, but from egomania (so many paths to self-destruction, alas).
And yet, here he sits, still working hard, still married with great kids, and still unaffected by the negatives associated with his profession. How does he make that work? Simple, he says: “I don’t take myself seriously, but I take my work seriously.”
He mentions that phrase several times as we talk, and it’s genuine. Coming from that mindset—which serves as the foundation of his home and professional life—makes everything he does easier. Or, at least, clearer.
“In this movie I did, Safe House, the character was a sociopath, so I wasn’t Mr. Friendly Jovial on the set,” he says. “I was into what I was doing and didn’t want to talk a lot. I said to some people at the end of working on it, ‘I hope you don’t think I’m a jerk. I don’t take myself seriously, but I take my work seriously.’ ”
That’s how Washington defines his relationship with himself. You can see this onscreen, of course. He has moments of such power and emotion—playing heroes and villains—that you wonder where it comes from. I ask him what kind of spirit it takes to tap into those depths.
“Well, I think you hit the right word, first of all. It’s spirit. It’s from my faith. They say luck is where opportunity meets preparation. For me, success is where faith meets preparation. It’s not always something I’ve worked out technically. Just divine mistakes. Whatever ability I’ve been blessed with, that’s what I work with. I work hard because you never know when a moment’s gonna happen.
“I remember we were shooting Glory and there’s this scene where I get whipped. A moment just sort of happened. It wasn’t like, ‘OK, when he whips me I’m gonna have this one tear come down my cheek.’ It was actually hurtin’ for real!” He bursts out laughing. “That’s what was happening! So I was like, ‘OK, don’t let ’em see you sweat; they won’t break you.’ So it was just a moment. You can’t manufacture them or go looking for them. All you can do is prepare. I take my work seriously, do everything I’m supposed to do, say my prayers, and hope for the best.”
Taking his work seriously also means thinking through all the ramifications. “You just don’t know who you’ll touch,” he says.
“I remember a kid wrote me about Crimson Tide, a black kid. This was back in ’94. He said, ‘I never thought I could be captain of a Navy submarine. When I saw that movie it made me think I could be one.’ I was like… wow.
“You never know with a film: It can feel awful and be good, and feel good and be awful. I’ve been in both situations. The vibe was good, and the working environment was good, but there’s a long way between that and the success of a film. All I can say is, use what you got. Everyone’s gift is important, and it’s important to use your gift for good.”