Interviews


Denzel Washington


Occupation: Actor
Date of Birth: December 28, 1954
Place of Birth: Mt. Vernon, N.Y., USA
Sign: Sun in Capricorn, Moon in Aquarius
Relations: Father: Denzel Washington (preacher); mother: Lennis Washinton (beautician); wife: Paulette Pearson; kids: John David, Katia, Malcolm and Olivia (twins)
Education: Fordham University

 

GIVEN the theatrical environment in which he was raised, it was inevitable that Denzel Washington would one day become an actor. Not that he comes from a show-business family, mind you. Rather, Washington developed his dramatic tendencies in the spiritual surroundings of his father's church and in the more secular environment of his mother's beauty salon. Through the dedicated practice of their diverse vocations, Washington's parents instilled in their son a strong work ethic, a love of God and family, and, most importantly, the ability to tell a darn good story. Young Denzel, who incidentally also inherited a movie idol's dashing good looks, took these tenets to heart, building upon them both a personal and a professional life of which any parent would be proud.

Washington was born in Mount Vernon, New York, in the shadow of the Big Apple. (His father, Denzel, Sr., had been named after the physician who delivered him, one Dr. Denzel.) From the age of eleven, Denzel, Jr., the second of three children, began working (and eavesdropping) after school in a series of barber and beauty shops. When he was fourteen, Washington's parents separated, and Denzel and his older sister were shipped off to boarding school to remove them from the sphere of familial strife (which eventually led to divorce) and to keep them out of trouble. After graduating from high school, Washington enrolled at New York's Fordham University, where he formally studied the art of storytelling on a journalism track. He soon stumbled into several starring roles in student drama productions, including one staging of Othello that Fordham faculty members and alumni still talk about. Washington completed his B.A. in 1977 and then headed off to San Francisco to pursue his newfound passion at the American Conservatory Theater, where he had won a scholarship.

Described by a former professor as "a natural," the quick-study Washington soon grew bored with academia and left A.C.T. after only one year to launch his professional career. Early gigs included the NBC telefilm Wilma (1977), in which he portrayed the boyfriend of Olympic runner Wilma Rudolph; a New York Shakespeare Festival production of Coriolanus (1979); and his feature-film debut as George Segal's illegitimate teenage son in Carbon Copy (1981). Washington's big break came in 1982, when he landed the role of resident Dr. Phillip Chandler on the NBC hospital drama St. Elsewhere. His performances caught the attention of many a Hollywood casting director, and, as a result, Washington had no trouble filling six years' worth of TV hiatuses with movie work. When St. Elsewhere exited the air, Washington segued effortlessly into movie-stardom. His portrayal of a Civil War soldier in director Ed Zwick's historical drama Glory (1989) cemented his reputation as a first-tier actor, and earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor to boot.

When asked to characterize Washington's talent, co-workers tend to discuss his "inner process" (Zwick), his habit of "testing the parameters of the scene" Tom Hanks), and his qualifications as a "cerebral, analytical actor" (Kelly Lynch). "[Denzel Washington] has intellectual weight, spiritual gravity, and a powerful sexual and romantic presence," summed up Kenneth Branagh in a Vanity Fair interview. His colleagues admire him for his meticulous preparation for his roles, a process which Washington has himself likened to an investigative journalist's exacting method of uncovering his subject. For example, Washington drew upon lifelong memories of his father's powerful presence behind the pulpit, and also read extensively, in order to perfect his Oscar-nominated performance in the title role of Malcolm X (1992). (Sadly, Denzel Washington, Sr., died at age eighty-one during shooting on the film.)

Prior to Oscar night in 1993, Washington consented to an interview with Barbara Walters that continues to haunt him. He first confided to Walters that he would never leave his wife, singer-actress Pauletta Pearson (they met when the two appeared in Wilma). Washington then broached the prickly subject of infidelity: "Being a star and all of that, temptation is all around, it's all around, you know, and I haven't been perfect. I'll be quite candid about it." Not surprisingly, since uttering those surely regretted words, Washington has spoken little about his private life. But by most accounts, at this point, he passes for Mr. Family Values: Denzel, Pauletta, and their four children live in a Los Angeles mansion once owned by William Holden, and spend much quality time together--at home, at the Pentecostal West Angeles church, and on family vacations far away from dad's moviemaking madness. On one such trip to South Africa, Denzel and Pauletta renewed their wedding vows in a ceremony officiated by Archbishop Tutu. Washington has generously given of his time (most notably as spokesman for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, an organization that had a profound impact on his own upbringing) and money to several charities, including his local church, The Gathering Place (a home for HIV-infected people), and the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund.

On the professional front, Washington has leveraged his A-list status to toggle between blockbusters such as The Pelican Brief (1993) and Crimson Tide (1995), and critical favorites such as Philadelphia (1993) and Devil in a Blue Dress (1995). The latter film represents the first offering of his Mundy Lane Entertainment, the production company Washington named after the street on which he grew up. He pocketed a $10-million paycheck for the disappointing Courage Under Fire (1996), but scored a modest hit with the holiday charmer The Preacher's Wife (1996), in which he co-starred opposite Whitney Houston. In 1998, Washington portrayed a methodical detective tracking a devil of a serial killer in the taut thriller Fallen; the convict father of a basketball phenom in Spike Lee's He Got Game; and the head of a terrorism task force in Edward Zwick's controversial The Siege. 1999 brought a turn in the thriller-mystery The Bone Collector, in which he played an embittered ex-cop left a quadriplegic by an on-the-job accident who finds meaning in his life after his former employers solicit his assistance in tracking down a serial killer; and an Oscar-nominated lead portrayal as wrongfully imprisoned middleweight boxing champ Rubin "Hurricane" Carter in the Norman Jewison film The Hurricane.

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