Denzel Washington: Nowhere to Hide
After back to back hits like The Pelican Brief and Philadelphia, Oscar-winner Denzel Washington finds he doesn't much like being the center of attention everywhere he goes. "It was never my dream to be famous," he claims. "I didn't start acting to be a movie star."
"I thought we were here to talk about movies and stuff," says Denzel Washington, shooting me a lightning-bolt look that could melt plutonium. "What you're asking about. That's... private." Well, now. I'd been apprised that Washington, the well-thought-of Oscar winner, can be fiercely testy when interviewers attempt to probe his offscreen life.
And, Lord knows, I've ruffled celebrity feathers before, but never with such an innocuous question. It's not that I haven't come prepared with a slew of potential feather-rufflers. Such as how Washington, a married men and father, feels about being cited by People magazine as one of Hollywood's more unfaithful stars. Such as whether he quit, as the press reported, or was fired by Michelle Pfeiffer, his intended co-star of 1992's Love Field. Such as whether he is trying, Harrison Ford style, for a Big Movie Star-type career with a slew of commercial-sounding movie projects to follow his new nuke submarine thriller Crimson Tide. Such as why he, one of Hollywood's best-looking men, has made such a fuss about not wanting to appear nude in movies when, in fact, he already has. But all that is to come later.
We've been holed away for maybe 10 minutes in a conference room in the offices of Washington's publicists. I've been listening to his by-the-numbers, I'm-here-to-support-my-new-movies-but-I'ss-be-dammed-if-I'll-do-much-else sorts of responses to my question, while trying to overlook hoe I've caught him eyeing his watch. Now I've become acquainted with the unmistakable get back bristle that lives just below Washington's charm-guy surface. In a second he can go from the deliberate, diligent Washington of Malcolm X, Philadelphia and Cry Freedom to the edginess of Mo' Better Blues and Glory.
The interview has been going along like so, Me: "I read that your wife once said that you are impatient and want it all, yesterday. How close are you to having everything?" Him: "Impatient? Hmm. I don't even know what 'everything' means. So, I can't say I want everything." Then comes a pleasant smile, a couple of blinks of the eyes and a stare that asks, Next? Me: "Well, career-wise, you've got a deal at TriStar and your next few years booked with such projects as Virtuosity, probably The Bishop's Wife and maybe A Star is Born-both with Whitney Houston-possibly a Jackie Robinson bio-flick with Spike Lee, plus a multimillion-dollar thriller script in which Fox boss Laura Ziskin hopes you'll star... " Him: "Well, there's a lot of talk about a lot of movies now. Not all those films are slated to go. Even if I had all of those, I don't think that's everything. There's a lot to life other than..."
"Movies?" I offer, to which he nods assent. That's when I make this offending comment: "I've heard that your father was a Pentecostal minister. How does a young man learn about the facts of life from a religious father?" He chides, "I'm not really into talking about my father. That's kind of private. And he's passed away, so we let him rest in peace."
With that, he falls silent. As he's mulling this whole interview thing over, with a look that seems to say, Oh, man, bring me in another interviewer, I'm mulling it over too, thinking, I guess there goes my question about the rumor that Washington's mother is holed up in Florida, busily knocking out an autobiography that the privacy-obsessed Washington surely must hope will not see the light of print. But, since someone has to break the silence, I decide I have nothing to lose--he's already clammed up, right? So, I go for broke, and ask, "How does a married father of four respond to turning up on the cover of People magazine described as one of Hollywood's 'most unfaithful celebrities'?" Instead of standing up and splitting, which is pretty much what I'm expecting, something curious happens. Washington grins slowly, settles back into the couch, and declares, "A Jamaican woman told me years ago. 'When you pray for rain, you gotta deal with the mud, too.'" "And," I add, "with the mudslinging." Washington takes a good, slow, deep breath and, I realize, decides at that instant to hold up his end of the interview after all.
"This 'famous' stuff, I guess you can get caught up in it," he says. "You can even get caught up in fighting it, pretending it doesn't exist. But it already alters who you are, just in the fact that you're trying to deny it. I just turned 40 and my wife and I had a quiet getaway. I didn't want a big party or anything. I just wanted to reflect on what I've done with the first 40 years and what I want to do now. I think I'm just starting to figure out how to do it, you know, how to simplify things in life. Around my birthday, I was listening to this motivational speaker, Les Brown, who made this analogy about ghosts around his bed. He was saying when you die, imagine you had these ghosts around your bed that represent your unfulfilled potential. Things that should have been done, should have been experienced. How many ghosts are going to be around your bed when your time comes? People can say about me or anyone, 'Oh, you're great at this,' but you have to look at yourself and say, 'How do I feel about what I've done?' That's all that matters."
And has he found ways to simplify his life? "Keep it simple, you know?" he replies.
"Just try to keep your head on straight and listen a little bit better to those around you and see if they're really for you or are they just... well, you know. Which is a tough one, because you can't become paranoid, where you're always going, 'Now, what did he really mean?" When you're in the focus, in the public eye, I guess it's the nature of the beast, when someone gets there, to start throwing rocks at them."
"Better prepare yourself for the rock storm," I tell him, which provokes a warm, booming laugh that fills the room. "Oh, it's started with me, definitely. [People] took a quote out of a TV interview I did three years ago with Barbara Walters that was shown the night of the Oscars and [People] attached something to it, put something behind it. I said, 'Hmm,' but then I thought, 'They're trying to sell newspapers, magazines. I'm a person in the public eye and they think saying that about me or about whoever else they had on [that cover] will sell magazines.' I assume millions and millions of people see Barbara Walters, but the interview was done three years ago [and] nobody wrote about it then. Maybe nobody cared then, now, all of a sudden..." Now, all of a sudden, lots more people care, especially once one has starred opposite Julia Roberts in a popular John Grisham potboiler or with Tom Hanks in a movie that made close to $80 million and received Oscar attention.
I've heard that since The Pelican Brief and Philadelphia. Washington has declined plum roles played instead by Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne, Ray Liotta and Forest Whitaker, among others. I mention this to Washington and he appears genuinely fascinated, laughing, "Where do you hear all this stuff?"
While he pooh-poohs it all as "agent talk," he doesn't deny that "magazine talk," about his being one of Hollywood's most desirable sex gods, takes its toll. "Let me tell you, it's 10 times tougher on my wife," he asserts, referring to musician-singer Pauletta Pearson, whom he met when both were making the 1977 bio-movie Wilma for TV. "She's a solid woman. Really strong. [But] it's tough, real tough. We've been blessed with a lot of things, too, you know. We do get the private jet. We do get the cars, the jewelry. She does get to buy and to go anywhere she wants."' He's not understating the case. In true "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" fashion, Washington's known to enjoy summering off the coast of Italy on the family yacht, the "boat," as he calls it, which is large enough to sleep not just the wife and kiddies but also such playmates as Debbie Allen and husband Norm Nixon, their children, plus a platoon of employees. But, Washington hastens to point out, ''some other parts come with it, too, because you can't go, 'I only want the good stuff. Everybody leave me alone, I want my privacy.' I think I've learned not to take it too seriously."