Denzel Washington was in a good mood when we met, as well as he should be. Wearing a black t-shirt, jeans and his traditional baseball cap, he has capped off quite the year, first with his Oscar win and now with his debut directorial gig which is receiving quite the buzz here in Hollywood. As for that Best Actor Oscar win, the actor recalls being genuinely surprised when his name was called out.
"When Halle won, I figured that I’m not going to get it, not tonight, so I was kind of relaxed, and then surprised." But the actor remains philosophical as to whether that double Oscar win will change anything in Hollywood. "We’ll see what it means. I think, as Halle said, hopefully it opens doors for African-American women, or any of the minorities. But it was just one night."
While Oscar campaigns can be stressful, nothing compares to directing your first feature. Comparing the two, Washington is clear that it’s directing that represents the greatest accomplishment, not winning his second Oscar. "I mean directing is a hard job and a real job," Washington explains.
For his first film as a director, he chose the real-life story of Antwone Fisher, a film that revolves around a sailor (Derek Luke) prone to violent outbursts, who is sent to a naval psychiatrist (Washington) for help. Refusing at first to open up, the young man eventually breaks down and reveals a horrific childhood.
Through the guidance of his doctor, he confronts his painful past and begins a quest to find the family he never knew. The actor/director jokingly says that "I backed myself into a corner and I couldn’t get out. They made me sign a napkin up in Toronto saying that I’ve gotta do the movie! So I said, 'All right. I’ll do it! I’ll do it!'"
In looking for his first stint as a director, Washington was ultimately attracted to this project because "I’ve done films about real people, so I figured I knew something about that. Also, it’s a performance kind of a film and doesn’t rely on high technology or anything like that. So, it just felt like the right thing to do," Washington explains. Then when I met Antoine, I just loved him. He’s such a grave and very soft-spoken person, and we went through a long process. I mean, he and I worked on this script for four or five years. We just kept developing it right until I’d say 'cut'."
Remembering how he often talked throughout the year about the pressures of being a director, he recalls keeping any stress away from the set, remembering his experience working with one of his favourite directors, Jonathan Demme, on Philadelphia.
"He created an environment on the set that you just felt like you could fly, if need be. I remember one day we were shooting a scene in the courtroom, and I had to make this big speech, and I just ran up to the podium, just cartwheeled back, and Jonathan was like, okay, okay, maybe that’s an idea. Like, I know we are not going to use that, but he gave me that freedom. On Antwone, I was working with very young actors that didn’t have a lot of experience, so I wanted to make sure that they felt comfortable, and that they could feel like they could fail. It’s not an exact science, and we would improvise a lot. I also think I know a thing or two about acting, so I was able to share that with them. I think that’s also another one of the good reasons I chose to do this film because I knew it was a performance film, which is my strength."
What Washington DIDN’T care for, is directing himself, in particular shooting scenes with his relatively inexperienced co-star. "Again, Derek is such a young actor, that I really wanted to keep my eye on him and work with him. So now you’re splitting your focus in the scene with him, and then I’ve must run back and look at myself and that was the most difficult day," he says. Then adding laughingly, "I wanted to fire me."
Denzel avoided taking the easy route as a rookie director. He refused to call on his celebrity friends to fill out the main roles. Denzel clearly relished the challenge. "They were the best actors I found and I read everybody for four or five years, and Derek came in and just won the part. It’s as simple as that. No, he didn’t have the film experience, but he was fine as an actor and in that role, he was great."
Despite the stress of being behind the camera, Washington would direct again, "given the opportunity, for sure." Meanwhile he was happy to be just acting this year on Carl Franklin’s Out of Time "just happy to be in my trailer, sitting and watching TV."
These days Denzel, now a two-time Oscar winner, has the world at his feet, but it hasn’t been for lack of hard work "and intense audacity," he recalls. Relating his own youth to the world of the troubled Antwone, Washington remembers "that right before I started acting, in college, I was having a rough time and in fact, they sent me home for a semester." The actor recalls that for that brief but pivotal moment in his young life, "I was floundering. I was in a Liberal Arts Education and more "liberal" than "arts". I went from pre-med to political science, to communications." At one point, he even considered a career in journalism. "I started out covering City Council meetings in downtown New York and I KNEW that I couldn’t do this."
Then Fate lent Denzel a helping hand. "I had taken an acting class once, just to get an easy grade and then they let me back in school. So, once I found my niche, I was off to the races."
Races he has now well and truly won, hands down, and his acting future is as bright as ever. "There are some interesting things going on right now. Tony Scott and I are going to do a picture called Man on Fire, which is about a kidnapping in Mexico, and then, I’m working with [producer] Scott Rudin on this brilliant remake of The Manchurian Candidate," he says. As for future directing plans, Washington is non-committal. "I’ve got to get through this one and get this baby hatched. I just don’t see anything yet. Maybe next year, once this film has run its course."