No stopping Denzel's runaway success
There is a charisma and a commitment to Denzel Washington that set him apart from his fellow actors, writes Evan Fanning
YOU know that Denzel Washington is on his way long before he enters the room. It's not entirely due to the frenzy among the usual array of publicists and assistants who accompany any big star, though there is an extra degree of officiousness here today.
It's his booming voice coming down the corridor, greeting people and cracking jokes with an ease that even the smoothest of politicians would kill for. But then Washington is one of cinema's great statesmen; a man whose films have grossed more than $3bn and the first African-American since Sidney Poitier to win the Best Actor Oscar (he won for Training Day in 2002, to go with the Best Supporting statue he picked up for Glory 12 years earlier. He has five nominations in total). In the movie business, they don't come bigger than Denzel.
As the voice arrives in the plush London hotel suite he surveys the surroundings and seems mildly impressed. "It's a little Globe-ish," he says of the Tudor panelling. Maybe it's not Denzel's style.
He's 55 now, but looks much younger. Partly this is down to how he's dressed -- oversized sweatshirt, jeans, Nike Air Max -- but he also looks in pretty decent shape. That's probably a necessity given the type of roles he plays (in his latest film, Unstoppable, he runs across the top of a train moving at 80kmph). "They needed the shots with me up there so I got up there and did it," he says modestly.
There's also a sort of Denzel-machismo that goes with it. He often plays ordinary guys who excel when placed in exceptional circumstances. Possibly it's how he likes to see his own life. He has certainly always seemed to be acutely aware of how he is perceived by the public. He reportedly refused to kiss Julia Roberts in the film version of John Grisham's The Pelican Brief because he felt being intimate with a white woman might alienate his black female fans.
At the same time, he's not afraid to let you know just what it's like in Denzel's world. When he tells a story there are a lot of famous names mentioned. It's not that he's a name-dropper, merely that the company he keeps is on the higher end of the scale.
A question about whether or not he will soon play Nelson Mandela in a biopic (he won't but "they" want him to) leads to a story about having the former South African president over to his home for dinner in 2002.
"I couldn't believe it," he says. "I told my kids they could invite two or three friends each because I thought that for young people this was it. Then, of course, parents and aunts started showing up. Sylvester Stallone lives in my neighbourhood and one of the security guys came to me and said 'You know Sylvester Stallone? He keeps riding up and down outside your house'. I said 'Tell him he can come in'. Nelson Mandela coming was like the king visiting [Oprah was another who showed up]. We were hanging on his every word."
A question about when he next intends to come to Europe leads to a story about how he will soon present the Nobel Peace Prize in Sweden. Is something like that -- an accolade outside of the movies -- a great honour for him?
"My mother thought so," he says with an indifferent shrug. "I said to her 'I'm not winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I'm just serving up the meal. I'm not getting to eat.' Unfortunately, I won't get to see the actual winner [Chinese human rights campaigner Liu Xiaobo] because he's in jail."
He's here to talk about his new movie, Unstoppable, directed (as so many are) by Tony Scott. It is the fifth time that they have worked together, a relationship which began with Crimson Tide in 1995 and has seen them unite for Deja Vu, Man on Fire and The Taking of Pelham 123. So what's the draw to working with Scott?
"He calls me and asks me, which is always a good thing. First of all, he makes excellent films, I like his films -- I like him, he's a good guy, works hard... And he calls. There's no plan to it. He didn't call me about Top Gun 2, though."
That's the way the conversation goes with Washington; short, sharp sentences which either finish with a quip or him turning the question back on you. He's intimidating when he stares you down.
Unstoppable, he says, is "inspired by true events". It tells the story of two railroad engineers (Washington and Chris Pine) who have to chase down an unmanned train travelling at 80kmph. It's an adrenaline-fuelled runaway train (literally) of an action movie, all crunching metal and flying sparks.
It's also set against the backdrop of northeast America's recession-hit industrial heartland, where redundancies and forced early retirements rip through the fabric of society. For Washington, that is every bit as important as the euphoria rush brought on by the speeding locomotives.
"Once I got down there to those areas of Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, what they call the Rust Belt, it was very important. One town we shot in has 70 per cent unemployment. It's a lot of depressed areas. That's when it really hit home. This isn't just running around on trains; this is serious business. We had a casting call for 50 extras and 2,000 showed up. The reality of it meant you felt not more pressure, but responsibility maybe, in representing these folks.
"The good news is we were spending the money down there. We filled up the hotels; we put a lot of people to work. They were real happy that we were there. It gives you somewhat of a good feeling to know you're putting people to work."
Washington has always been an actor with a social conscience. The films that made him the star that he is all tackled big subjects, be it apartheid (Cry Freedom), the civil rights movement (Malcolm X) or the Aids epidemic (Philadelphia). These days, his outlook on tackling such weighty topics is slightly different, but he remains aware of the role his work plays in the lives of ordinary people.
"My mother used to have a beauty shop, she used to do hair, and she'd say that when times got tougher, business went up -- because a woman may not be able to buy that extra dress, but she wants to feel good about herself so she'd get her hair done.
"When times are tougher, the movie business actually gets better, because people want to escape. To just do a movie about the plight of the unemployed in West Virginia -- even the people of West Virginia don't want to see that. I remember when I did Cry Freedom and I was like 'Oh great, a serious film'.
A friend of mine, a doctor, said to me, 'Look Denzel, I deal with life and death every day. I don't want to go to a movie that deals with life and death. I want to enjoy the experience.'
"It's not the reason I'm doing the films that I'm doing now -- but I know that in the times we're in right now, people want to escape."
Born and raised just outside New York, Washington was the middle of three children born to Lynne and Denzel Senior, a part-time preacher who earned his living working for a water company. Performing was never a big part of his childhood and until his mother began sending him to military summer camps, he threatened to go off the rails. He discovered acting when he was 20 and Hollywood discovered him while he was enjoying a six-year stint in the TV series St Elsewhere.
Cry Freedom, for which he received a Best Supporting Acting Oscar nomination, and Glory were two of his earliest movies. He hasn't looked back.
Despite all his success, he still claims that he is "not a real movie guy". "I never have been," he protests. "When I know I'm going to direct, I'll watch 200 films, 300 films, but mainly because I'm stealing shots."
These days he stresses that family is more important to him than any aspects of his career. A devout Christian -- he reads the Bible every day -- he has been with his wife Pauletta since 1983. The pride he feels when discussing their four children is clear.
"My oldest boy (John David, 26) is a professional football player so I'm living the dream through him," he says. "He scored a touchdown the other night. I was there. My youngest (Olivia, 19) -- she wants to be an actress. But she's actually very good. When she was auditioning for different acting schools I said to her I wanted to see her audition pieces and she fell on the floor and got all dramatic and stuff. I said to her 'I'm going to be honest with you. It's too tough a business. If you aren't good I'm going to let you know.' Unfortunately for me she was excellent."
His other daughter (Katia, 22) is in law school, and his other son (Malcolm, Olivia's twin) is studying business. "What is interesting watching them all grow up is that they really are who they are from birth. John David, we found footage from him when he was one-year-old and all he could say was 'football'. I actually named him after a football player [John David Crow]."
Washington hopes to direct again (he has two films under his belt -- Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters) but there is nothing in the pipeline. For the rest he is non-committal -- except for one thing. "I know I'm not going to be running on trains. I can guarantee you that."
'Unstoppable' is showing nationwide from Friday