Denzel Washington can’t run but he can hide. The 59-year-old two-time Oscar-winner has terrible knee problems, courtesy of a sports-mad youth, and says his physical activity these days is limited to boxing and an exercise bike. Jogging is not an option. Hiding in plain sight, on the other hand, is something of a forte.
“I’ve had too many injuries from sports, football and skiing,” he begins when we met in Paris last week. “My knee blows up. I keep in shape with boxing and I ride the recumbent bike, so there is no pressure on my knee. I can do that for up to an hour.”
As for the hiding, at that he is a master. He is disguised on screen of course, whenever he takes on a new character, but he also keeps his real personality concealed from the press. He will do his compulsory media duties when he has a new film to promote, but he won’t give much away.
Similarly, he rarely appears in the tabloids or gossip magazines; he is a devout Christian and lives a seemingly wholesome life. He remains married to his wife of 30 years, actress and singer Pauletta Pearson whom he met back in 1977, and he reads the Bible daily.
“I started the Book of Daniel today and I try to start the day with something positive, although not everything you read in there is positive,” he says. “They kill a bunch of people in the Bible.”
Violence is supposedly anathema to devout believers and certainly Washington is not a man to indulge in gratuitous brutality on screen. When making Training Day, the 2001 Antoine Fuqua film that earned Washington his second Oscar win, he insisted that his character, a corrupt, violent and drug-addled cop, should get his comeuppance.
His latest offering, The Equalizer, is also exploding with violence, though Washington insists that the carnage his character executes on screen is justified. The film unites him with Fuqua for a second time, and is based on the 1980s TV show that featured Edward Woodward in the title role.
Washington’s character shares the same name, Robert McCall, and is similarly motivated by a need to help those who cannot help themselves. In the new film, McCall works in a DIY superstore and is trying to forget a shady past where he was a specialist in the art of human disposal.
McCall now tries to avoid violence and displays remorse whenever he must put it into action. His killing spree kicks off when he tries to help a young hooker, played by Chloe Grace Moretz, who is badly beaten by her pimps.“I think that is something that the character is struggling with,” he says of the violence. “His personal life has suffered as a result. He thinks that [his violent past] had something to do with his wife’s death. The way I develop the character, and it is never talked about, is that she might have died of a broken heart.”
Consequently, McCall tries persuasion and a financial pay-off. Only when he is rebuffed is the kill-switch engaged. “It is McCall’s nature to help people,” he says, “and he responds to the violence he sees put upon this young girl and he has the skill set to do something about it. I don’t personally agree that someone should become the judge and jury, but it’s a movie.”
The film was developed specifically with Washington in mind, though the actor made script changes so that the audience might better understand McCall’s relationship with violence. The actor introduced an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, for a start.
“My mother had a friend who was mentally ill and she used to try and make everything neat and in order and my mother said it was because her mind was not in order,” he explains. “I found that fascinating. I thought McCall needs things to be in order because he is trying to get his mind in order; he is in denial as to what his skill set is.
“He is trying to suppress that because he promised his wife. None of it is talked about but the universal stems from the specific so I try to be specific. Why does he do that? Where does that lead to? What does that mean?
“I don’t think about genre or action,” he adds. “I don’t know what that means. I just think part of the appeal is that we look at this guy and we go, ‘Wow, he is not some super guy. He is like the rest of us.’ You get a glimpse into his private life and it is not so glamorous. He is lonely.”
Washington is now approaching his 60th birthday and he’s spent more than a quarter of a century on the big screen, breaking into the big time when he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor on the back of 1989’s Glory and became a household name in the 1990s with the likes of Malcolm X, The Pelican Brief, Philadelphia, Crimson Tide and Courage Under Fire. In 2002 he scooped the Best Actor award for his powerhouse performance in Training Day.
He has directed two features and starred in them both – Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters – while he earned his sixth Oscar nomination last year after playing a frazzled airline pilot in Flight.
He is also a regular on stage, where he first started, and earlier this year starred in 1959’s A Raisin in the Sun, the second Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s play. The Obamas came to watch him. He shows no sign of slowing down and he works as hard as ever. I wonder if he’ll be making action pictures when he is 70? He becomes elusive once more and starts hiding.
“You are going back to genre and I don’t understand that,” he says. “I know that today is Sunday and I am in Paris. I don’t know what I will be doing when I am 70. I know what I will be doing in the next seven seconds but that is it.”
Actually, he knows a bit more than that. He knows, for example, that next year he will team up with Fuqua for a third time when the director and actor tackle a remake of the much-loved 1960 western The Magnificent Seven. Washington will play the Yul Brynner role, leading the pack.
“I am already reading books on the gun and the history of Afro-Americans and their use of guns over the years, things like that,” he says.
Will it be a straight up remake? “I don’t think of it as a remake, I think of it as an interpretation.” Of course he does. “The Magnificent Seven was an interpretation of Seven Samurai. I won’t watch The Magnificent Seven like I didn’t re-watch The Equalizer TV show, but I will re-watch Seven Samurai. We will interpret that.”
It promises to be an intriguing film, but how will Washington deal with the violence that is inherent in both films? “I don’t know,” he says. “Unfortunately, we live in a time where we are exposed to people getting their heads cut off on YouTube. But we are making a movie and you eat some popcorn and you enjoy it. That’s it.” It’s an elusive answer but what else can we expect? Washington can’t run, but he can hide.
The Equalizer is in cinemas September 26th
You might think a Hollywood star would be touchy when it comes to failure. Not Julianne Moore. The red-head lets out a big laugh when we discuss the rather delicate subject of the Academy Awards. Four Oscar nominations - including twice at the 2003 ceremony, where she was up for Best Actress for Far From Heaven and Best Supporting for The Hours - and how many has she won? "Zero!" she cries, rocking back on her seat.