He’s starred in almost 50 movies, won two Oscars and after 31 years of marriage still goes on dates with his wife. Susan Griffin discovers a wonderfully honest side to the legendary Denzel Washington
He may have worked as an actor for almost 40 years but Denzel Washington hasn’t succumbed to saccharine recounts of the truth. The 57-year-old Oscar winner prefers to talk candidly about his career choices.
Take Safe House, which hit cinemas in February and arrives this week on DVD. Washington stars as the CIA’s most dangerous traitor opposite an aspiring but naive rookie played by Ryan Reynolds, but he wasn’t initially keen.
“This was one of the last films my late agent really wanted me to do but I wasn’t that impressed with the screenplay,” Washington admits, in a low, measured, attention-grabbing voice, which makes him as magnetic in person as he is on screen.
“If I hadn’t met [the director] Daniel Espinosa, I probably wouldn’t have done this movie. It didn’t interest me.”
But having watched Swede Espinosa’s Snabba Cash (Easy Money), he was fascinated by the young film-maker.
“I liked Daniel and the way he films,” says Washington, who decided if he was going to get on board, he wanted to work on writer David Guggenheim’s screenplay.
“I enjoy helping to develop material and I’ve been doing it for 20 years or more. I’m a logic master. If things don’t make sense, I have to make them make sense.”
So, along with Espinosa and a number of writers, Washington sat in a room, day after day for four months, honing the script.
“It took us a long time but it was also a way for me to get into the part and figure out my character,” he says.
Washington plays spy-turned-traitor Tobin Frost who has eluded capture for a decade. One day he stuns the intelligence community when he surfaces in South Africa.
He’s taken to a ‘safe house’ for interrogation but when it’s attacked by gunmen, the idealistic Matt Weston (Reynolds), who’s been waiting for an opportunity to prove himself, is forced to help the masterful manipulator escape, and the two must stay alive long enough to uncover who wants them dead.
“I didn’t want to do a lot of CIA research because Tobin Frost wasn’t CIA anymore. He hated everything about the agency and I wanted to discover his dark side,” says Washington.
The producer gave him a book entitled The Sociopath Next Door.
“It became my bible. What I learned number one, was that most sociopaths aren’t violent. Tobin’s violent but what they have in common is no conscience.
“They’re manipulative; they’ll lie and use charm, wit and pity.
“I felt the skill set he was born with, those negative traits, were actually helpful in the line of CIA work, the ability to deceive and destroy without remorse.”
Washington believes a man like Tobin would relish chaos.
“I think his blood pressure goes down when there’s murder and mayhem. I think he’s just interested in winning, so every day I wrote in my script and my journal, ‘How am I going to win today? What am I going to win?’”
While he clearly takes his work seriously, his focus has always been his wife Pauletta and their four children – John David, Katia and twins Malcolm and Olivia, all in their 20s.
“We’re going out for dinner tonight,” Washington says of Pauletta, who’s accompanied him to London. “But after 31 years, it’s not a date – it’s an opportunity!”
A native of Mt Vernon in New York, Washington had his career sights set on medicine when he attended Fordham University.
His first taste of acting came during a stint as a summer camp counsellor, when he appeared in a theatre production.
After graduating, he was accepted into San Francisco’s prestigious American Conservatory Theatre and began his professional career with off-Broadway productions.
It was his award-winning performance in A Soldier’s Play that captured the attention of TV producers who cast him as Dr Philip Chandler in St Elsewhere in 1982. Washington hasn’t had time to look back since.
He’s starred in almost 50 movies and won two Oscars – for his role as embittered runaway slave Trip in 1989′s Glory, and as rogue detective Alonzo Harris in 2001′s Training Day.
Along the way he’s played everything from South African freedom fighter Steve Biko in 1987′s Cry Freedom, to the simmering boxer-turned-conman Rubin Carter in 1999′s The Hurricane, and a self-loathing alcoholic bodyguard in 2004′s Man On Fire.
For all his years of service in Hollywood, unlike Tobin, Washington hasn’t become a cynic.
“I’ve been blessed and fortunate enough to be in a position to work with who I want to. I’ve got no complaints,” he says.
That’s not to say he hasn’t felt a little jaded along the way…
“I went through a phase where I was sick of acting. I was tired and bored and I didn’t really want to do it anymore,” says Washington, in typically frank form.
So he tried his hand at directing, first with Antwone Fisher in 2002 and then The Great Debaters in 2007. It made him appreciate acting again, and a stint back on stage, in the Broadway production of Fences in 2010, cemented his reignited passion.
“It reminded me of how I started out and I recommitted myself to being thorough as an actor,” he says.
“I don’t know how many more movies I’m going to get the opportunity to make and I don’t want to look back and think, ‘Man, I just floated into that one’, or ‘I just did that for the money’.
“I want to be able to say that I worked as hard as I could.”