The Total Film Interview - Denzel Washington

Being on the A-list doesn't necessarily mean you've got range. Harrison Ford has never been a full-on funnyman. Tom Hanks has yet to convince he can do scary. Tom Cruise has never played a villain. But with Denzel Washington, it's a completely different story.

The clean-cut, righteous guy of Cry Freedom or The Pelican Brief is always willing to take a back seat when the tougher, edgier, more morally hazy roles come his way. Think Glory's rage-fuelled Private Trip (which won Washington a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), The Hurricane's simmering boxer-turned-con Rubin Carter or, of course, Training Day's rotten copper Alonzo Harris - the role that in 2002 earned Washington a long-overdue Best Actor Oscar.

Despite the fact he turns 50 this year, Washington shows no signs of mellowing. Quite the opposite, in fact. His next project, Man On Fire, returns him to Training Day-style dark territory as he plays John Creasy, a self-loathing alcoholic and former CIA anti-terrorist assassin who's devastated when a nine-year-old girl he's bodyguarding is kidnapped in Mexico City. Cue his transformation into a ruthless killing machine as he proceeds to track, torture and exterminate the girl's abductors...

When Total Film joins Washington in Beverly Hills, he's beaming like the Californian sunshine, his moodier alter ego banished to the dwindling shadows. And why shouldn't he be? After all, his last movie, Out Of Time, inducted him into Hollywood's exclusive $20-million paycheque club. Meanwhile, Man On Fire is garnering rave reviews in the States, Washington's thesping heft providing a valuable counterbalance to director Tony Scott's choppy stylistics - just as it did for submarine thriller Crimson Tide.

What better time, then, to quiz the New York-born preacher's son on exploring his dark side and how it feels to have made it to the top of the Tinseltown food chain?

With Man On Fire, you're forced to go back to some of the more dangerous character traits you worked with on Training Day...
Oh, you definitely tap into those areas. When I realised where we were going or what seemed to make sense for Man On Fire, I knew I had to go to some dark places. We all have, somewhere in us, personal failures or things that people don't know about you and that make you angry or frustrated or whatever. And you tap into that and use that. You wallow in that darkness.

Where did you go for that wallow? What's your "dark place"?
I won't tell you what mine is! But, for this character, the booze is his way of masking his pain and also getting in touch with his demons. What's different about this character and the guy I played in Training Day is that he hasn't lost all faith. There's still a moral core to him that's damaged but hasn't made him cynical. You feel he's been through something and it's heavy.

What was it like shooting in Mexico City? According to Tony Scott, it's like being in Dodge City...
I had a good time. It was interesting to see what was going on there, even though I always had a lot of bodyguards around me. But you find out that it's not as bad as you think. You get to know the people. But that's the tricky thing about Mexico City. It can happen. You can't let your guard down too much. I never personally felt danger, but I did in the sense that I would ride around in armoured vehicles and my bodyguards were tense the whole time. The Mexican security was a lot more casual, though. They knew what to expect.

Given your moral principles, is it difficult for you to accept playing anti-heroes like Creasy in Man On Fire or Harris in Training Day?
No, because as an actor you have to be willing to play good and evil. Evil does exist and you have to be able to show it - and show how this particular man's life became warped. I don't believe people are born evil. I believe evil takes over a person's soul because there are events in childhood or circumstances in life that can rob people of their dignity, rob people of hope, and turn them on to the wrong things in life.

Your father was a minister. How did that help prepare you for life in the entertainment industry?
My father was a man of powerful convictions and powerful principles. He was my hero and my spiritual guide. Everything I've achieved in life is a direct result of him providing me with inspiration and wisdom and direction. You can't ask for any better guidance and teaching than that.

I've tried to pattern my life after his example and that of my mother, who has also been a great and positive influence in my life. It's the same type of guidance that my wife Pauletta and I try to provide for our children. I can have a lot of success as an actor, but it won't mean anything to me if one of my children is suffering from personal or health problems.

You've been known as a dedicated family man throughout your career. How do you balance marriage and four children with being a celebrity?
You make your family your priority and centre your life around that rather than your work. Your work is important, it's your creative side, it's what drives you in life on that level. But you've got to find a balance with your private life because otherwise the work takes on a very hollow quality.

I know lots of actors who have wrecked their private lives because they throw everything into their careers. They play the star scene. They neglect their friends and loved ones. I would be sick to my stomach if I thought I was doing harm to my wife or to my children by working too much or not being there for them.

Is it hard holding a marriage together while living in Hollywood?
You've got to keep your act clean and not allow yourself to start getting carried away with your image and how people are fawning over you if you're a celebrity. I'm so glad I had such a strong woman to keep my head screwed on straight. You've got to have a woman like that in your life to tell you you're full of shit once in a while! [Laughs]

I'm not a saint and I don't claim to have been a perfect husband. There were some tough moments for me, because when you're trying to get recognition and trying to get to that next level where you can call your own shots, you can lose touch with your home life. You can get caught up with staring at the prize too much and forgetting your roots. But, by and large, I've been a good husband, a good father and done my very best to be a decent human being. That means more to me than any great role or any award.

Still, it must have been satisfying winning the Oscar for Training Day...
It was beautiful. It was also so wonderful to win and have had the chance to express my thanks to Sidney Poitier, who was given an honorary Oscar on the same evening, and thank him for being the first great Afro-American star. He paved the way. Awards are great, of course, but I don't try to get my head filled with glory because of them. My mother has a saying: "Man gives the award but God gives the reward." I'm looking for the reward. When it comes down to it, an Oscar's 15 pounds of statue. Awards are icing on the cake. You'll have your time in the sun and your time in the shade. Right now, it's pretty sunny for me [laughs]. How much better can my career get, anyway?

Well, there's always the money. You went on to do Out Of Time, for which you were paid $20 million - putting you on a par with actors like Harrison Ford and Tom Hanks. Is that a source of pride for you?
Yes, in the sense that I've reached a certain level in the profession where my value as an actor is equated with the other top stars in the business. For me, the money is secondary to the work, and it always will be, but it's very pleasant all the same to be in a position to command that kind of paycheque. This is a business, no matter how much we may preach to you about our art! [Laughs]

The Hurricane was a film that didn't get the recognition many people felt it deserved. Are you still disappointed by that?
The studio didn't release it properly and it got buried. They were trying too hard to position it for the Oscars and they wound up hurting the movie. But I think it's one of those films whose reputation will gain over time. It's the one I'm most proud of, right up there with Malcolm X. I think the director, Norman Jewison, was much more frustrated than anyone else, though. He was very proud of his work, as he should be, and he felt totally betrayed by the marketing people.

Didn't you train with professional boxers for that?
Yeah, my trainer put me in the ring with professional fighters and it was clear that only body punches were allowed. But of course once in a while I would get a shot in the head and that's when you realise how tough a thing it is to box. After a month or two of those training sessions where you get hit in the head, you start forgetting things [laughs]. One of my sparring partners would tell me, "Don't worry about the headaches. They'll go away after a while." Go away? That means there's stuff missing up there. Yeah, they'll go away! [Washington flattens his nose to imitate a prize fighter and laughs again.]

What interests you about a character when you look at a project and say, "This one's for me"?
I've asked myself a lot lately, "Why are you doin' this?" Why is it even necessary for me to keep taking on these roles, aside from paying the bills and all those other things?

The answer is, I look for the arc - the evolution of the character. Hurricane Carter has this quote, "Hate got me in prison, love got me out." Now one could say that on the surface, hate is the system and what it did to him and blah, blah, blah. But I don't buy that. Some of that is his hatred, the cold heart that he'd developed. That's the arc with him, much like in Malcolm X. It's what gets my juices flowing.

Do you feel it's an added challenge to play cultural and political icons, particularly African-American ones?
There's a level of responsibility there which you don't feel quite to the same extent with other kinds of roles. I mean, if you look at Harris in Training Day, you only want to do justice to the character and there's no one looking over your shoulder about how you play him.

When I was playing Malcolm X, though, I didn't really worry about doing justice to the character because I knew that Spike and I both were so proud of the man that there was no way we would give anything less than what his story deserved. And with The Hurricane, the public doesn't know that much about Carter's personal life other than he was convicted for a murder he didn't commit, that he was a great boxer and that he was eventually freed. I think there was a lot more pressure while playing Carter - I didn't want to embarrass him! [Laughs]

You've made some interesting choices in your career - like playing a paraplegic detective in The Bone Collector, for example...
I thought it was a very cerebral thriller and a different challenge as an actor. I had made films like Ricochet and The Pelican Brief in the past, but I think The Bone Collector was a lot scarier and more sinister than the other two. When I first saw the film myself, I was scared to death a few times. I think Phillip Noyce [the director] did an incredible job of creating a claustrophobic and haunting atmosphere.

You've never played the celebrity game in the sense that you don't go to a lot of parties or premières and we never hear about you except when you're promoting your films...
That's the way I like it. I like to keep a comfortable distance between my life as an actor and my life as a father and husband. I don't need to feel the adulation of people and see my face on the covers of magazines. I try to do interesting work as an actor and leave my participation in the celebrity process at that level.

You hit 50 this year. How would you say you've changed during the course of your adult life?
I'm a much more relaxed person. I'm a lot looser and more confident than I was in my twenties. I also think that being a husband and father has made me a much more rounded human being. When I was younger, my friends were always complaining about how uptight and tense I used to be and in a way they were right. I took things very seriously and I guess that was part of the minister's son in me that took hold. But when you're raising children, you have to learn to be able to play with your kids, relax and not worry about life too much. My children have taught me to have some fun.

What do you enjoy most about being a star?
Well, I guess I should be very thankful for the kind of material security and comfort it brings. But unfortunately I'm not the kind of guy who really takes advantage of it in the ways people commonly associate with the territory.

You mean all the women and such?
I think you know what I mean! [Laughs] Don't try to get me into trouble here! Remember, I'm a preacher's son! So I have my father, God and my wife looking over me…

The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, News Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Emily Murray. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.