DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Denzel Washington earned a sixth Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of an airline pilot with substance abuse problems in the film "Flight," which is now out on DVD. He's taken the Oscar home twice - for his starring role in "Malcolm X," and for his supporting role in "Cry Freedom." [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Washington won the Best Actor Oscar for "Training Day," and Best Supporting Actor for "Glory."]
Terry interviewed Washington a few years back, after the release of "The Great Debaters," which he both directed and starred in. Set in the early '30s, it's about a debating team at a small, African-American college in the segregated South, preparing to break the color line by taking on an Ivy League debating team. It's based on a true story. One of the members of that team was James Farmer Jr., who helped organize the Freedom Riders and co-founded CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. Washington played the debating team coach and mentor, a contrast to some other characters he's played - like the corrupt cop in "Training Day," or the drug kingpin in "American Gangster"; bad guys who are anything but role models. Terry asked him about that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Does it affect you differently when you're off the set, if you're playing - you know, a drug kingpin who will willingly kill somebody if he thinks it's necessary; versus, you know, a professor whose like, mission is training his students to be winning debaters? I mean, that's such two different kinds of personalities. Does it change what you take home with you, at night?
DENZEL WASHINGTON: You know, I read a book years ago - "Cagney by Cagney," written by James Cagney. And he talked about, you know, it's his job. He's at the studio - you do your job, you know; you shut your door; and you go get in your car, and go home. I guess it does. I couldn't tell you what it is because I'm not thinking about it.
But basically - well, it's different in the case of directing because you don't ever turn off the - you're working all the time. But when I finished "American Gangster," I was done with it. I didn't, you know, think about going into the drug business. I don't know. You know, it's a job and I've been at it a long time. And I know how to do my job, I think. But no, I don't think I carry it around too much - I hope.
GROSS: Well, we should hear a clip from "American Gangster." And you play a drug kingpin in Harlem, in this. And you've brought up your family from the South, and you've basically made your brothers into foot soldiers for your operation. And one of your brothers - played by Chiwetel Ejiofor - is kind of so - kind of taken by like, the money and what he can do with it. So he's wearing this outfit with, you know, like - it's the early '70s - with a big collar and a big hat, and you think it's like much too flashy. And in this scene, you're explaining why that's a problem.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AMERICAN GANGSTER")
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) What is that you got on?
CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) What's what, man?
WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) Yeah, that. What you got on?
EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) This is a very, very, very nice suit.
WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) That's a very, very, very nice suit, huh?
WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) That's a clown suit. That's a costume...
EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) Come on, man.
WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) ...with a big sign on it that says arrest me. You understand? You're too loud. You're making too much noise. Look at me. The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room. I told you that. All right? What you trying to be, like Nicky Barnes now?
EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) What's your problem with Nicky, man? I like Nicky.
WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) I got no problem with Nicky. Oh, you like Nicky?
EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) Yeah.
WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) You want to be like Nicky? You want to be superfly? You want to work for him? Share a jail cell with him? Maybe cook for him?
EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) He wants to talk to you.
WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) Oh, so now you talking to him about me?
EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) What? You...
WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) About what? What is it about?
EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) It ain't like that.
WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) Then what is it like?
EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) We were talking, your name came up.
WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) About what?
EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) I don't know, man. I told him I'd tell you.
WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) You know, boy, you...
(LAUGHTER, SOUND OF KISS)
EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) Oh, man.
WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) You know, if you wasn't my brother, I'd kill you. You know that, don't you? I'm taking you shopping this week.
GROSS: That's my guest, Denzel Washington, with Chiwetel Ejiofor in a scene from "American Gangster." I remember when I interviewed Michael Caine, he talked about how when you're playing somebody who's very powerful, you shouldn't like, move around and fidget a lot, gesture a lot because powerful people don't have to do all that - because the people underneath them are hanging on the powerful person's every word, and looking for every clue that they can about what his mood is and what's he going to do next, and how he's reacting to things. And it seems to me like you're that kind of person in "American Gangster." You don't move around a lot. You don't gesture a lot. You've got a lot of power, and you know you do. You met Frank Lucas, the person who your role is based on. Was he like that when you met him?
WASHINGTON: Well, I mean, you know, Gotti moved around a lot.
WASHINGTON: He had a lot of power. I don't know. I personally wouldn't hold any hard fast rule about who moves around a lot or who doesn't.
WASHINGTON: I never thought of it that way. The perception of power is power. I think the perception is established by his violence right at the top of the movie.
GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
WASHINGTON: So you see, a guy who is this violent who could walk down the street, shoot somebody in the head, come back inside and forget; his only question was, what was I talking about before I was interrupted? You know, that's a sociopath.
GROSS: I really like "American Gangster" and your performance in it.
WASHINGTON: Thank you.
GROSS: Does it ever bother you to play people who aren't role models? Like in life, so many people see you as a role model. Does it bother you? Like in the "The Great Debaters," you are very role model - you know, you're very ethical...
WASHINGTON: No, it doesn't bother me. I mean, I'm selfish, I think. I think an artist has to be. I'm not worried about what people think. I'm going to play the parts that I find interesting.
WASHINGTON: That's what - it'd bother me more to be just pigeonholed into doing what people think is ethical or, you know, that's boring to me. I don't pick parts with that in mind, and I just find interesting stories. If it's interesting to me, then I do it.
GROSS: One of your most non-role model performances is in "Training Day," for which you won an Oscar.
GROSS: And I'd like to play a short scene from that. And in this scene, you're a cop who is really brutal when he wants to be, and really nasty. And you're initiating this new rookie cop who is your partner, played by Ethan Hawke. And in this scene, Ethan Hawke has been trying to apprehend two suspects - probably like, crack addicts. They've beaten him up. He's finally gotten them handcuffed. You haven't helped him at all. You've basically, just been watching. And then after he gets them handcuffed, you kind of move in, insult them, take $60 out of one of their pockets; and you decide not to arrest them. You just leave them there. And Ethan Hawke is mystified. And here's the conversation in the car afterwards.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TRAINING DAY")
WASHINGTON: (as Detective Alonzo Harris) Want to book that 60 bucks, huh? Here, go ahead. Book it into evidence, man. Where the suspects? Go back and get the suspects. (LAUGTHER)
ETHAN HAWKE: (as Jake Hoyt) I don't know where they are. You let them go.
WASHINGTON: (as Detective Alonzo Harris) Oh, I let them go?
HAWKE: (as Jake Hoyt) Yeah. You let them go.
WASHINGTON: (as Detective Alonzo Harris) Awright, man. You want to run and gun, man? Stay in patrol, OK? This is investigations, awright? Let the garbage men handle the garbage. We're professional anglers, OK? We go after the big fish. Chasing them monkey strong crackheads (bleep) anyway - you know they'd a killed you without hesitating.
HAWKE: (as Jake Hoyt) That's why they belong in prison.
WASHINGTON: (as Detective Alonzo Harris) For what? They got beat down, they lost their rock, they lost their money. Them S.H. from Hillside probably going to smoke them. I mean, Jesus, what more do you want?
HAWKE: (as Jake Hoyt) I want justice, right?
WASHINGTON: (as Detective Alonzo Harris) Is that not justice?
HAWKE: (as Jake Hoyt) That's street justice.
WASHINGTON: (as Detective Alonzo Harris) What's wrong with street justice?
HAWKE: (as Jake Hoyt) Oh what, just let the animals wipe themselves out, right?
WASHINGTON: (as Detective Alonzo Harris) God willing. (Bleep) Everybody who looks like them. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. The good guys, they die first, right? The school kids and moms, family men, they don't want to catch the stray bullets in the noodle. To protect the sheep, you've got to catch the wolf. And it takes a wolf to catch a wolf, you understand?
HAWKE: (as Jake Hoyt) What?
WASHINGTON: (as Detective Alonzo Harris) I said, you protect the sheep by killing the (bleep) wolf. No, you didn't hear me. You listening, but you didn't hear me.
HAWKE: (as Jake Hoyt) All right, whatever.
WASHINGTON: (as Detective Alonzo Harris) Yeah, whatever. Whatever the (bleep).
HAWKE: (as Jake Hoyt) Let me ask you this - when do you lock anybody up? I mean, it seems like you're pretty busy keeping people out.
WASHINGTON: (as Detective Alonzo Harris) What the (bleep) you talking about? You don't know what you're talking about, Betty Boop. Got nothing but (bleep) between your ears. They build jails because of me. Judges have handed out over 15,000 man years of incarceration time based on my investigations, OK? My record speaks for itself. How many felons have you collared? Huh? Yeah, I rest my case.
GROSS: That's my guest, Denzel Washington, with Ethan Hawke; in a scene from "Training Day." And Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his performance in this film. Now of course, after what we just heard, since you've said it takes a wolf to catch a wolf, you teach Ethan Hawke how to howl...
GROSS: Like a wolf. You make him howl.
WASHINGTON: (Makes howling sounds) Correct.
GROSS: Now, I read that you wanted to make sure that this cop - you know, the character you played was killed at the end, or that there were real consequences for his behavior.
GROSS: Was that not the case when you first saw the script?
WASHINGTON: No, not to the degree that was satisfying to me. Like, I told the director I couldn't justify him living in the worst way unless he died in the worst way; that the community turns their back on him, he's slapped around, crawling around on the ground like a snake and basically, gets filled full of lead. So we just made it a violent, awful ending for him.
GROSS: And why did you insist on that?
WASHINGTON: I just thought that's what he deserved. There was a bit of a cop-out the way the script was, and it smelled like they were looking to do a part two or something.
GROSS: There is a scene in this where you're holding two guns on someone, and you kind of scrape the guns against each other as if there two knives that you're sharpening.
GROSS: Was that a bit of business that you came up with when you were holding the guns?
WASHINGTON: Of course. I mean, you know, it's just rhythm. You know, acting is like music, you know, and you improvise and you, it's like jazz, you know, there's no rhyme or reason to it. It's not a plan. I just did it. You know, it's just rhythm. To me it's just a rhythm. It's like you do - Stanislavski said, you know, you cut 90 percent. You do all your research and you prepare and then you let it rip, you know, and that's how it is. You know, you practice to music and you just play it.
GROSS: Well, let's talk about another film that's very important in your career, and that's "Malcom X," which was directed by Spike Lee. Let's hear a scene from it. And this is a scene in which you're making a speech.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MALCOLM X")
WASHINGTON: (as Malcolm X) I must emphasize, at the outstart, that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is not a politician.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES AND ACTORS: (as characters) That's right. That's right.
WASHINGTON: (as Malcolm X) So I'm not here this afternoon as a Republican, nor as a Democrat.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES AND ACTORS: (as characters) Tell them, brother. Tell them.
WASHINGTON: (as Malcolm X) Not as a Mason, nor as an Elk.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES AND ACTORS: (as characters) Tell them what you're here for.
WASHINGTON: (as Malcolm X) Not as a Protestant, nor a Catholic...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES AND ACTORS: (as characters) That's right. Tell them.
WASHINGTON: ...not as a Christian, nor a Jew; not as a Baptist, nor a Methodist...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES AND ACTORS: (as characters) Come on brother, come on.
WASHINGTON: (as Malcolm X) In fact, not even as an American because if I was an American, the problem that confronts our people today wouldn't even exist.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES AND ACTORS: (as characters) That's right. Now we in America, right? What you trying to say, brother?
WASHINGTON: (as Malcolm X) So I have to stand here today as what I was when I was born: a black man.
WASHINGTON: (as Malcolm X) Before there was any such thing as a Republican or a Democrat, we were black. Before there was any such thing as a Mason or an Elk, we were black.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES AND ACTORS: (as characters) Yeah, that's right.
WASHINGTON: (as Malcolm X) Before there was any such thing as a Jew or a Christian, we were black people. In fact, before there was any such place as America, we were black. And after America has long passed from the scene, there will still be black people.
WASHINGTON: (as Malcolm X) I'm going to tell you like it really is. Every election year, these politicians are sent up here to pacify us. They're sent here and set up here by the White Man. This is what they do. They send drugs in Harlem down here, to pacify us.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES AND ACTORS: (as characters) That's right!
WASHINGTON: (as Malcolm X) They send alcohol down here, to pacify us.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES AND ACTORS: (as characters) That's right!
WASHINGTON: (as Malcolm X) They send prostitution down here, to pacify us.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES AND ACTORS: (as characters) That's right!
WASHINGTON: (as Malcolm X) Why, you can't even get drugs in Harlem without the White Man's permission. You can't get prostitution in Harlem without the White Man's permission. You can't get gambling in Harlem without the White Man's permission. Every time you break the seal on that liquor bottle, that's a Government seal that you're breaking. Oh, I say and I say it again, ya been had. Ya been took. Ya been hoodwinked. Bamboozled. Led astray. Run amok.! This is what He does.
GROSS: That's Denzel Washington in a scene from "Malcolm X" for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. When did Malcolm X first enter your consciousness?
WASHINGTON: I hadn't heard that in about 15 years.
GROSS: Yeah, what did you think listening back?
WASHINGTON: It's interesting. I hadn't heard in a long time. I hadn't heard it since I seen the movie, I guess. It sounded pretty good.
WASHINGTON: I believed him.
WASHINGTON: When did I what now you said - and I'm?
GROSS: So when did Malcolm X enter your consciousness?
WASHINGTON: I did a play about Malcolm X actually, about 10, 11 years before that down at the New Federal Theater in New York City, Henry Street Settlement, a fictional meeting between the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. So that's when I really began to dig deep and listen to all the speeches and read his books and study the man. I mean I knew who he was but I didn't, I didn't know who he was until about 1981.
GROSS: So was there any like particular footage, an archival footage of Malcolm X that had the biggest impact on how you played him?
WASHINGTON: No. I don't know. I mean I couldn't say there's one thing that had the biggest impact but, you know, I looked at all the footage that there was. I will say that the Schaumburg Library, when I first started working on the part, was just the best place. It became my home away from home and it's a great resource library up in Harlem, 135th Street. And I can't say enough about the work that I did, not just on Malcolm X, but other parts over the years I would always visit the Schaumburg.
DAVIES: Denzel Washington speaking with Terry Gross recorded in 2008. We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's 2008 interview with Denzel Washington, who earned an Oscar nomination for his role in the film "Flight."
GROSS: Let's go to the very early Denzel era. And let's see if our listeners recognize you in this scene. And hint: it's the pilot for a series, a TV series that ran a long time, and you co-starred throughout the run, and it helped make you a star. So here we go, the very early Denzel.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ST. ELSEWHERE")
WASHINGTON: (as Dr. Philip Chandler) Forty-two-year-old white obese female, four day history of (unintelligible) of quadrant pain, no history of cholelithiasis or peptic ulcer disease.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (as character) Mm-hmm. Has the pain changed with time or position?
WASHINGTON: (as Dr. Philip Chandler) No. Physical examination temperature was 39.5 degrees Centigrade, blood pressure 130 over 80. No jaundice present.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (as character) Is the abdomen distended?
WASHINGTON: (as Dr. Philip Chandler) No. There's a plus two over four tenderness in the right upper quadrant. The liver is 10 centimeters in breadth, two centimeters below the right costal margin. There is a probable mass just below the liver...
GROSS: That's your first scene.
WASHINGTON: I think I mispronounced that. I think it's cholelithiasis. It sounds like I said choelithisis. I believe, any doctors out there, if they call in, let me know. I believe it's cholelithiasis.
GROSS: Well, that's your in your first scene in the pilot of "St. Elsewhere."
WASHINGTON: Twenty-five years ago.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
WASHINGTON: But I remember that cholelithiasis. That's interesting.
GROSS: That is. I hope you ever had it, whatever the heck it is.
WASHINGTON: Yeah. I couldn't tell you what it is.
GROSS: How did you get the part on "St. Elsewhere"?
WASHINGTON: I was doing a great play - and I say that because it was - called "The Soldier's Play" which went on to become "A Soldier's Story," you know, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982.
GROSS: Right. The movie version was "A Soldier's Story."
WASHINGTON: Yeah. The movie version was "A Soldiers' Story." The play was an off-Broadway play in New York. And they came to New York reading actors. I never really wanted to do television. I wanted to do plays and movies. And I didn't want to become well known for television. But this was an interesting script with many characters. So my agent thought, well, you know, you could get lost amongst the other characters.
And so to make a long story long, they chose two actors, I believe, from New York - myself and David Morse.
GROSS: What was the audition like?
WASHINGTON: Shoot, that was 25 years ago. I don't remember. I guess it was good. I got the part.
GROSS: You don't remember what you had to do?
WASHINGTON: Oh, no. Actually I don't. I imagine I - maybe I read that scene. Maybe that's what I had to do, you know. And did you say that was from the pilot?
GROSS: That's from the pilot.
WASHINGTON: That was from? So that's probably what I had to read. That's a perfect example of where your speech training and training in the classics, you know, Shakespearian training comes in. To be able to say those lines.
GROSS: And to rattle off all those...
WASHINGTON: To rattle off all the - yeah, all that...
GROSS: All those medical conditions most people don't know.
WASHINGTON: ...techno-speak. Yeah, exactly.
WASHINGTON: I don't know. Cholelithiasis. I do remember that, though.
GROSS: So straighten me out on something. When I say your name, should it be Den-zel, equal beats on both syllables? Or Den-ZEL, more emphasis on the second syllable?
WASHINGTON: The doctor who delivered my father was named Dr. DEN-zel. And he had 11 or 12 brothers and sisters so maybe they were running out of names and they just named him after the doctor. So his name was pronounced DEN-zel Hayes Washington, Sr. I'm Denzel Hayes Washington, Jr. My mother would say Denzel and both of us would show up.
WASHINGTON: She said all right, from now on - she said this is not true but this is the way I remember it - but she said from now on you're Den-ZEL. So I was named Den - I was called Den-ZEL so we would know who she was screaming at.
GROSS: Now, when you were growing up, your mother owned a hair salon?
GROSS: And your father was a Pentecostal minister who also worked for the water department.
WASHINGTON: And S. Klein's on the Square.
WASHINGTON: He was the night watchman for Klein's up in Yonkers.
GROSS: Kleins Department Store? Oh, I see. This is different.
WASHINGTON: On Central Avenue in - yeah, well, the original one was on the Square at 14th Street, I believe.
GROSS: On Union Square.
WASHINGTON: And because it used to be called S. Klein's on the Square.
WASHINGTON: And so they had one up in Yonkers on Central Avenue and he was the night man there. And he was a minister.
GROSS: Did you go to his church?
WASHINGTON: No. Of course not. Yeah. Are you kidding me? All the time. More than I wanted to.
WASHINGTON: Trust me. I used to try to sneak out. Had to go to church.
GROSS: How often? Once a week or more?
WASHINGTON: Once - shoot. All day Sunday and then we - not that - because he worked so much, you know, we didn't have so many services during the week. But I was there all day on Sunday. In Mamaroneck.
GROSS: One last question. Is there a particular movie that meant a lot to you when you were growing up that you watched many times?
GROSS: What would that be?
WASHINGTON: "Wizard of Oz."
WASHINGTON: I loved that movie. That was the big - that was the event of the year. To watch - are you kidding me? The Wizard. I was like turn "Bonanza" off. "The Wizard of Oz" is coming on.
WASHINGTON: You know? "Bonanza" was huge. I mean, you know, when I was a kid "Bonanza" was huge.
WASHINGTON: That was it.
WASHINGTON: That's what we got to watch. Sunday night, "Bonanza." "Ed Sullivan Show," back then, then "Bonanza." When I sign an autograph now, I always write God Bless and I put my name. And I got that from Red Skelton because at the end of "The Red Skelton Show" he would say good night and God bless. And I was like - I always liked that.
So I said, you know, I didn't say when I get famous, because I wasn't even thinking about it then, but when I did sign my first autograph, for whatever reason I thought about that. And so thank you, Red Skelton.
WASHINGTON: And thank you, "Bonanza" and thank you, Auntie Em.
GROSS: Did you love the songs? Did you love the songs from "Wizard of Oz"?
WASHINGTON: Are you kidding me? (Singing) Follow the yellow brick road.
WASHINGTON: (singing) If ever a wiz there was. Follow the yellow brick road. (speaking) I mean, that was - you've got to remember, they only showed that, like, once a year. What was the guy's name? Danny Kaye.
GROSS: Oh, Danny Kaye. Oh, OK.
WASHINGTON: Danny Kaye would introduce it. Right. Danny Kaye would introduce it. I mean, we couldn't wait. That was huge. Huge. And then, of course, "King Kong."
WASHINGTON: Yeah. 'Cause Million Dollar Movie would show...
GROSS: Million Dollar Movie. Yes.
WASHINGTON: ...the same movie, like, 90 times the same week.
GROSS: "King Kong." "Godzilla," "Godzilla."
WASHINGTON: "King Kong," "Godzilla."
GROSS: "Hunchback of Notre Dame."
WASHINGTON: I didn't watch that one. You're asking me, this is what I remember.
GROSS: Great. It's been so much fun to talk with you. Thank you very much.
WASHINGTON: Bye. All right. (Singing) Because, because, because...
DAVIES: That is Denzel Washington speaking with Terry in 2008. Washington's won two Oscars and earned six nominations, the latest for his film "Flight," which is now out on DVD. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "Stoker." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.