Cover story from last Friday's Day and Night mag....
By Susan Daly
Friday July 31 2009
WHEN 90s hip-hop trio Salt-n-Pepa wrote Whatta Man, their ode to the ideal guy, they knew what they wanted. "A body like Arnold, with a Denzel face."
The Body went on to become the Governator of California. The Face, we dreamed, was set for president. Hey, if Ronald Reagan could make the leap from Hollywood to the White House, then so could Denzel. Courageous, strong, dignified, intelligent: he had all the qualities desirable in the leader of the free world. And his surname is Washington.
As we know, Denzel Washington did not become the first black president of the United States. But even the man who did has reserved a place at the Oval desk for him. When Barack Obama was the hottest senator on the presidential campaign trail in 2008, Tyra Banks asked him who he would like to play him in the movie of his life.
"Initially, Denzel would be the choice," said the future prez, to whoops of delight from Tyra's mainly female audience. "But somebody pointed out, with my ears, it might have to go to Will [Smith]." It was a typically cute move on Obama's part -- self-deprecating, but smart enough to at least put himself in the same frame as Denzel. The Denzel reference said: 'I'm dynamic, revolutionary and kind of hot. I respect Morgan Freeman as your fantasy president, but I ain't no old dude.'
It has been the fate of Washington to be idealised. Several factors dovetailed in his ascension: that perfectly symmetrical face, his position as heir to Sidney Poitier's dignified legacy, his own portrayal of historically significant characters including Steve Biko and Malcolm X.
With his new movie, The Taking of Pelham 123, a remake of the 1974 subway hijack thriller, Washington is turning his back on the perfect man. He plays Walter Garber, a paunchy New York City subway dispatcher who brings his lunch to work in a plastic bag and spills coffee on his ugly brown tank top.
This being the actor who underwent army bootcamp for Courage Under Fire (1996), lost 60 pounds and trained as a boxer for a year for The Hurricane (1999), he had no problem applying himself to the serious job of piling on the pounds.
"You just don't exercise, eat late and have that burger and all the fries and the shake and dessert and you can get there really easy!" laughs Washington. At the age of 54, he says, putting on weight was easy. "Yes, I had been heading that way and so I went with it and kept going."
He goes on to say that he finds Garber a sympathetic character. "He's overweight, he's clumsy but he's a decent guy."
Of course, Washington has played flawed characters before, from drug-dealer Frank Lucas in American Gangster (2007) to homophobic lawyer Joe Miller in Philadelphia (1993) to twisted narcotics cop Alonzo Harris in Training Day (2001). It was Harris and not one of his more heroic alter-egos who brought Washington his first Oscar for Best Actor. (Although he earned a Best Supporting Actor statuette in 1989 for Trip, his defiant ex-slave in Glory.)
With Washington, even his portrayal of imperfect men demonstrates how untouchable he is as an actor. The Chicago Tribune describes his performance in Pelham 123 as an illustration of "that valuable paradox: the relatable supernova". He is credible as the ordinary guy caught up in an extraordinary situation, but quietly commands the screen. He masterfully underplays the character of Garber, while John Travolta rages psychotically as the hijacker who takes control of a subway train and vows to shoot the passengers if he isn't delivered a massive ransom within the hour.
Washington, so warmly praised by previous co-stars including Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, had the unusual situation of not filming face-to-face with Travolta for the first weeks on set.
"We actually filmed separately the first three or four weeks and so much of it is us talking back and forth on the microphone," he says. "But over the mike, we'd exchange, 'Good morning, John, how are you today?' and sing songs and tell jokes. It was an interesting relationship and interesting the way it developed, the way it did in the film."
Washington's Garber has the unhappy task of trying to negotiate the release of the hostages with Travolta's criminal mastermind Ryder. Garber was a policeman in the original 1974 film, but Washington didn't want to repeat the role he played in Inside Man three years ago, when he played a cop and a hostage negotiator.
"Early on, I said to Tony [Scott, director and four-time Washington collaborator] ... I said, 'I don't want to be a cop. How about if he's never had anything to do with hostage negotiations or handling guns?' So the fact of the matter is Ryder, John's character, just likes the guy and he's a sociopath and thinks he has a relationship with my character and only wants to talk to him."
You see, Washington doesn't like to be typecast. After garnering A-list recognition in Cry Freedom (1987), Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues (1990) and Malcolm X (1992), he was approached with scripts for every black American historical figure going, from Martin Luther King to baseball icon Jackie Robinson. He turned down both those roles, as he did the offer to star in Amistad, saying he didn't feel like wearing chains around his neck at that moment. He was done with being anybody's poster boy.
Washington is protective of his image and the universality of his appeal. He keeps his off-screen life private. He is a devout Christian who has raised a family of four with wife Pauletta, whom he met in 1977.
And while he is credited with advancing a positive image of African-American manhood in the US, he has been notably cautious about portraying interracial love scenes in his films. He refused to kiss white female co-star Kelly Lynch in Virtuosity (1995) -- she said in an interview that he was concerned that the target white male audience would react negatively. Julia Roberts wanted romance with his character in The Pelican Brief, but it didn't happen.
Today, Washington resists any interpretation of his choice of roles. "What I've done is done, the past is the past and I don't believe in looking back," he says. "I never even thought about that kind of evaluation. A thought might come into my head occasionally about what I did and why, but I don't sit around trying to look for a reason. If you are looking for a reason, you'll find one -- but it doesn't mean it's the right one!"
For all his reluctance to be analysed, he does give an insight into the journey he has taken from son of a Pentecostal minister and a beautician in upstate New York to Hollywood superstar. The filming of Pelham 123 required him to spend weeks grubbing around on the dangerous trainlines of the New York subway system.
"I hadn't taken the subway in over 20 years because I used to spend two hours each way on it every day going to school and back and did everything on it -- slept, ate, homework -- and I swore as soon as I had two pennies to rub together I would never ride it again and I didn't! Until this movie, of course!" he says.
Not that Washington was afraid to get his A-list hands dirty. He, Travolta and the crew had to undertake full safety training for scenes they would be shooting underground, a place where he says you have to "always be on your toes if you want to stay alive".
The third rail, he discovered, is the most dangerous. "They showed you pictures of what happens to people -- they fry and it's not nice -- but what happens is you relax after a few weeks or months, so I made sure not to. They were turning power on and off for us all the time, but I kept acting like the power was always on."
The physical strain of the underground filming must have been immense, especially as Washington was carrying extra weight -- and had just had knee surgery. One scene in which he is "running hard" while chasing Travolta had to be shot 18 or 19 times, he thinks. "So that was challenging, because then your ego is involved and you are thinking, 'I can't be out here huffing and puffing and looking bad' even though I'm overweight and had surgery. So I'm thinking, 'Wait, I have to have some sense of style and grace about this!'"
On the whole, though, vanity appears to have passed one of movie's most beautiful people by. When Barack Obama's biopic comments were put to him, Washington apparently demurred modestly, saying that by the time the 47-year-old Obama's story is ready to be told, he would be far too old to play him.
CASTING DENZEL…. While Washington has revelled in taking risks and playing the anti-hero, we would still love to see him in a few more iconic historical roles:
Barack Obama: Age is not important, Denzel. We at Day and Night still think you’re the only man to convincingly swat a fly while simultaneously reviving the international reputation of the US.
Desmond Tutu: Washington likes to study his subjects and has already met Tutu, when the Nobel Prize-winning Archbishop renewed Denzel and his wife’s wedding vows in 1995.
Nelson Mandela: If he’s going to do Tutu, he might as well take on the middle years of the talisman of the South African anti-apartheid struggle.
Morgan Freeman: Denzel might be the man who would be president, but Morgan is the voice of God. And it would be interesting to see how he would play a man who said that the only way to end racism is to stop talking about it.