“You figure out what you don’t need in your life” – Denzel Washington
March 27, 1975. The day started like any other for a then 20-year-old Denzel Washington, but it would turn out to be the day that changed his life.
Struggling through college with dismal grades, Denzel was sitting in his mother’s beauty parlour in New York when a woman – apropos of nothing – looked at him and told the young man he would touch the lives of millions and travel the world. It lit a fire under the future two-time Oscar winner, inspiring him to pursue acting.
As Denzel regales Balance about this life-changing moment, it’s enough to send a shiver down the spine. After all, we are chatting with one of cinema’s great icons and the experience proves utterly spellbinding.
“I’d never thought about acting,” he says. “Never thought about it at all. Five months later, I was taking my first acting class. I’m still travelling the world now. I didn’t know what to think of it. It wasn’t like suddenly I was converted, but as my life began to change, I thought more and more about what she said.
“It was a process, not an overnight thing. The initial process was finding what it is I like to do and love, which was acting.”
More than 40 years later, Denzel is one of the most universally adored actors of all time. The 63-year-old is funny, wise and inspiring company, even taking his status as beloved leading man in his stride. “It only inspires me to keep growing as an actor and a human being,” he says.
On always being so gloriously positive, he adds: “One day at a time. You wake up in the morning with your bucket of self-esteem and everyone is waiting with their ladles to dip into it. You have to work at it every day. You’ve got to restart every day and be thankful to get through the day.”
Was he born that way? He unleashes his big, beautiful, booming laugh – it’s a life-affirming guffaw that we get to hear a few times during our chat – and hits back: “Absolutely not! You start to figure things out and, as you get wiser, you simplify things. You start figuring out what you don’t need in your life.”
The fact he’s been married to the same woman – Pauletta – for 35 years also helps. “I’m married. That alone will keep your head level,” he says. “No matter what I get through in the day – and it doesn’t matter how great I am out there – I’ve still got to come home at night. I take my work seriously, but don’t take myself seriously.”
THE LONG GAME
Denzel’s new film, The Equalizer 2, is a scorcher. It’s his first-ever sequel, with ex-military man Robert McCall back to right wrongs and dish out justice. As the title suggests, it’s about restoring balance and equilibrium.
McCall also takes on the role of mentor, scrubbing out graffiti in one scene while explaining to his protégé Miles Whittaker (Ashton Sanders): “Anybody could do it, but nobody does.” It’s Denzel and the filmmakers’ way of addressing the audience, to say we can all make a difference. “We do have an impact,” Denzel adds. “And sometimes it’s in small ways… You never know who you influence.”
Most superstars tend to fade when they reach a certain age, but Denzel gets bigger and better. The Equalizer 2 proved yet another No1 hit when it opened in the US last month. So, how is it possible for his star to shine brighter than ever? “Real simple,” he says. “I’m still trying to get better. I’m still working at it. I haven’t arrived yet.
“Just over a month ago, I closed a [theatre] production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. Four-plus hours. It was a beast. I love the theatre, and I started out in the theatre; it challenges you. It doesn’t care how famous you are!” He guffaws once more.
“That’s my way of getting back to the basics, back to the gym, the drawing board. And I enjoy it. It’s that relationship you have with an audience that you don’t get from a movie.”
Would he ever come to London’s West End? “Yes, sure, absolutely,” he says. “I’ve been asked before and it hasn’t worked out. But absolutely.”
An encounter with one of Britain’s finest actors also clearly left a mark. Denzel adds: “I used to see Glenda Jackson. She was doing Three Tall Women. She’s a character, boy! I heard her Lear was brilliant and I’d like to see her do Richard III.” How about a dream pairing of Washington and Jackson? “Any time. Anywhere,” he beams. Theatre impresarios: please make it so.
Up next will hopefully be another collaboration with Robert Zemeckis, who directed him to one of his nine Oscar nominations in the terrific study of addiction, Flight. “I’m talking with Bob Zemeckis, but there’s nothing set in stone just yet.”
Denzel’s enthusiasm is contagious, and I effectively beg him to keep acting until he’s 110. “Why not? I don’t know about 110! Clint Eastwood had his biggest success at 84. American Sniper was his biggest-grossing movie as an actor or director at 84, so why not?”
Why not indeed? At 63, Denzel looks and moves like a man half his age. “Well, I got good genes,” he explains, matter of factly. “When I was 30 I was still getting asked for ID; when I was young I didn’t like it. I also try and stay physical. I’ve been boxing for years and you’ve got to stay active,” he says, before murmuring, “although I’m heavy now.”
Religion continues to provide Denzel’s bedrock, and I ask if faith helps him pick roles. “Sometimes I feel like that,” he says. “I pray for guidance. I don’t always get an answer. Someone said to me, God answers all prayers and sometimes the answer’s ‘no’.” He laughs again. “Just because you asked for it, doesn’t mean you’re going to get it. Or doesn’t mean you’re going to get what you thought.
“I just go back to what my mother said: keep it simple. Don’t overcomplicate things. I’m an ordinary guy and I’ve got a good job and I’m trying to do the best I can. If it touches people in some way, then I’m doing my job.”
So, did Denzel always know he was going to ‘make it’? “It goes back to where we started,” he explains, bringing the chat full circle. “To what that woman [in the parlour] said to me. As things started to unfold, I said, ‘Wow. Maybe this is what she was talking about.’
“I said to an old mentor maybe I should be preaching. They said, no, you’ve found your platform. You’re not preaching, but you have a voice for good. What’s the alternative? Who wants that? There’s enough of that going around already.”
The Equaliser 2 is in cinemas from 17 August