I was BORN for this
More than 25 years after playing freedom fighter Steve Biko in Cry Freedom, Denzel Washington has been busy unleashing his inner action hero in South Africa, writes Marie- Christine Sourris
PLAYING Los Angeles police detective Alonzo Harris in 2001’ s Training Day was the role of a lifetime for Denzel Washington.
Not only did it finally hand him that elusive best actor Oscar, it also opened Hollywood’s eyes to a whole new Denzel.
Gone was the handsome, virtuous star of The Pelican Brief, Malcolm X, Philadelphia, The Hurricane and Remember the Titans.
In his place stood a tough, mean and evil bad- arse.
‘‘ I don’t think that Hollywood, quote unquote, had looked at me in that light,’’ says Washington, who picked up his first Oscar in 1990, a best supporting actor gong for American Civil War drama Glory.
‘‘ I remember when I was offered the script for Training Day. I gave it to my son to read, he was a teenager then, about 16. He was like ‘ Oh yeah Dad, you gotta do this, this is a good one. Audiences haven’t seen you like this’. ‘‘ So I took it to heart.’’ In the decade to follow since, Washington has been offered scripts ‘‘ left and right’’ that challenged his good guy image.
In addition to his respected directorial efforts Antwone Fisher ( 2002) and The Great Debaters ( 2007), Washington has played a washed- up former security agent ( Man on Fire ), a desperate father who holds a hospital’s ER as hostage ( John Q) and Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas in American Gangster, another one he signed up for at his son’s insistence.
But it’s not just the moral compass of Washington’s characters that has shifted.
While most actors approaching 60 would be thinking about slowing down on the action front, Washington ( pictured) seems to be stepping harder on the accelerator.
His latest role as a rogue CIA agent on the loose in South Africa involved Washington tackling numerous assassins in hand- tohand combat, trapping co- star Ryan Reynolds in a vicious chokehold during a high- speed car chase and staging a shoot out at Cape Town’s Green Point Stadium.
It has more than a touch of the Bourne trilogy to it, and well it might.
Not only do the stories share a common theme – renegade secret agents being hunted down – they also share the thrilling, fast- paced visual style of cinematographer Oliver Wood.
While Washington’s regular fitness routine already includes boxing at the gym five times a week, he trained in South Africa for four months for the film, directed by Daniel Espinosa and executive produced by Washington among others.
‘‘ I had visited Cape Town in the ’ 90s – it had changed in a big way. It seemed a lot more modern than I remembered.
‘‘ I imagine [ doing the big stadium crowd scenes] were more of a nightmare for the director, having to move thousands of people around. [ But] it was fine for me.’’
Especially since it was Reynolds who attracted most of the heat, Washington says.
‘‘ He’s quite a star over there. He was getting a lot of cat calls from the ladies,’’ he says of his co- star, who is ‘‘ a really good kid and a fine actor’’.
Certainly the ladies threw a few calls Washington’s way as well?
‘‘ Yeah, but it was [ mainly] him, he was getting his fair share,’’ he laughs.
Wolf whistles or not, Washington is idolised by millions all around the world.
But growing up in and around New York, he never considered becoming an actor.
‘‘ I think [ my heroes] were more the people that were in my neighbourhood, the Boys Club that I grew up in. You kind of looked up to the different guys who were in charge there.
‘‘ And then some of the guys I grew up with became really prominent, professional basketball players. We were all proud to be friends of theirs, to know them.’’
Later, it was Sidney Poitier and James Earl Jones who he would start looking up to, while also watching the likes of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman.
But it wasn’t until his third year at Fordham University that Washington, who now reportedly commands $ 20 million a movie, signed up for his first acting class ‘‘ on a fluke’’.
‘‘ And then I just kept going. When I got my first job I said ‘ Hey, they pay pretty good, I’ll see if I can keep this going’,’’ he says with a laugh.
Meeting director Richard Attenborough sealed the deal.
‘‘ I was right here, up the block in New York, and he was casting the movie
Cry Freedom,’’ says Washington, who now lives in Los Angeles with his wife of almost 30 years, Pauletta.
‘‘ He said ‘ I’m really looking for an African to play the part, but if I don’t find one then I want you to play the part’. And I was like, ‘ Wow’. I was really flattered.’’
It certainly worked out ‘‘ all right’’, as he puts it. Just 33 at the time and making waves as hunky Dr Phillip on ’ 80s television series St Elsewhere, it was Cry Freedom that put Washington on the movie map.
But peek behind all the fame and accolades – including his first Tony Award in 2010 for Broadway play Fences – and it is Washington’s four children who are his proudest achievements.
His daughter Katia, a Yale graduate, is now working with Quentin Tarantino in his production offices. His son Malcolm is a young filmmaker studying film at the University of Penn, while twin sister Olivia is an actress studying in New York.
Even Washington’s eldest son John David, a star footballer, has crossed into film, working with director Allen Hughes on the Mark Wahlberg flick Broken City.
‘‘ They all seem to be getting into the family business,’’ Washington says.
‘‘ They watch all the movies, all the time. Growing up in LA, I guess it was a natural progression for them.’’
If it came down to it, who would win movie trivia night in their house? The five- time Oscar- nominated actor or his movie- buff children? ‘‘ I’d lose,’’ he cackles.
‘‘ I know the least about ’ em.’’
So Washington could soon be turning to them for a job?
‘‘ Yeah, it might turn out that way,’’ laughs Washington, who has churned out 14 flicks in the past decade, including Unstoppable, The Taking of Pelham 123, Deja Vu and Inside Man.
‘‘ I constantly remind them the old man’s going to need a pension.’’
Until then, the eternally youthful looking
I don’t look at them like ‘ Oh, this is an Oscar- worthy part’. I just try to do good work. And the work will speak for itself
57- year- old (‘‘ it just runs in the genes’’) has plenty to keep him busy.
Washington has just finished filming Robert Zemeckis’ redemption tale Flight, in which he plays an alcoholic pilot, and there is also a loose plan to perhaps direct
Fences on the big screen. Then there’s his long- standing desire to return to Shakespeare. It’s something Washington first got a taste for cinematically with Much Ado About
Nothing and, most recently, on Broadway five years ago as Brutus in Julius Caesar.
‘‘ They’ve been kicking it around, me and Al Pacino possibly doing Othello, but we’ll see,’’ he admits.
What about adding to his golden statue collection? ‘‘ I’ve never chased them,’’ he says. ‘‘ I don’t look at them like ‘ Oh, this is an Oscar- worthy part’. I just try to do good work. And the work will speak for itself.’’
Now showing Village Cinemas