Wash­ing­ton’s times

CanDen­zel Wash­ing­ton re­ally be about to­turn 60? He­came late to film but he’s al­ready built up a fine legacy, writes Don­aldClarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

One of Den­zel Wash­ing­ton’s great tricks is the sud­den, dis­con­cert­ing mid-sen­tence shift of mood.

We’re nat­ter­ing about his early years on the stage when he spies me cast­ing an eye to­wards the PR oper­a­tive with the stop­watch. It goes some­thing like this: “That was be­fore we had ‘too much in­for­ma­tion’. We weren’t all look­ing to­wards Hol­ly­wood. You got your eyes twitch­ing over there? Don’t you? You’re watch­ing like they’re com­ing to get you. Ha ha!”

There is no fig­u­ra­tive para­graph break. Even a full stop seems ex­ces­sive. With­out tak­ing a breath Wash­ing­ton swivels the con­ver­sa­tion round and causes me to flap like a stranded seal.

In the past, Wash­ing­ton had a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing just the tini­est bit prickly. All that seems to have van­ished. The man is, in short, an ab­so­lute hoot. He will in­dulge in a bit of rib­bing, but he’s will­ing to take as much as he gives. Why should he be mo­rose? He may be 59, but his ap­pear­ance seems to have scarcely al­tered in the last two decades. There’s a pic­ture in an at­tic some­where.

“I stay in the gym. I drink a lot of wa­ter,” he says “I’ve got to thank my genes. My mother is 90. Oh, if she hears me say this she’ll be mad. Delete that part! Ha ha! She’s way out in Maryland. But I can hear her say, ‘you were talk­ing about my age!’ I’ve al­ways looked young. When I was in my 20s I had trou­ble get­ting into clubs and had to carry ID.”

This week, Wash­ing­ton turns up as the lead in An­toine Fuqua’s re­make of the 1980s vigilante se­ries The Equal­izer. Hard though it may be to be­lieve, the trim lithe Wash­ing­ton is a full four years older than was Ed­ward Wood­ward when he took on the role. We were so much older then; we’re younger than that now.

Nore­tire­ment­plans

“I think the good thing about my pro­fes­sion is that you don’t have to re­tire,” says Wash­ing­ton. “It’s a bad thing about re­tire­ment. Peo­ple re­tire be­cause they think they should, but you need that work to live. Look at Clint East­wood. Look at Mor­gan Free­man.”

Den­zel Hayes Wash­ing­ton was born in Mount Ver­non, just north ofNew YorkCity, in De­cem­ber, 1954. His fa­ther was a preacher and his mother ran a beauty par­lour. He has spec­u­lated that, had his mother not sent him to a pri­vate school after the break-up of her mar­riage, he could have ended up in trou­ble with the law. More than a few of his pals spent time be­hind bars.

“That could have hap­pened to me,” he says. “You never know. My three clos­est friends all did end up like that. But my mother had vi­sion. She had fore­sight. ‘I have to get him out of here.’ It was to do with the school I was in. It was 1968 with all that was go­ing on then. You never know in life.”

Wash­ing­ton seems to have gone through a pe­riod of in­de­ci­sion after leav­ing high school. He stud­ied for a while in Texas, took a BA from Ford­ham Col­lege in New York City and played some pretty de­cent col­le­giate bas­ket- Every­body­know­sthatDen­zel Wash­ing­ton­made­his­act­ingde­butin MichaelWin­ner’sDeathWatchin 1974.It’s thereon theIn­ter­netMovie Data­base(IMDb). It’son hisWikipedi­aen­try.Therei­sev­e­naYouTube videoshow­inghimget­ting­shotby CharlesBron­son.“No.That’snot me,”saysWash­ing­ton.“It’sa com­plete­myth. That’sjustIMDb.It’s ab­so­lute­ly­false. Ihadn’teven­been act­ingthen. So, it­couldn’thave­been me.What?Some­body­has­ac­tu­ally putavideoup? Ab­so­lute­ly­madeup.” Beaware,trivia quiz-masters. ball. But, like so many ac­tors, he bumped un­ex­pect­edly into his vo­ca­tion rather than car­ry­ing it around through­out his early life.

“I took a drama class be­cause somebody said it was easy and I liked it,” he re­calls.

Stagecom­mit­ments

By 1976 he had com­mit­ted him­self to the stage. His ca­reer turned out to be an ir­reg­u­lar sort ofcrea­ture and he didn’t re­ally be­come a proper movie star un­til the end of the 1980s. But he was never out of work for long. He tells me that he had ap­plied for a “day job” in 1981, but, be­fore he re­ceived a re­ply, a role on stage as Mal­colm X came his way (a part he was, of course, to play for Spike Lee a decade later).

Shortly after that, Wash­ing­ton ap­peared in the hit A Sol­dier’s Play and, later, the film ver­sion, A Sol­dier’s Story. A reg­u­lar part in the TV se­ries St Else­where also helped sus­tain him through­out the 1980s. But his watchful mother musthave wor­ried about him drift­ing into such a pre­car­i­ous pro­fes­sion.

“Well, it be­gan at col­lege,” he says. “So there was noth­ing at stake. I got my first pro­fes­sional job then in a TV movie. I had de­cided to go to the Amer­i­can Con­ser­va­tory. There was no go­ing back then.”

There was no one big break­through for Wash­ing­ton. In 1988 he re­ceived an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for his turn as Steve Biko in Richard At­ten­bor­ough’s Cry Free­dom. Two years later, he took the best sup­port­ing ac­tor gong for Glory. Main­stream hits such as Philadel­phia and Crim­son Tide grad­u­ally ar­rived in the 1990s.

“I’m glad it hap­pened that way,” he says. “I think you miss out if you have that sud­den big break. I was able to do 15 to 20 plays in that time. I wouldn’t like to have missed that. The­atre was my first lover. I didn’t think much about movies. Let’s be hon­est. There weren’t many peo­ple that looked like me in movies then.”

Well, quite. There are still roads to be trav­elled, but the sit­u­a­tion has greatly im­proved for African-Amer­i­can ac­tors over the past 30 years. It’s hard to imag­ing, in 1984, a black ac­tor se­cur­ing the lead role in The Equal­izer. If, say, Ed­die Murphy had man­aged such a feat then his “black­ness” would be­come part of the plot. Wash­ing­ton helped change that.

Fam­i­lyinthe­busi­ness

“Well, thank you,” he says. “But, you know, we were snobs any­way back then. We wanted to do the­atre. The movies we liked were things like Taxi Driver; New York movies. You had to see it to want to do it. And I didn’t see many peo­ple who looked like me in movies. So I didn’t want it.”

Wash­ing­ton has helped clear a path for his own chil­dren. One of his sons is a film-maker and another daugh­ter is an ac­tor. As they make their way in the world, dad faces up to the ar­rival of a sev­enth decade in De­cem­ber. Den­zel Wash­ing­ton is about to be 60. It hardly seems pos­si­ble. You may as well tell us he’s 146.

“Oh well, 60 is the new 50 and 50 is the new 40. Have I got that right? Ha ha.”We’ll take the man’s word for it. The Equal­izer is out now on gen­eral re­lease

Re­view, page 9

‘Oh well, 60 is the new 50 and 50 is the new 40. Have I got that right?’

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