“Obama is in town … “
It would be hard to imagine any four words wreaking more havoc on Los Angeles’s already-clogged thoroughfares. If POTUS only knew how many votes he was losing on his traffic-halting visits … Actually, he could probably count them all, one by one, fuming in their idling Priuses as his motorcade breezed past to some lavish Katzenbergian soirée.
So knowing I’d been given a very tight interview window, I left early. Three hours early. For a roughly seven-mile drive. This did nothing to alleviate my stress. As I drove, I imagined myself breathlessly explaining to Coach Boone that I’d actually left three hours earlier … “Son, we leave for camp at 7:29. If you report at 7:30, you will be watching — not playing … ”
Of course, I arrived in less than 15 minutes.
A few leisurely hours later I walked into La Descarga, a handsomely appointed new Cuban restaurant where we were to meet. Milling around the unmanned bar were a small battalion of publicists, a photo crew, hair and makeup people, and, just as casually, some of the biggest movie stars in the world: Matt Damon, Richard Gere, Jamie Foxx, and Denzel Washington — all laughing and shooting the shit as they waited to shoot a Hollywood Reporter cover. Before we met, Alan Nierob — Denzel’s publicist — told me: “Denzel’s ‘bored’ talking about drinking … ” (“Drinking” being the central, underlying theme of his new film, Flight); making sure to punctuate the end of the e-mail with: “So bored.” The other thing he said was I’d have him for an hour — hour and a half at most.1 Oh — and Denzel wouldn’t be having dinner with me. “Honestly, if he has an opportunity to have dinner in town? He’s going to want to do that with his wife and kids.” I really couldn’t blame him.
My two earlier interviews had stretched a very leisurely three-plus hours. So knowing time was of the essence, I’d streamlined my questions — really pared them down to the bare minimum. But here’s the time + tragedy = comedy part: Roughly 45 minutes into the interview I’d realized I’d run out of things to ask. I was just a stalling, empty tank. One of the world’s biggest movie stars just looking at me, expectantly — and me just smiling, dumbly, back. I had to tell him I was done. Denzel grinned his movie star grin, undoubtedly surprised, but certainly happy. We shook hands and that was it.
Daniel: I really appreciate you doing this. I can only imagine where you spend the better part of a year making one of these artful, well-crafted movies … and then, like, your immediate reward is being asked the same inane questions over and over again. Must be like Dante’s nine circles of hell.
Denzel: [Smiling coolly.2] I’m not worried about it. I know you’re not going to do that …
In my paranoid imagination, I’d worried Denzel would be terse, even prickly. Instead he was completely relaxed, smiling … friendly!
Daniel: Well, anyway, if I ask a shitty question … just tell me and we’ll get rid of it.
Denzel: You don’t have to worry about it. You’ll know. [Laughs.]
Daniel: Do you know Grantland, the site that you’re doing this for?
Denzel: No. Tell me.
Daniel: Uh … OK … It’s a sort of pop culture [and] sports site … part of ESPN … started by, uh, this guy Bill Simmons … ?
Denzel: OK. [Polite nodding.]
Daniel: … He writes a lot of basketball stuff? There’s also, uh, a bunch of other interesting writers on there — Chuck Klosterman … It’s sort of a smart site. With a slight intellectual slant to it …
Denzel: Why you interviewing me then?
Daniel: Are you at all interested in digital media? Or does that just pass you by?
Denzel: I don’t even have a phone.
Daniel: Really? [Laughing.] You don’t have a cell phone?
Denzel: Mm-mm. Not right now.
Daniel: So when people need to get in touch with you, what happens?
Denzel: They call the house, and I check the messages when I get home.
Daniel: [Laughing.] Wow. I like that. Old-school.
Daniel: But I did see you have a Facebook page — and it did seem like maybe that might have been you on there?
[Denzel looking at me skeptically .]
Daniel: There was a message last week: “Happy Friday, everyone, stay blessed and prosper well”?
Denzel: Nah, I don’t have a Facebook. What is it? Just people do that? Pretend to be you?
Daniel: Yeah, there was a Twitter thing, too — but just two posts — Same thing: “Hello Twitter world — Denzel”
Denzel: [Laughs.] Really?
Daniel: Yeah. But it’s not you.
Denzel: Not me!
Daniel: Yeah, I kind of had a sinking suspicion … OK, but speaking of Twitter, there is somebody on there I do love, and I was reading he’s also one of your great friends — though maybe I’m wrong about this too? George Wallace?
Denzel: [Pauses.] No.
Daniel: The comedian?
Denzel: I mean, I know him, but he’s not —
Daniel: — not one of your great friends.
Denzel: I haven’t seen George in years —
Daniel: [Laughs.] Oh, that’s too bad. I liked the idea that maybe that was true.3
Nonetheless, everyone should follow George Wallace on Twitter. He’s very funny. Sample tweet: “I don’t wanna start a panic, but America is running out of cobbler.” Also his shout-out tweets: “Shout out to space garbage.”
Denzel: Yeah, I haven’t seen George in years.4
And to be crystal clear, referring here to the comedian — not the segregationist Alabama governor. Who’s been dead for 14 years.
Daniel: How about Seinfeld? I read you guys are also great friends? Or do I have that wrong too?
Denzel: I don’t know Seinfeld. I mean, I know who he is, but —
Daniel: I’m starting with a thud here —
Denzel: Where has he been?5 Seems like he went back to New York and disappeared …
An example of Denzel’s kindness. I think he could tell I had started a little of my own debate flopsweat, and is graciously attempting to help me out of my hole. Though now I have to figure out where Seinfeld has been …
Daniel: Uh, yeah, I think — he’s sort of retired from TV and now he’s doing a web series —
Denzel: Oh, really?
Daniel: Comedians and cars.
Denzel: Oh yeah — because he’s a big Porsche guy, right?
Daniel: He’s a huge car guy, yeah.6
Denzel: Somebody else said that in another interview I did. They asked if I was good friends with George Wallace. They make all sorts of stuff up. I also heard I died in a snowboarding accident …
Daniel: I must have missed that one. So you had to deal with the repercussions of that too?
Denzel: You know a couple of people called me in a panic. Like, “Denzel!!” and I’m like “Yes?”
Daniel: Called the house?
Daniel: Do you even snowboard?
Denzel: [Laughs.] No!
Daniel: OK, so forget George Wallace … and Seinfeld … Are there people you haven’t met that you want to meet? Though I’d kind of imagine at this point you probably have met everybody that you’d ever want to.
Denzel: [Pauses.] Ah, I’m trying to think.
Daniel: World leaders … or maybe other actors you admire?
Denzel: I’m sure, yeah, yeah …
Daniel: How about I throw some names to you.
Denzel: All right.
Daniel: Have you met Robert Redford?
Denzel: Yes. Yeah, I used to be on the board of Sundance.
Daniel: How about … Michael Jackson?
Denzel: Michael had fried chicken at my house.
Daniel: What was that like?
Denzel: That was cool.
Daniel: So you invited him to your house?
Denzel: He came over, I forget why, I think my wife had invited him, and he came over, and I was like, “He can eat!” He was going to town, man.
Daniel: What year of Michael was this? This was Bubbles-era Michael, or …
Denzel: We were in our old house, so it had to have been before ’99. We moved in ’99.
Daniel: Right, and anything that you remember other than he ate a lot?
Denzel: I just remember my kids coming downstairs and just staring at him. They were just standing there like [imitates shocked face]. I said, “Say hello,” and they go, “Hello Mr. Jackson … OK, good-bye.”
Denzel: They were just like, “Michael Jackson’s in the house.”
Daniel: That must’ve been great, because as your kids — well, I find my daughter — I work in TV, largely — but my daughter’s pretty jaded. She doesn’t really care about any of it. Did your kids get excited about that stuff?
Denzel: They didn’t jump up and down, but they’re very kind of low-key. I don’t know if they get excited. Though I tell you what. My youngest son, Malcolm, he was like, “Dad, Jay-Z is doing seven shows across the country in one night. You gotta get tickets. He plays L.A. at like ten o’clock.” So I’m like [dialing sounds] “Claudine, give me some Ts.” “Yeah, yeah, they’ll be here, just come backstage, you’ll do the whole thing.” And Malcolm was like [shocked face]. And I’m like, “Say hello, Malcolm.” But it was so interesting, just the power of these young artists, because he got onstage, and all he had to do was start the song, and they all would take over — and do every line — and Malcolm was like right there with him like [pretend singing/rapping]. And I’m standing there, because we’re in the wings, standing behind my son, and I’m watching all these people with their fists. And Jay’s like, “Hovaaaaa!!!” and my son’s like, “Hovaaaaa!” And I said, “Wow, he’s got ’em.” All he had to do was the first couple of notes of the song, and he’d say a line, and he’d [making the motion of putting the mic out] and they’d do it,” and I said, “That’s power.”
Daniel: That’s the cult of personality.
Denzel: Yeah. Hovaaaa!
Daniel: Yeah, that’s cool. How about royalty? Ever go to those royal premieres where you meet the Queen or Prince Charles or anything like that?
Denzel: Nah, I haven’t been invited to any of those.
Daniel: Really? All your movies?!
Denzel: I mean, I guess that’s a different world. Unfortunately, I haven’t been. But if you speak to the Queen, you can tell her I’d like to come by.
Daniel: OK [laughs]. I’ll put in a good word for you, see what she thinks.
Denzel: Yeah, go hang out with Harry. No, wait, which one is the crazy one?
Denzel: Yeah, go hang out with Harry.
Daniel: William’s the mild-mannered one. Harry’s —
Denzel: I bet William’s the nut. I bet you behind closed doors, William’s the crazy one.
Daniel: Yeah, but Harry was the one who went to Vegas, had some girls over, got naked … took a couple pictures …
Denzel: What was he thinking?
Daniel: Who knows …
Denzel: Yeah, he wasn’t. How old is he about? Mid-20s?
Daniel: Yeah, I think he’s in the Royal Air Force too. But he seems like he’s a good time, Harry.
Denzel: Good Time Harry.
Daniel: And probably another good argument for not having a phone. You’re also a pretty big Yankees fan.
Denzel: Yeah, yeah …
Daniel: You know any of those guys?
Denzel: No, I don’t know them personally, but I met [Robinson] Cano, and I met Derek [Jeter] over the years.
Daniel: I assume you watched the playoffs?
Denzel: Yeah, yeah, I was keeping up as much as I could.
Daniel: Do you get mad, do you yell at the TV?
Denzel: Yeah, nah — well, yeah, I do get upset about it.
Daniel: Or are you jaded because you’ve got so many rings already?
Denzel: What is it, like 26, 27?
Daniel: I think you’re at 29.7
I’m wrong. He’s right. It’s actually 26 rings and 27 championships. I should have known this.
Denzel: Is it 29?
Daniel: I think it’s 29. I might be wrong. I’m a Red Sox fan.
Denzel: Oh, really? WHOAAAAAA.
Denzel: Interview is over, I gotta go! [Pounds the table.] I gotta go!
Daniel: I was actually trying to save that for the end.
Denzel: Oh, man, the Red Sox? Ohhh my God.
Daniel: I grew up in Vermont, what can I say?
Denzel: No, no, I like, I like … uh, man, I can’t even get it out. I couldn’t even say it. I like, I like, I like, I like — I like Fenway Park.
Daniel: There’s got to be one Red Sox you like?
Denzel: [Long pause.]
Daniel: I mean, I hate the Yankees. But I can admit I like Jeter … or I admire Jeter.
Denzel: [Long pause.] Rice — ?
Daniel: Jim Rice?
Denzel: [Backpedaling.] See, growing up in New York as a Yankee fan, you’re not allowed to like Boston —
Daniel: No, I get that. I get mad when I see Ortiz talking to A-Rod. It makes me angry. I have to agree with you. I think they shouldn’t be friends.
Denzel: Well, that’s for the fans. You know, the players —
Daniel: Or at least pretend not to like each other, like with Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk back in the day — I like that, when they truly hated each other’s guts. But you’ve been a Yankee fan forever, right?
Denzel: Oh yeah … back in the day … I go back to like Tommy Tresh, Whitey Ford, what was that team, Clete Boyer?
Daniel: Yeah, that’s ’60s.
Denzel: Who else was on that … Phil Linz, Bobby Richardson, Joe Pepitone, the Mick and Roger, Elston Howard, and Yogi, they’d platoon as catcher.
Daniel: Yeah, I can do that, too. Like ’75 Red Sox, I can probably name 20 of them I bet. —
Denzel: ’75 was the famous jumping up in the air —
Daniel: Yep, Fisk, waving it fair.
Denzel: Yeah, was it Carlton Fisk? And Yaz [Carl Yastrzemski]? You gotta respect those guys. Whatever I have to say about the Red Sox, I have the utmost respect for those teams. Those were some serious …
Daniel: Me too. But they never won.
Denzel: Yep, never won.
Daniel: But yeah, those were my idols. I remember going to Fenway as a kid and seeing Yaz smoking in the dugout.
Daniel: Yeah, just having a butt between innings.
Denzel: You know what blew my mind as a kid? They took us to see the Harlem Globetrotters. I was in the cub scouts, and our den mother took us to see the Harlem Globetrotters, and we’d go backstage — backstage? [laughs] — locker room at halftime, and they’re smoking and playing cards.
Daniel: That’s great.
Denzel: [Laughs.] I was like, “Nooo!” Because as kids, we all thought, you know, “Oh, they can beat any NBA team. We thought the Globetrotters — There was always that argument, you know? And these guys were smoking cigarettes and playing cards.
Daniel: Meadowlark Lemon actually lived in my hometown — Brattleboro, Vermont.
Denzel: He was there. Meadowlark Lemon. I met Meadowlark Lemon. I don’t know if Goose Tatum was on that team, but —
Daniel: Curly —
Denzel: Yeah, Curly, Meadowlark.
Daniel: Yeah, it’s funny. We remember those guys. Can people name the Globetrotters today? I don’t think people know them in that same way, but I remember.
Denzel: Where are they now?
Daniel: I’m pretty sure they still do it.
Denzel: The old pail-of-water-paper-trick, you know the same ol’ —
Daniel: Yeah, exactly, the paper confetti, yeah, yeah.
Denzel: Oh, here’s something funny, talking about Jeter — I remember we were at Anaheim, at an Angels-Yankees game, and we had some great seats. So we were right near the on-deck circle, and Jeter was warming up, and so I said, “Jeter, this is my son — last week, he was the no. 2 running back in the country … ” And he looked up and said, “Oh, he must get that from his mother’s side.”
Denzel: Then he got up, clicked his heels, and hit a home run.
Daniel: Wow, that’s funny.
Denzel: And I was, like, for the next half-hour, I was the butt of all jokes. I’m figuring in this sea of Angels, I’m the only Yankee fan there, and I’m going to show everybody that I know Derek, and he throws me under the bus.
Daniel: It’s funny, like Derek seems so mild-mannered, like it’s funny that he would go at you.
Denzel: No, but he did it so smooth. Just clicking his heels, cleaning his cleats, must’ve had that home run on his mind …
Daniel: Let’s talk about your son. Played two years with the St. Louis Rams, right?
Denzel: Yeah. What was trippy is that it was my dream to be a running back in the NFL, and then my son became a running back in the NFL.
Daniel: I know, it’s amazing. I was watching, actually, the videotape you showed, when you were on Letterman?
Denzel: Yeah, that was in the UFL.
Daniel: Right, Daunte Culpepper was the quarterback.
Denzel: And he ran that touchdown —
Daniel: [Laughs] Yeah, and your wife is running down the sideline with him, and the defender on the other team just tramples her …
Denzel: That’s right, that’s right.
Daniel: But what struck me was — and I’m not judging — if it happened to my wife I definitely would have laughed too — but you seemed particularly amused by that. Did your wife mind how much you seemed to enjoy that story?
Denzel: Well, she was all right, so it was fine. As I said, she bounced right up.
Daniel: That was an amazing piece of videotape. But that must’ve been really something for you as a dad when your son gets all these colleges recruiting him to play ball …
Denzel: Yeah, he had a four-year scholarship at a small school, Morehouse, and became the all-time leading rusher in the history of the school.
Daniel: Spike Lee went to Morehouse too, right? Did he try to talk up the school to you and your son?
Denzel: Yeah, he probably did, I think so. Yeah, I think he did. But I also liked what they said. He had about half a dozen scholarship offers, and Morehouse, the athletic director called and said, “You know we want to give your son a scholarship to Morehouse.” And I said, “Well, you know, I mean I love Morehouse, and you know, I’ve got a couple of dollars, so I’ll pay for it, and why don’t you give the scholarship to somebody who really needs it?”
Denzel: And he said, “We’re not giving you the scholarship. We’re giving him the scholarship. He earned it.”
Daniel: Right, right.
Denzel: And I liked that, that’s when I said, “Oh, OK.” I liked that. I dug that; I dug that.
Daniel: Yeah, and that makes your son obviously feel great also, that he earned that himself going in.
Denzel: Yeah, and he’s, you know, I think when he got there, the guys are going, “Oh, what’s he doing here, he’s just here because of his dad” and all that. Then he broke all the records in the history of the school.
Daniel: And then they knew why he was there.
Denzel: And then they knew why he was there.8
And while he’s too humble to mention it here, I did read that he subsequently — and quietly — ended up providing scholarships for Morehouse, for students with financial needs.
Daniel: I have a question about your wife … you’ve been married nearly 30 years …
Daniel: I should say indirectly about your wife … Because earlier this week, Michelle Obama — who, by the way, is already married to the charismatic, handsome leader of the free world — she says she has a crush on you.
Denzel: [Surprised.] She said that?
Denzel: [Pause.] Cool.
Daniel: You didn’t hear that?
Denzel: No. But it’s nice to be loved by the First Lady … that’s, I mean, that’s nothing to be pissed off about.
Daniel: Yeah, I was wondering about that. I mean how about your wife? Does she hear that and just roll her eyes, or does she go —
Denzel: I don’t know if she’s heard that one.
Daniel: Well, ’cause, like, my wife is from Texas. She gets super jealous. She would not like Michelle Obama one bit after that. I mean, that’s my wife, but your wife, is she —
Denzel: I mean, did you see it when she said it? I mean, in what —
Daniel: Yeah, they asked her on a talk show, like Kelly and Michael or one of those shows, and she said her crush was you.
Denzel: Wow. That’s cool.
Daniel: Yeah, I thought that was pretty cool, too.
Denzel: Sorry, Mr. President.
Daniel: Meanwhile — so, your wife doesn’t care about that stuff.
Denzel: I wouldn’t say she doesn’t care, but maybe she just doesn’t know.
Daniel: Well —
Denzel: I mean she knows now.
Daniel: Well I’m guessing she probably doesn’t read Grantland either …
Denzel: Right, right.
Daniel: And at the same time, a while back, President Obama said he’d want you to play him in the movie of his life.
Denzel: Oh, yeah? I heard about that. He mentioned like me and Will Smith or something like that.
Daniel: What do you think about the election? How do you think Obama’s chances are?
Denzel: I think he’s going to win.
Daniel: You think so?
Denzel: Yeah, I think he’s going to win. Close, but I think he’s going to win.
Daniel: Did you watch the debates?
Denzel: Yeah, I watched a little bit of number … I don’t remember which one it was.
Daniel: The bad one? The first one?
Denzel: No, I think it was the second one.
Daniel: Oh, that was a good one. I mean for Obama.
Denzel: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was the second one. The “bad” one? [Laughs.] Was it so bad?
Daniel: Yeah, that one was bad.
Denzel: Oh, that was the one where he didn’t do so well.
Daniel: No, it looked like he had the flu, or I don’t know what was going on. I think if you’re the president, you can’t say, “I don’t feel well,” because people will be like —
Denzel: “Too bad.”
Daniel: Yeah, “Suck it up.”
Daniel: But yeah, yeah, so do you have a relationship with the Obamas? Do you know them at all?
Denzel: Nah, nah — I mean, I met them. And I’ve been to the White House, but it’s not like I talk to them on Saturdays.
Daniel: Right, right. So you weren’t like all charming with Michelle at some point? To where maybe she got it in her head …
Denzel: No. Don’t get me in trouble, man!
CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO Daniel: Let’s shift gears to the movies a little bit here. I was watching Flight, and yet in the movie — do you ever do this? Where you watch a movie and there’s, like, a “money” phrase — which is invariably always the title of the movie? And the phrase they kept saying again and again in this movie was “Act of God.” And I was wondering — was that maybe the original title?
Denzel: No, it was always Flight. Hmm, though, yeah — I think a couple of extra “Act of God”s got into the script, but that’s the nature of the accident and all —
Daniel: But there’s also this sort of religious underscore to it, too — where your co-pilot in it, he’s a bit of a religious zealot —
Denzel: Right, right.9
This would normally be the part of the article I’d skip, where the actor is talking about a movie I haven’t seen yet and I want to see it — because personally I hate knowing anything before I see a film. But to clarify, this is the opposite of a spoiler alert: We don’t reveal anything in this part of the interview. We’re just discussing how Denzel’s own religion plays into the idea that he’s playing an immoral guy who will stop at nothing — even exploiting others’ religious goodwill — to get what he needs. It is insight into the mind of an addict, and how it reconciles with his own beliefs.
Daniel: There was a scene also where he kind of goes on a little bit of a super-religious tangent, and his wife also goes on a little bit of a tangent —
Denzel: When he asks me to pray?
Daniel: Yeah, and you kind of give a little bit of an eye roll — and I think the audience does a little bit of an eye roll, too. And then I thought, and again, thinking about it, I know you’re a guy who’s pretty religious himself, right?
Daniel: And so, I mean, is that — is that tough, where if you’re personally religious to then pretend to be incredulous about religion?
Denzel: Well, yeah, and actually, in that scene, we actually, when we shot it, she kept saying “Praise Jesus,” then something-something-something, then he said, “Praise Jesus,” and [the other characters] kind of look at me, and I said, “Praise Jesus.” I mean he’s, I’m doing, you know, whatever I can do to win in that scene. I’m walking around trying to manipulate people.
Denzel: It’s terrible. I mean, people probably didn’t pick up on this, but when I see the co-pilot on television, I don’t have a brace or the cane. But when I come into the hospital, I got the brace and the cane. I’m working it, looking for my own sympathy.
Daniel: Yeah … no, I did notice that — because I also noticed when you had that scene before with the Cessna, you’re walking around a little better, like jumping off the ladder, all spry — and then like the next scene, like the moment after, you’ve got your cane again …
Denzel: Yeah, and I’m fine.
Denzel: Yeah, some people probably go, “Oh, man, they messed that up.”
Daniel: Yeah, that’s a really good movie. You do seem to have a knack for picking good ones. A better batting average than most, for sure …
Denzel: Great, thank you.
Daniel: And then let me ask you this. And this may be sort of a naïve question, but do you do that thing where you stay in character while you’re making a movie, even after the cameras stop rolling?
Denzel: You do stay — I mean, you stay, you know — you take the clothes off and go home. I’m working on it, but I don’t —
Daniel: So off-camera, when you talk to your co-stars, you’re not that character, you’re Denzel.
Denzel: It’s not that cut-and-dry. It’s not that cut-and-dry.
Daniel: Have you worked with actors who insist on staying in character?
Denzel: Well, they — you know, they have a right to. I mean, sure.
Daniel: Yeah, I’m just curious because I’ve never been around it. But do some actors insist on being in character even after you stop rolling?
Denzel: Yeah, some do, yeah.
Daniel: … it just seems it could be, I don’t know, a little annoying? [No response. He doesn’t bite … .] OK: Here’s another thing I was wondering: You smoke throughout this movie. But you don’t smoke in real life, right?
Daniel: So is that hard to do?
Denzel: Well they usually use the fake, you know, what do you call that, that stuff? Green leaf something? It’s herbal. Because you know, we’re doing take after take after take.
Daniel: So those aren’t addictive, then?
Denzel: No, they’re not — they’re not tar and nicotine.
Daniel: Right. OK, we talked about your son and his athletic accomplishments. Let’s talk about yours. You played college ball under P.J. Carlesimo at Fordham [University], right? What do you remember about him?
Denzel: He was tough. He was crazy. He was real hard on us.
Daniel: When you say crazy, what do you mean?
Denzel: He just made us run and run and run and run and run and run and run. But we were 19-1, our freshman team, so he was a good coach.
Daniel: And did you go beyond the freshman team, or was that it?
Denzel: No, that was it. I didn’t have a scholarship. I was just a walk-on.
Daniel: Right, right. And when you say crazy —
Denzel: I mean, he was just hard. But it paid off, you know. Always talking about in the fourth quarter, and how you gotta be ready —
Daniel: Your son actually talked about that a little bit, too. He said in that Sports Illustrated article, he was talking about how you were super tough on him in that same kind of hard-coaching way.
Denzel: Yeah, probably some, yeah. In that P.J. Carlesimo mode, making him tough.
Daniel: Yeah, but honestly — nothing wrong with it — in hindsight, you always remember it, I think, in a good way.
Denzel: In a good way.
Daniel: I mean, in the moment you might not be happy, but in the end … . Are you sort of that way when you approach a film, are you no-nonsense, or do you feel like — ?
Denzel: I mean, yeah, I’m there to work. I’m not there to socialize. So I like to, as you said, stay in character, concentrate on what I’m doing, not chitchatting with everybody. Nobody goes to the movie and goes, “Man, that movie sucked, but he really was nice to everybody.”
Daniel: Right. So you’re there to do your job —
Denzel: To do my job, that’s right.
Daniel: Even though I did read that Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, you did give him a hard time.
Denzel: Yeah, I gave him a hard time — but yeah, he laughed all the way to the Oscars.
Daniel: I read that.
Denzel: Yeah, he couldn’t eat; I was always trying to give him Almond Joys and Snickers and stuff. He couldn’t eat. He was eating like 800 calories a day when he was supposed to be the skinniest — but he got the last laugh when he won. “And I want to thank Denzel … and his Snickers bars. He had to eat. Here’s your award … .”
Daniel: Yeah, that’s funny. Oh — you know what I want to ask you about? I remember years ago seeing a picture of you a couple of years ago — I think at a Knicks game — and you having this crazy, messed-up pinky.
Daniel: I never forgot it. It was pretty extreme … . You still have it?
Denzel: No, I got it fixed.
Daniel: It was like —
Denzel: It was flopped all the way over to the side. Yeah, from football. I went up for a pass, and the ball hit it, and then I just kept dislocating it, dislocating it, and it finally got so worn out when they showed me the X-ray, the bone was just — the whole thing was just worn out.
Denzel: So I mean, if I did that [bends finger back], it would pop right over there.
Daniel: Did your kids used to freak out over that?
Denzel: Well, they were like bringing their friends over, like, “Dad, show them the magic finger.”
Daniel: The magic finger …
Denzel: Yeah, I’d do something special, like [makes sound — aughhhh ahhhhh], and their friends would be like [AAAAAAhhhhhh!!!!], and they’d run. My kids would be like, “I told you!” And they’d be like, “That’s so gross — put it back!” And I’d make it seem like [ugh, ah — makes motion of snapping finger back in place]. “There you go.”
Daniel: The magic pinky. You’ve clearly got a good sense of humor. How about comedies — you ever think about doing comedies?
Denzel: I just did a picture with Mark Wahlberg. We’ll see if it’s a comedy, but there are some jokes in there. I’d like to do some comedies.
Daniel: Well, your first movie was a comedy.
Denzel: Oh yeah, Carbon Copy. Well, in theory it was a comedy.
Daniel: Yeah, when it came out, it had one of the greatest taglines ever: “Any resemblance between father and son is purely hysterical.”
Denzel: Oh boy, well, there you go …
Daniel: It’s funny. This is the horrible thing about the Internet, of course; you can go on YouTube and watch anything from any time, it’s like it’s all there, you know.
Denzel: It’s all there. Carbon Copy‘s on there?
Daniel: Oh, Carbon Copy‘s on there in 15-minute chunks, so you can watch it. I watched the first 15 minutes —
Denzel: That’s about enough. That’s all you need — that’s all you need.
Daniel: I read you also went up for the Tubbs part on Miami Vice?
Denzel: [Shakes head.]
Daniel: Yeah, looks like we’re going full circle on the Internet research here …
Denzel: I don’t even think I was acting then! When was that?
Daniel: ’84?10 Early ’80s?
Nailed it. Though one of my first production jobs was as a college student — I was a PA on Miami Vice when they did a special New York episode. My job — no joke — was guarding Don Johnson’s trailer from all the screaming teenage girls …
Denzel: ’84? No, maybe. I was acting then, so maybe — not sure on that.
Daniel: Yeah, maybe even doing St. Elsewhere back then … ?
Denzel: Yeah, I was doing St. Elsewhere then, that’s right.
Daniel: So at the end of these interviews I like to ask 10 totally random questions, you know, if you’re OK with that.
Daniel: Any music or a record album that changed your life?
Denzel: Oh, wow. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. I just loved it.
Daniel: How did it change you?
Denzel: I mean, it didn’t change my life, but I just remember it, when it came out and Marvin had that cool Nehru jacket on, and it was raining, and he had that [collar] thing up.
Daniel: Right, and what music do you listen to now?
Denzel: I’m listening, I got in the car right now, I’m listening to Zap Mama. You heard of Zap Mama?
Daniel: I don’t know Zap Mama.
Denzel: Oh, well, check ’em out.
Daniel: All right. Do you ever get nervous?
Denzel: Yeah, sure.
Daniel: When do you get nervous?
Denzel: Sometimes like, especially doing theater, you know, like first preview, first performance.
Daniel: Right, so you never get over it as an actor, like you don’t feel —
Denzel: I don’t think you ever get over it. Even your first day of shooting, your first shot — you feel, you know, a little edge.
Daniel: What’s the most hot dogs you’ve ever eaten at a sporting event?
Denzel: I actually got sick one time from eating hot dogs — at a Yankees game — but it had nothing to do with the Yankees. But one time I ate some hot dogs — but then we had some wine with the hot dogs.
Daniel: Wine? Not beer?
Denzel: Wine. Then we went downtown to a sushi restaurant, ate sushi with some kind of, some drink, and then we went out to a club, and had vodka and cranberry juice. And you know when you get that “it’s too hot in here” and all of a sudden you break out in that sweat? And you can feel it coming? And I’m fighting my way to the front door. Oh, you’ve been there, right?
Daniel: [Laughs.] Yeah, I think everybody’s been there.
Denzel: Well, I think that food, all that mixture of stuff, the club had no air conditioning. It was like this [motions] big, no air. Packed, people on the tables, and I’m sitting there, and I’m starting to like get that [motions that he feels sick], and then sweat broke out, and I’m fighting to get out because I didn’t want to throw up on anybody. I made it outside, but —
Daniel: That’s a good one.
Daniel: When you made [The Taking of] Pelham 1 2 3, did you ever fly with John Travolta?
Denzel: No, no. I would, but I mean — He’s got a big Qantas plane or something, a 767?
Daniel: Yeah …
Denzel: He’s got two or three planes.
Daniel: Yeah, I was just wondering, if you would —
Denzel: Yeah, he’s an expert pilot. I think he did like a solo around the world or something like that.
Daniel: Yeah, no, I was wondering. That would just make me anxious, probably.
Daniel: Have you ever been fired from a job?
Denzel: Uh, yeah, must’ve been. Yeah, I was. I think. I remember quitting a job. It was funny. I was at the American Conservatory Theater. I was studying in San Francisco, and my first television role was coming up, so I’m getting excited about it — my name’s in the TV Guide. And I actually bought a TV Guide, and I was showing it to the people in this restaurant where I worked, showing it to the manager, and it was coming on let’s say Monday, or whatever day it was coming on, and I never worked that day — and he changed the schedule. He says, “You’ve gotta work Monday.”
Daniel: Aw …
Denzel: Yeah, he changed the schedule, I said … “But — ” He said, “I don’t care — you’ve gotta work Monday.” So I went in Monday, and they would allow you to go in before work and eat for free. I came in, got my tray, it was like a slide down the thing. I got my soup, had a glass of wine, I had some dessert. I brought a couple of my buddies, we ate. And he’s like, “Denzel,” and I say, “Yeah? I’ll be right back, I’ll be back.” Never came back.
Denzel: Went home, watched the show. But that was low, man.
Daniel: Yeah, but he had that one coming.
Denzel: Yeah, yeah, but I could just see the look, like, because I was trying to play it, too, like I was pissed when I was there, like I was gonna eat, and he was like, “It’s almost time for your shift.” And I was like, “All right, I’ll be right back.” Haven’t seen him since.
Daniel: How about your weirdest job outside of acting?
Denzel: I’ve worked … let’s see where else I’ve worked. I was a garbageman.
Daniel: In New York?
Denzel: Yeah, Mount Vernon.
Daniel: Union or not union?
Denzel: Nah, summer.
Daniel: You ever get any good stuff? See any weird stuff?
Denzel: Well, there’s garbage, and then there’s haulage. Now haulage is great, because haulage you’d see, haulage was like somebody would call in, and you would go pick up some mattresses or a couch or old TVs and stuff like that. But your driver used to get side jobs, like we’d go up into Westchester, and they might’ve chopped down a bunch of trees, and they want us to clear all the wood, so you were always like, hurry up and get our regular work done, and he’d always have some side jobs for us, and you might get an extra 10 bucks a pop or something like that.
Daniel: But you weren’t furnishing your house with the haulage stuff then?
Denzel: [Laughs.] No, no, no.
Daniel: Do you believe in fate?
Denzel: In fate? Um, that’s a good question. I don’t know. That things happen for a reason?
Denzel: Yeah, I’d say yes.
Daniel: What made me think about the question was there was something about how when you were a kid there was a woman who came to your mom’s hair salon —
Denzel: Oh, yeah, that said I would travel the world and speak to millions of people?
Denzel: Yeah, and then I started acting five months later.
Daniel: You think that prompted you? Do you feel like in your head that was some sort of an impetus that got you going, or —
Denzel: Well, when she left, I asked my mother, “Who was that?” And she said, “Well, she’s one of the oldest church members in town, and she’s known to have the gift of prophecy, like she’s known to prophesize,” and she was clear as day. She said, “Young man,” and mind you, I was flunking out of school, I wasn’t even in school, and she said, “You’re going to travel the world. You’re going to travel all over the world, and you’re going to speak to millions of people,” or she said, “You’re going to preach to millions of people or speak to millions of people.” So I don’t know if I preach to them, through the movies —
Daniel: You could make that argument — there are certainly messages in the characters you portray.
Daniel: Have you ever been in a physical fight?
Daniel: When’s the last one?
Denzel: It was a while, yeah. I mean, I box, but like —
Daniel: No, I mean like —
Denzel: A street fight, yeah.
Daniel: Well, just like someone pissing you off —
Denzel: Maybe in my early 20s or something. It’s been a long time.
Daniel: But nothing, uh —
Denzel: Make love, not war.
Daniel: You heard “What’s Going On,” and you changed —
Denzel: Yeah, that changed everything, that’s right.
Daniel: Have you ever done a movie for money?
Denzel: We do every movie for money. You mean just for money?
Daniel: Just like, “Eh, I can live with this one — and then maybe I’ll do something else down the road … .”
Denzel: Sometimes that’s the case anyway. You might do a film like Flight where you know there’s not a lot of money, necessarily.
Daniel: Yeah, that’s what I mean. That’s done for —
Denzel: For the love, yeah. Yeah, and you sacrifice, yeah.
Daniel: And there are other times where you go, “Eh, I can live with this”?
Denzel: Yeah, absolutely. I think so.
Daniel: I’m guessing you’re not going to say which one.
Denzel: [Laughs.] I’m not going to tell you …
Daniel: Another one, I don’t know if you’d answer this or not, but have you ever tried a psychedelic drug?
Denzel: [Laughs.] I’m not going to answer that.
Daniel: OK. Uh —
Denzel: I’m still tripping.
Denzel: Do they still make psychedelic drugs? Like acid and stuff?
Daniel: I think they do, but I don’t know. I haven’t taken one in a while.
Denzel: I don’t know. I don’t hear about it. You hear about college kids tripping.
Daniel: Yeah, mind-altering drugs.
Denzel: LSD, I mean, I grew up in the ’60s. Went to high school from ’68 to ’72, so I did what they were doing between ’68 and ’72. In fact, I was in high school in upstate New York during Woodstock. I remember that Woodstock weekend.
Daniel: Did you think about going?
Denzel: Oh, we couldn’t go. We were, like, going to private school, we had no — we were trying to figure out a way to sneak out.
Daniel: Actually, that’s how I ended up with my first serious TV job, working with David Letterman.
Denzel: What, tripping?
Daniel: Yeah, in college. I took acid one night, and I suddenly had this epiphany — this one moment of crystal-clear, cogent thought where I was like, “I’m wasting my life. I better figure out what I’m going to do,” and the next day, I called up the Letterman show. Letterman was my hero, and I got an internship and worked there for eight years.
Denzel: Is that right?
Daniel: Yeah, born out of an acid trip.
Denzel: That’s trippy.
Daniel: Do you watch TV?
Daniel: Any shows you like? What shows do you like?
Denzel: ESPN, ESPN2, FOXSportsWest.
Daniel: How about any scripted TV?
Denzel: Nah, I don’t really watch scripted TV.
Daniel: Anything you do that drives your wife nuts?
Denzel: I don’t think we have that much time.
Denzel: Oh, I know what pisses her off. If I wash my hands in the sink where she washes the vegetables. She washes the dishes in that sink, but I can’t wash my hands. Have you heard that before?
Denzel: She washes the dishes, the dishes have dirt and old food on them, but I can’t wash my hands in ’em. I’ve got to watch my hands in the other sink.
Daniel: Wow. That doesn’t seem right.
Denzel: No. I mean you’re right there, you’re right there, you think. I come in, and she’s like, “Don’t wash them! Wash your hands over there!” and I go.
Daniel: Runs a tight ship, yeah?
Denzel: Yeah, but she’s been out of town for a week, so I’ve been washing my hands in there. Every day.
Denzel Washington’s new film, Flight opened to unanimous critical acclaim this past weekend. You should see it. It’s excellent.
Daniel Kellison (@Danielkellison) is a TV producer/writer and co-founder of Jackhole Industries with partners Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla. Among their many shows, he co-created Crank Yankers and The Man Show, and was the original executive producer of Jimmy Kimmel Live. Before that, he spent eight years as a producer for both Late Night with David Letterman and Late Show with David Letterman. Most recently he has been serving on President Obama’s Entertainment Advisory Council. Last month he announced his deal with Google/YouTube for two new comedy channels launching in January: Jash, featuring partners Sarah Silverman, Tim & Eric, Michael Cera, and Reggie Watts; and the Video Podcast Network featuring Carolla and (he really, really hopes) Earwolf.