Denzel Washington Interview: Devoted to Family and Faith

For Denzel Washington, it’s not about fame and fortune. It’s about

By David Hochman from Reader's Digest | December 2007

RD: Do you ever see a conflict in Hollywood, Godless Hollywood, as a spiritual person? Washington: Well, wait a minute. Stop. That’s broad. Godless Hollywood? What is that? First of all, Hollywood is a part of Los Angeles, not a way of thinking. When you say Godless Hollywood, are you including me? Are you saying everybody in Hollywood is Godless? That’s like saying Godless Reader’s Digest. No such thing, right?

RD: Right. Right. Washington: I think it’s easy to generalize. Let’s be specific. We say Godless Hollywood, then we make an assumption that that’s true. It’s not true.

RD: Well, people talk about the violence, the sex—if you watch HBO—in Hollywood. Washington: Those things happen everywhere. In politics, in war, at the post office. Not just in Hollywood.

RD: Do your spiritual philosophies influence the roles you play? Washington: I think I’m going to instill it in everything I do, like this conversation. It’s who I am. It goes with me wherever I go. Understand that it’s something bigger than making a film, even American Gangster. When I met Frank Lucas [the drug kingpin the movie is based on], he said, “Do this and win an Oscar.” I’m like, “Frank, I’m not in it for that.” I found it interesting that he paid for his crimes with jail time, and now he’s paying with his body, which has sort of betrayed him. It’s important for me to tell that part of the story. There are consequences.

RD: Who were your childhood heroes? Washington: I didn’t have a lot of them, but I met one, Gale Sayers. He came to see a play I was in. Oh, man, I was like nine years old again. I wore his number. I wanted to be Gale Sayers. Somebody said, “Gale Sayers heard you talk about him on TV and wanted to say hello.” I said, “Okay. Wait a minute, I got to get myself together.”

RD: What was the meeting like? Washington: I was like, Oh, he’s smaller than I am! It was very cordial. Early on in the business I also met Jimmy Stewart. That was a treat.

RD: Did you consider them your role models? Washington: I think a role model is a mentor—someone you see on a daily basis, and you learn from them. I’ve talked a lot about Billy Thomas, [a staffer] at the Boys Club. And Bob Stone, who was my English and acting teacher when I was in college. Those are the two who stand out.

RD: What did you learn from them? Washington: They gave me confidence. Also, Charles White, who was also at the club. I remember him saying, “With your smarts, you can do anything you want.” Things like that stick with you. I was ten years old, but I never forgot it. You never know the power of words when you speak to young people, which is why I enjoy being involved with them.

RD: Is there one project in you that you feel is your ultimate dream? Washington: No. There are some stories I want to tell, but I got a great life, period. My ultimate life dream project is my kids. My family.

RD: What’s your parenting style? Washington: If you have kids, you know there is no style! It’s a hybrid. It’s what my wife and I learned from our parents, and applying religious instruction, discipline, athletic activity and academic excellence whenever possible. My wife’s done a great job. She’s been the consistent one, just trying to give them a normal life.

RD: Do you think it’s hard to live up to a dad like Denzel Washington? Washington: Well, they don’t know anything different. When my oldest boy was about 14, I started to talk to him about some of the mistakes I made in life, just to put a few dents in that shiny armor.

RD: It’s your son’s second year playing for the Rams. What’s it like for you to see him growing up? Washington: It’s great helping them navigate this minefield. The job’s not done, but to see him, a man now, responsible, paying bills and finding out what life’s all about. My daughter’s a sophomore in an Ivy League school; that’s unbelievable. And my twins are driving now, so that’s crazy.

RD: So is it different now for you and your wife? Washington: There are still two [kids] in the house, which is more than most people have. And they bring home more people. In summer it was like a hotel. That they still enjoy coming home, I guess we’re doing a good job.

RD: Why did you want to make The Great Debaters? Washington: The little train that could, the little guy up against the big guys.

RD: It’s your second time directing. What’s the appeal? Washington: I like seeing other people do well. I enjoy finding young kids and sharing what I know with them. I like the collaboration. Also, I’m looking down the line. Clint Eastwood is my hero. This guy just seamlessly segued from one career to another.

RD: Your father was a minister. What kind of man was he? Washington: A gentleman. A real gentle man. A devout Christian. A spirit-filled man, hardworking, low-key, consistent.

RD: Did he play catch with you? Was he a fun dad? Washington: No, he wasn’t that guy. But I got all that out of my system in the Boys & Girls Club.

RD: Who were you closer with? Your mother or your father? Washington: I think most boys are closer with their mothers. And like myself nowadays, he was working all day. We didn’t see him. He had one job, I think, from 6 to 12. He’d have a couple hours off, come home, then he’d work his night job. He probably put in 18, 20 hours a day.

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