With a pair of Oscars and a paycheck of $20 million a movie, Denzel Washington no longer jumps when the phone rings. But he still drops everything for his family.“Excuse me,” he says with a proud grin as he flips open his cell phone. “One of my sons is calling.”
On the contrary, Washington works all the time. He’s made 37 movies in the last 29 years, including Academy Award winners Philadelphia, Training Day and Glory.
Although he often plays good-guy roles, this month he appears in American Gangster as a really bad guy. Then, as if to reaffirm his versatility, Washington directs and stars in The Great Debaters, opening Christmas Day, a feel-good movie about a 1930s African American debate team and the inspiring coach (played by who else) who helps them take on Harvard.
Between edits on the film, Washington sat down with Reader’s Digest to talk about fame, fortune and why his personal happiness has little to do with any of that.
RD: What do you think your strengths are as an actor?
Washington: I don’t analyze myself. I put it out there, and it’s up to the people to interpret it. I keep it simple, try to continue my spiritual quest.
RD: Do you think of yourself as a spiritual person?
RD: In what way?
Washington: I read the Bible every day. I’m in my second pass-through now, in the Book of John. My pastor told me to start with the New Testament, so I did, maybe two years ago. Worked my way through it, then through the Old Testament. Now I’m back in the New Testament. It’s better the second time around.
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.
RD: That’s a good thing. So you’ve been married for 25 years?
Washington: Coming up on 25 in June. Yeah. I better come up with a plan. So I’ll ask the readers: What should I do for my 25th?
RD: What is the secret to a 24-year marriage?
Washington: Do whatever your wife tells you. Yes, dear. And breathe.
RD: What happens to a relationship after 15, 20 years? Does it change?
Washington: Everything changes. It happens after 15 or 20 days.
RD: How has the onion opened for you two?
Washington: I think it hopefully ends where it starts, which is friendship. And obviously, respect. Understanding our—for lack of a better word—roles. And just getting on with it. Commitment.
RD: How do you get through the hard times?
Washington: You have faith. And discipline as well. You have to work at it. I was just reading today: One day you’re going to have to walk with God when you can’t understand where he’s taking you. [Laughs] Your techniques, skill set and connections won’t get you through. So don’t try this on your own.
RD: What does that say to you?
Washington: It says, He’s got you covered. My faith helps me understand that circumstances don’t dictate my happiness, my inner peace.
RD: If you could change one thing about America what would it be?
Washington: I’d ask to change more than one thing! There are consequences for everything. What’s the domino effect? Start with slavery.
RD: Have you experienced prejudice?
Washington: Sure, absolutely. But I’m a positive person, so I don’t get bogged down with it. If you’re expecting that, if you wallow in that, if you practice that, then you’ll attract what you fear.
RD: People look at you and say you have everything. Do you struggle?
Washington: Struggle? I’m a believer in positive words. You can create your reality. I’d just as soon say I’m doing great. And getting better. I’m looking upward. It’s just my nature.
RD: Do you feel like a success?
Washington: I don’t know what that word means. I’m happy. But success, that goes back to what in somebody’s eyes success means. For me, success is inner peace. That’s a good day for me.
RD: How do you deal with fame?
Washington: It ain’t about me. The one thing for me, understanding how I understand God, is that it keeps me humble, keeps the pronouns out of the picture. I’ve been given certain abilities, and I look at it this way: What are you going to do with what you have? Who are you going to lift up?
RD: You’re a national spokesman for the Boys & Girls Club, and you and your wife work with a number of charities. Why have you gotten so involved?
Washington: It’s what the Bible teaches. It’s the right thing to do. And it’s selfish. There’s a lot of gratification in knowing that you help people. We realize how blessed we are and feel a responsibility to share.
RD: What’s one thing you’d change about yourself?
Washington: My weight! Mind, body and spirit. It’s a discipline, and the body has been lagging. Mind’s really good right now. Spirit is strong, but body’s been lagging. And the body helps the mind. I feel better today having worked out.
RD: Does mortality give you pause?
Washington: No. No. No. Nope. As the old folks used to say, You’re born to dead. It’s a part of life. So you might as well get used to it.
RD: What are you most proud of?
Washington: God, family, work. When our children were born, I was like, My work used to be my life. Now my work is making a living. They’re life. My children are. So what I am proudest of is all of the above. In that order.
RD: How would you like to be remembered?
Washington: I don’t think in those terms. I’m too busy living life.
RD: Last DVD you saw?
Washington: One I liked: The Lives of Others. And Munich. But I’m really not a movie buff.
RD: What are you reading?
Washington: Books? I don’t have time. Except for the Bible, the No. 1 bestseller.
RD: What’s on your iPod?
Washington: A buddy—not to name-drop—is Lenny Kravitz. I have all his stuff. All of James Brown, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, everything from blues to gospel to jazz. More than 5,000 songs.
RD: Last great vacation you took?
Washington: The Mediterranean. I love to spend time on the water. We’re at sea probably a month each year. In Italy you sit out in a boat in the bay and look back at these beautiful ancient cities.
RD: Favorite motto?
Washington: Do what you got to do so that you can do what you want to do. And fail big.