Despite his paycheck ($20 million a picture) and prestige (two Academy Awards, heroic roles in The Pelican Brief and other films), Denzel Washington, 54, insists he's rather ordinary. A loving father and husband, he's always impeccably polite and unflappable in public. For a Hollywood star of his wattage, that's, well, extraordinary.
Washington stars in this summer's The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, a remake of the 1974 thriller about a hijacked New York subway train. It features a subway worker (Washington) and a psychopathic ex-con (John Travolta) who are thrust into an explosive situation. Long before the drama is over, Washington's humble hero has won our hearts.
Speaking to Reader's Digest recently from a set in Los Angeles, Washington is thoughtful in conversation and quick to laugh, proving his reputation: The Hollywood go-to guy is grounded.
Q. There's a photo of you in an overcoat and a cap sitting alone in the stands before President Barack Obama's inauguration. Why did you arrive there two hours early?
A. Not two hours—earlier than that. It was my wife's doing. [Washington has been married for 26 years to wife Pauletta.] If my son's ball game is at 7 p.m., we're there at 5 p.m. The inauguration was scheduled for 11:30 a.m. She had us there at 7 a.m.
Q. What were you thinking?
A. How cold I was.
Q. Before he was elected, President Obama said in an interview with TV host Tyra Banks that he'd like you to play him in a movie. Is he a natural character for you?
A. It's very flattering that he said that. But when his story is ready to be told, I'll be too old. And if it were made right now, he has too much to do to have me hanging around asking for tips on how to play him.
Q. You've said, "I want to be Clint Eastwood when I grow up." Now, like him, you're acting and directing. Why is he your hero?
A. He has a small operation. And he's in great shape.
Q. So are you.
A. I weighed 206 when I directed The Great Debaters [in 2007, about an underdog college debate team]. I came out of the editing room 25 pounds heavier, so I really worked out. Then I tore up my knee and had surgery. For the next six weeks, I worked out sitting down. I started shooting Pelham at 230. Then eventually, I became 30 pounds overweight. I decided, Okay, my character is a regular guy; this will be good for the picture. Now I'm 50 pounds lighter. I've been working out six days a week. For my next film, The Book of Eli [due out in 2010], I'll have a different body again.
Q. With all the scripts you have to choose from, what was Pelham's attraction for you?
A. I love working with director Tony Scott. Like me, he loves research. We took a piece of a real story about a guy who was in trouble. That made it more interesting. And I love Travolta; he's one of the sweetest people I've ever worked with. I liked that my character was an ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances. And just coming off directing a film, I wanted to do something bigger. Next thing I knew, I was underground in New York, between subway stations. Just the rats and me.
Q. Some say that you win awards when you step away from biography films about black leaders and play villains.
A. I just make the movies and enjoy what happens. My character in Training Day was the roughest character I'd ever played. I didn't think, Oh, this is the way to an Oscar. I was more surprised than anyone, I assure you. I discovered from the experience that I like playing the bad guy. He has all the fun.
Q. In private life, you work hard to be the good guy. You're a dedicated reader of the Bible. What book of the Bible are you reading right now?
A. [The First Epistle of] John, chapter 3, the passage about obedience and sin and lawlessness. This is my second time through. I have four books left, then I'll start reading it all over again.
Q. You've spoken often of your love for your family and your pride in your children. What lessons have you learned from your four kids?
A. Right now I'm learning that they're adults. I'm a talker; now I'm learning to shut up. It's an interesting transition for me—and even more so for my wife, who for 25 years put everything into them.
Q. For decades you've said, "I'm not a celebrity. I'm just an actor who's more popular right now." Of course you know you're a star. Why so modest?
A. I am who I am—a regular guy with a great job. How I'm analyzed belongs to someone else. In a few minutes, I've got a kid's game to go to, and then I'm taking our daughter to auditions. Today, that's my job.