Denzel Washington never saw a production of “Macbeth” in high school or college. So when he was offered the titular role in Shakespeare’s great tragedy, which he’d only read in the past two years, he wanted to make sure that he could wrap his head around how director Joel Coen would shoot the film with him and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth. “Let’s talk about the black and white of it all,” Washington recalls saying to Coen in an early conversation.
Coen began to respond, “Well, you’re Black …” before Washington stopped him. “No, no, no,” he interrupted. “I’m talking about you shooting in black and white!”
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Washington laughs as he retells the story on a recent November afternoon during a conversation with Variety about his career as one of the most enduring movie stars of modern times. “So that’s where my head was at,” he says.
Brian Bowen Smith for Variety
Washington, 67, has commanded the movie business for four decades; he’s not at a place in his life where he’s willing to perform when the cameras aren’t rolling. Being interviewed might not be his favorite activity, but he’s in good spirits on this day, cracking jokes and leaving some things unsaid — in ellipses. Rather than delivering soliloquies about the future of Hollywood, particularly now that COVID-19 has dramatically shifted and upended the business, he tends to keep his answers brief and clipped.
He’s most interested in talking about his work — namely, the two movies he’s promoting, which both opened on Christmas. In “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” a monochrome adaptation co-distributed by Apple Original Films and A24, Washington delivers a powerhouse performance as the king of Scotland. The role will likely nab him his ninth Oscar nomination for acting, putting him in an elite group in Academy Awards history. It’s where Paul Newman and Spencer Tracy topped out, but Washington — the first Black performer to win two acting Oscars (for 1989’s “Glory” and 2001’s “Training Day”) — is showing no signs of slowing down.
He’s also directed “A Journal for Jordan,” a tearjerker drama from Sony Pictures. Adapted from Dana Canedy’s 2008 novel, the film is about a soldier (Michael B. Jordan) in Iraq who keeps a journal for his young son. This is the fourth feature that Washington has directed — after 2002’s “Antwone Fisher,” 2007’s “The Great Debaters” and 2016’s “Fences” — but it’s the first time he hasn’t pulled double duty as an actor.
“In fact, I never enjoyed headlining and directing,” Washington says. “I acted in the movies because I needed to in order to get the money to direct them. So now, for me, this feels like the first film I’ve directed, because I’m not in it. That’s the way I prefer it.”
Studios and producers have been eager to keep Washington in front of the camera because of his unparalleled success as a movie star. His 40-plus leading roles have generated more than $3 billion worldwide, an achievement that becomes even more impressive when you realize he was carrying tentpoles before there were comic book franchises and only starred in one sequel (2018’s “The Equalizer 2”). Throughout the ’90s and early ’00s, the dollars rolled in with adult dramas such as 1993’s legal thriller “The Pelican Brief” ($195 million worldwide), 1995’s “Crimson Tide” ($157 million), 2006’s “Inside Man” ($185 million) and the highest-grossing film of his career, 2007’s “American Gangster” ($267 million).
Tom Rothman, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Motion Picture Group, has collaborated with Washington on 10 films, beginning at Samuel Goldwyn Films with 1991’s “Mississippi Masala” and 1993’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”
“Working with Denzel gives me a taste of what it must have been like to be Phil Jackson with the Chicago Bulls,” Rothman says. “Give the ball to Michael Jordan, and get out of the way. Give the screen to Denzel, and get out of the way.”
Michael B. Jordan, who is directing himself in “Creed III,” tried to absorb everything he could from Washington. “To be mentored by him and learn his process, it was an all-around master class for myself,” says the 34-year-old star.
Adds Moses Ingram, who plays Lady Macduff in “Macbeth”: “Denzel is on the Mount Rushmore of film royalty.”
Washington achieved box office milestones as the leading man in movies that often weren’t explicitly written for Black actors, proving that he could sell out international multiplexes just as fast as his white peers. The groundwork for a megastar like Washington was done by Sidney Poitier, who broke barriers as the first Black man to win an acting Oscar, for 1963’s “Lilies of the Field.” Washington says that he wishes he could have co-starred in a film with Poitier, who at 94 is retired. “God bless him,” Washington says. “He’s still here. But yeah, I missed that opportunity.”
When he started acting, Washington looked up to James Earl Jones because of his years in the theater. Now, he’s excited by a crop of directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson and Steve McQueen and the next generation of actors, including his son John David Washington — the 37-year-old star of “Tenet” and “Malcolm & Marie.”
But even Washington isn’t immune to a changing industry. “A Journal for Jordan,” which opened to $2.2 million, is on a long list of traditional prestige pictures — from Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” to Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” — that struggled at the box office in the age of COVID. “Macbeth,” in limited release, has also seen modest ticket sales.
Fortunately, Washington is an A-list star who hasn’t been afraid to embrace streaming. His current passion project is to adapt all 10 of August Wilson’s Century Cycle plays into movies. He produced and sold 2020’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” starring Oscar nominees Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis, to Netflix, which released the film.
“‘Fences’ was not as widely seen as ‘Ma Rainey’ was because it was on Netflix,” Washington says. “That’s a fact. The more eyeballs for August Wilson, the better.”
Explains Matt Dentler, head of features at Apple Original Films: “One of the many qualities that make Denzel so wonderful is his natural instinct to support up-and-coming talent. We need artists like Denzel in order for filmmaking to thrive.”
But there’s one way in which Washington is definitely old school. You won’t find him on Twitter or Instagram — he prefers to keep the spotlight out of his private life and to stay off the gossip pages. That’s why it was so shocking when Washington’s name was splashed across the tabloids a few months ago. In 2015, he directed an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” the only time he’s stepped behind the camera for a TV show. As Ellen Pompeo recalled in a podcast in September, she clashed with Washington because he wouldn’t let her improvise in a scene. “Denzel went HAM on my ass,” Pompeo said, which led her to shoot back: “Listen, motherfucker, this is my show!”
When asked about the incident, Washington sidesteps the question. “No, no,” he says, claiming that he doesn’t recall that day. Then, with a slight grin, he adds, “But it’s all good.”
• • •
Washington isn’t condescending or unpleasant during our conversation. On the contrary, he takes pleasure in an exchange regarding the chances of the New York Knicks getting an NBA championship. He also expresses serious interest in knowing what this reporter considers the best film performances of all time. He even approves of my choice (his lead role in Spike Lee’s 1992 masterpiece “Malcolm X”).
Washington wasn’t a cinephile when he was growing up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., in contrast to his wife of 38 years, Pauletta, also an actor, and their four children, who revel in the dark spaces of movie houses.
As a younger man, Washington loved (and still loves) sports; Mickey Mantle and Elston Howard were his two favorite New York Yankees. “Cinema found me,” he says.
After performing in a play at Fordham University, he learned an important lesson years later. “The first play I did was a musical,” he says. That was a 1988 production of “Checkmates,” with Ron Milner playing Sylvester Williams. “I thought I could sing until I found out that I couldn’t.”
Washington eventually got a national spotlight on TV’s “St. Elsewhere,” playing the part of Dr. Philip Chandler for six seasons, from 1982 to 1988. However, most audiences wouldn’t see the full scope of Washington’s talents until 1989’s “Glory,” for which he won an Oscar for playing a Civil War private. Or in “Malcolm X.” In an unforgettable scene in that film, Malcolm and his wife, Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett), argue in their bedroom about his standing in the Nation of Islam. Then, in an overlapping dialogue exchange, Malcolm proclaims, “Don’t you raise your voice in my house!”
“What’s interesting about that line is that it made me think about my father,” Washington says. “I don’t know if he actually said that, those exact words, but I remember him sounding like that.”
Washington reveals that he’s never seen a production of “Macbeth,” except for bits of a TV version that he can’t recall. “I didn’t want to see it,” he says. When he was cast in Coen’s film, he purposely did not seek out past performances from Orson Welles or Ian McKellen. McDormand had played Lady Macbeth onstage in San Francisco, and she convinced her husband, Coen, to tackle a movie adaptation.
Washington accepted the role because he saw it as a chance to work with “three of the greats” — Coen, McDormand and Shakespeare.
“We had the luxury of almost four weeks of rehearsal,” he says of the movie, which started shooting in the winter of 2020; COVID-19 shut down the production midway through. “So we got to rehearse it like a play, which was great.” He adds that the minimalist production design helped ground his performance. “It felt quite comfortable because it felt like a stage. That made it easier, I think.”
McDormand sees the project as an act of “passing the baton” of Shakespeare to the next generation — with an ensemble that includes Corey Hawkins as Macduff. “I don’t want to sound like I’m patting us on the back, but the three of us are at the top of our game,” McDormand says. “If you keep doing one thing long enough, you get better. That’s what we should be modeling for our younger colleagues. And Denzel is one of the best that has ever been.”
• • •
Washington recalls what it felt like to win his second Oscar, for “Training Day.” Shortly after accepting his trophy at the 2002 ceremony, he was approached by a high-profile Black actor who is younger than him. Washington doesn’t name the star, but the point of his story still sticks. According to Washington, the actor told him: “When you didn’t win for ‘Malcolm X’ and ‘The Hurricane,’ we saw those moments as if you can’t win, then what chance do we have?”
Reflecting back, Washington says: “I never thought of it that way. I was only thinking of myself.”
Washington has seen his fair share of awards snubs, like losing the Oscar for “Malcolm X” to Al Pacino for “Scent of a Woman.” But he understood it at the time. “It’s because Pacino should have won a bunch in the ’70s,” Washington says, referring to his performances in films such as “The Godfather” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” “That was his eighth nomination. How could Pacino get eight nominations and not win?” And rather surprisingly, the British voters across the pond have never nominated Washington for a BAFTA.
Screenwriter Virgil Williams (“Mudbound”) describes what it was like to talk to Washington while working on the script for “A Journal for Jordan.” In one meeting, he went to Washington’s library, where he asked if he could pick up one of his Oscars. Not only was his request granted, but Washington insisted that he hold both of them.
“He sat there and did not move until I gave an Oscar speech,” Williams recalls. “He went full Coach Boone on me,” he says, referencing Washington’s portrayal of the stern football coach from 2001’s “Remember the Titans.” “When I was finished, he said to me: ‘OK, let’s go back to work.’ I’ll carry that day with me for the rest of my career. In this industry, I’ve never been able to directly, face to face, look up to a Black man.”
Washington will next take on Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” the third of the playwright’s works he is producing. As he looks ahead, he reflects on Boseman’s last film role, in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” The 43-year-old actor died in 2020 from colon cancer; he’d fought the disease for years without sharing his condition with anyone in the industry.
“A man among men,” Washington says of Boseman. “He suffered quietly. He made the movie, and nobody knew. I didn’t know. He never said a peep about it. He just did his job. I wondered if something was wrong because he seemed weak or tired sometimes. We had no idea, and it was nobody’s business. Good for him, keeping it to himself.”
For years, there’s been speculation about who would take the torch from Washington, with Boseman’s name on the shortlist. As journalists try to get behind the facade of Washington’s celebrity, his frowns are interpreted as disinterest, or a quip in response to a question is translated as a “bad mood.” Yet one of his endearing qualities is his willingness to love Hollywood despite its flaws. When asked about the Oscars’ omissions of “Ma Rainey’s” supporting men, particularly Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman, he responds: “I think they may have canceled each other out.”
It’s almost too easy to frame Washington’s career with the classic trope of being Black in Hollywood. While that is important to him, it’s not his most significant contribution.
“What does the next Denzel mean?” Washington asks. “Does that mean there can only be one?” He lists actors such as Mahershala Ali and Jamie Foxx, who have defined themselves with their own successful careers. Washington smiles to himself, adding: “It doesn’t have to be one person.” Indeed, the influence of Denzel Washington is so great, it can’t be contained.
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