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The Devil and Denzel

For Denzel Washington, Success Isn't Defined by Money or Fame but by Power, Personal and Spiritual

January 11, 1998|HILARY DE VRIES | Hilary de Vries' last article for the magazine was a profile of publicist Pat Kingsley

On a gusty Sunday morning after a night of apocalyptic downpours, Denzel Washington blows through the door of Hugo's in West Hollywood for a quick breakfast before heading off to coach the finals of his 9-year-old daughter's basketball season.

"You know my first apartment was around here," he says, shedding his corduroy jacket. "Yeah, 920 Kings Road," he adds, digging into a plate of eggs while reminiscing about a career that began more than 20 years ago in New York theater. "I had that for my first movie, 'Carbon Copy,' and the two years I was on 'St. Elsewhere."'

He is now 43, with 25 films to his credit, and while Hollywood has witnessed a new wave of black filmmaking characterized by the sleeper hit, "Waiting to Exhale," Washington remains Hollywood's only A-list African American movie star. Nominated for a best supporting Oscar for his portrayal of Steve Biko in "Cry Freedom," winner of that award for "Glory" and nominated for a best actor Oscar for "Malcolm X," Washington also has been teamed with some of the industry's top stars: Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia," Julia Roberts in "The Pelican Brief" and Gene Hackman in "Crimson Tide."

But with the exception of "Crimson Tide" two years ago, his recent films have been disappointing at the box office: "The Preacher's Wife," "Courage Under Fire" and "Devil in a Blue Dress," the latter produced by Washington's Mundy Lane Films. Like many Hollywood stars, Washington is wrestling with mid-career questions. "Denzel has been a movie star a long time now, and he understands all its benefits and pitfalls," says Ed Zwick, who this winter is making his third film starring Washington. "But he also wants to stretch."

Even now, Washington is laying the groundwork for several changes, including moving with his family (wife Pauletta Pearson and their four children) from his longtime residence in Toluca Lake to a new house on the fringes of Beverly Hills, as well as a move to directing. This year, Washington will be seen in three films, "Marshall Law"; "Fallen," an "X-Files"-type thriller that opens this month, and, later this spring, Spike Lee's "He Got Game," co-starring Ray Allen of the Milwaukee Bucks.

Despite his reputation for being a guarded interview subject, Washington seems both emboldened and reflective in light of the coming changes. "Denzel will test you," says "Fallen" director Gregory Hoblit, "but he also loves to talk, and he definitely knows how to get big in a room."

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Q: You've got three movies coming out this year. What are you doing with Spike Lee for your "Malcolm X" encore?

A: I play a murderer. Well, not really a murderer but a guy whose whole world is basketball, and he didn't make it so now he's angry--and it escalates one night into a fight and his wife's death. He smashes her head against a sink.

Q: That sounds pretty dark for somebody who always plays such good guys. How did you decide to do that?

A: It was a good story and I wanted to play basketball--I got to play with all these pros--and I was ready to head in another direction. This guy isn't right with God; in fact, he tries to use God for his purpose until he realizes he has to reap what he's sown. But it's actually not as violent as it should have been.

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Q: Speaking of violence in sports, what's your opinion about [Latrell] Sprewell's suspension?

A: Put it this way: If they suspended every player in the NBA who fought with his coach, you'd be surprised at how many there'd be.

Q: But Sprewell physically attacked him.

A: If they suspended every player in the NBA who . . . .

Q: OK, OK, but the players are supposedly out of control.

A: I'm not making excuses for the guy, but it's a whole different game now. I think a lot of critics in the media don't like the fact that all these young black men are making all that money. Yeah, that's what I think.

Personally, I don't like how the game has turned into a platform for people to do commercials and make records when they need to concentrate on the game. People don't study the fact that Michael Jordan chased Boston and the Lakers for five or six years before he became a superstar. Now these guys come out of the box and a lot of them don't even want to go to college. Pretty soon you'll have kids at 13 [saying]: "Well, I'm already 6-foot-7, and I've had a lot of hardship in my life."

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Q: You could say the same thing about Hollywood--and you have, criticizing young actors with no stage training, nothing but a pretty face and an attitude. You've even suggested that's why British actors dominate the Oscars, why people said you were robbed of a nomination for "Courage Under Fire."

A: I know [laughing]. But that's my point. For me, I'm working hard at my craft. I'm not opening malls or selling sneakers. But look at what won last year--wasn't it a British film? That has to do with academy members being in love with British actors. Maybe that's what I should do. [Mimicking an English accent] "My lord, Denzel here!"

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