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No Time For Cigars Yet

Denzel Washington is busy putting the finishing touches on his 'baby,' 'The Great Debaters,' due out on Christmas.

December 12, 2007|Michael Ordona | Special to The Times

DENZEL WASHINGTON has the slightly dazed look of a man in the home stretch.

"It's all good," he says, flashing that $20-million grin in a postproduction suite on the Sony lot. "I'm not tired. Well, I'm tired, but I'm happy."

The two-time Oscar winner is putting in long hours, scrambling to complete his second directorial effort, "The Great Debaters," just weeks from its Christmas release.

"Working all night, all day . . . you get possessive," he says with amiable frustration at the unfinished version being screened for journalists and preview audiences. "It's got temp music; shots that are supposed to be night are day. It's your baby and it's not dressed yet. Don't put the baby out there naked!"

Washington's paternal tendencies also show as he displays with sentimental pride a beautiful photo album of the production put together by co-producer Molly Allen. The actor-director, dressed in all black -- but not of the hipster mode, more in a Saturday football way -- fondly points out pictures of crew members, legendary writer Horton Foote, who did a polish on the script, and two non-Hollywood visitors: Henrietta Wells and Melvin Tolson Jr.

The new film is inspired by the actual Depression-era debate team of tiny, historically all-black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. Under the tutelage of the elder Melvin Tolson, the squad became an oratorial juggernaut. Wells was among his charges at Wiley (she is represented in the film as the character Samantha Booke), as was James Farmer Jr., a 14-year-old prodigy who went on to co-found the Congress of Racial Equality. In the film, the youngster is torn between two father figures, his actual father (played by Forest Whitaker) and Tolson (Washington).

As it happens, the actor who plays the youngster is named Denzel Whitaker -- he's no relation to Forest and his mother insists he was not named for Washington. The director and his cast recently appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," where Washington beamed ("sitting back like a proud papa" is how he puts it) as his young actors quoted advice he had given through the process.

Washington recalls how the younger Whitaker told Winfrey "he kept a journal of all the things I said to him -- 'Everything? What'd I say?' " Washington laughs in feigned terror. "And one of the things he remembered most was, 'Keep it simple.' That's been my style as an actor: Less is more. And he delivered."

Family pops up in unexpected places when talking to Washington, as when he's asked about playing "American Gangster's" Frank Lucas, a real-life Harlem drug dealer and killer.

"They're a huge family, brothers and cousins, everybody was still around. And even in a wheelchair, he was the center of it all. Is he a sociopath? Probably. Is he a family man? Yeah. Was he the biggest dope dealer in the history of New York? Probably. He's all of those things."

The actor met the aging Lucas in preparation for the role. "I said, 'Frank, I'm not here to praise you. You're an awful guy.' He's 70-some-odd years old now and just, physically, he's had a lot of problems. . . . In many ways, he's a broken man. . . . I told him upfront, 'I'm a man of God. I fear God. I don't fear man. I'm not afraid of you. I don't care about what you think or anything like that.' I was real straight ahead with him. And he was cool with that; he respected that. We talked about God, we talked about religion, we talked about repentance."

Washington wrapped "Gangster" around this time last year, but throughout its making and promotion, and the overlapping promotion of Tony Scott's "Deja Vu," he says he never left "Debaters." He stole time when he could for research, location scouting and watching "about 400 movies" in preparation.

"I just enjoy the filmmaking process," he says. "I'm just a babe, but I know a lot. Being in this business, something has to stick. But I really enjoy the collaboration."

Still, he says he's looking forward to directing a project he doesn't have to act in. "They crowded me into a corner, basically. 'If you don't act in it, the budget is this,' which was something we couldn't make the movie for. So I thought I'd play Farmer and get someone else to play Tolson. So I kept reducing the part of Farmer," he says with a chuckle. "In the 11th hour, Harvey [Weinstein] hit me with the hatchet move," insisting he play the Tolson role, Washington says.

"I mean, I get it. I'm not bad casting either. Then, when things got switched around and Forest got involved, it was like, 'OK, I've got to build that part back up!' "

The two Oscar winners have a couple of knockout scenes together, one of which takes place at the end of a virtuoso tracking shot following the team members arriving at a party amid a general giddiness over their latest win, then Farmer Sr. corners Tolson. Washington says he couldn't really enjoy the acting duel though.

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