No sex scenes, no social media, no Hollywood parties: How Denzel Washington became the most respected actor in the industry

The Oscar winner is about to turn 70 doing what he does best, alternating action flicks with cerebral movies while remaining out of the headlines

Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in 'Training Day.'
Eva Güimil

After the infamous Will Smith incident at the 2022 Oscars, Denzel Washington was among the first to come out and support him. “In your biggest wins, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you,” he told him backstage. Smith said afterward that he knew that if Washington forgave his attitude, Hollywood would forgive him too. The Malcom X star is a moral benchmark in the industry, and not just for Black actors, because he doesn’t feel that race is the linchpin of his career: “I’m very proud to be Black, but Black is not all I am.” Although he was inevitably compared to Sidney Poitier in his early days, he is aware that he has already surpassed his idol. “He’s our Brando, he’s Nicholson, he’s Olivier,” Tom Hanks enthused. Washington’s long list of awards — which includes two Oscars, a Tony, two Golden Globes, the Cecil B. DeMille Award, the AFI Life Achievement Award and two Emmy nominations — makes it clear that Hanks’ words were no exaggeration.

The overwhelming confidence with which Washington handles his career is clear when watching his two most recent works: The Tragedy of Macbeth and the third installment of The Equalizer, Antoine Fuqua’s adrenaline-fueled saga. Washington can combine Shakespeare and the vigilante Robert McCall, a fan favorite hero of what has been termed “dad movies” and his career remains unblemished: he has achieved an a priori difficult balance between Oscar contenders and action flicks, perhaps because in his ability to indulge in the most unprejudiced cinema there is more desire to explore new interpretive territories than to line his pockets.

If his desire was mere profit, we would have seen him in the abundant superhero sagas and sequels and prequels to past hits — Hollywood’s favorite genre — but he is adamant that he does not want to be part of a cast of familiar faces for the greater glory of the box office. “My career is based on saying no,” he has said. He doesn’t say “no” to everything, however: he will be part of the anticipated sequel to Gladiator in which, according to its director Ridley Scott, he will play a former slave who has become a very powerful man.

Denzel Washington in the television series 'St. Elsewhere.'
Denzel Washington in the television series 'St. Elsewhere.'NBC (NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

Washington, who according to The New York Times is the greatest actor of the 21st century, could have had a very different trajectory without his mother’s intervention. Washington grew up in Mount Vernon, a suburb of New York. His parents, a preacher and a hairdresser, divorced when he was 14 and the teenaged Denzel was left in his mother’s care. When she noticed that her son was keeping bad company rather than attending school, she sent him to a military academy, a decision he considers decisive in his career. “Two of those friends did jail time and the other one lost his teeth. That was a few years ago now. I got him some good teeth, but I haven’t seen him lately,” he told The Times magazine in 2018.

Today, Washington has an elementary school in New York named after him and has helped boost the careers of others who were in a similar situation, such as Black Panther’s mourned star Chadwick Boseman. In the 1990s, a group of young Black kids including the future Marvel star were trying to get into a prestigious Oxford summer program and The Cosby Show actress Phylicia Rashad lobbied for them. “She essentially got some celebrity friends to pay for us to go,” Boseman revealed to Rolling Stone. Among those actors was Washington, who was unaware of it until Boseman was already a star.

The military academy brought summer camps that included acting classes and eventually theater, a passion Washington still holds. But it was not an easy path. At the American Conservatory he met actor Delroy Lindo (The Good Fight). “We didn’t have much money. We had bread, half a gallon of milk, peanut butter and a jar of honey and that’s what we would live off for a week,” he told The Times. And then came television.

Denzel Washington in a scene from 'Malcolm X.'
Denzel Washington in a scene from 'Malcolm X.'Archive Photos (Getty Images)
Spike Lee and Denzel Washington.
Spike Lee and Denzel Washington.Mario Ruiz (Getty Images)

Thanks to St. Elsewhere (1982-1988), Washington became the most sought-after doctor on television. It was the only small screen series that would form part of a career that soon became meteoric. In Cry Freedom (1987), starring alongside Kevin Kline, he earned an Oscar nomination for playing anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. He was nominated again, and won, for playing a young Union soldier in Glory (1989). Everyone assumed that his portrayal of Malcom X in Spike Lee’s 1992 film would land him another statuette in the Best Actor category, but he crossed paths with Al Pacino and the flimsy Scent of a Woman in a year Hollywood felt it should settle a historic debt.

For many observers it was one of the great thefts in Oscars history. But not for Washington, who admits to having voted for Pacino. Nor did he see in it the accusations of racism that have always hung over the Academy: “For him it was his seventh nomination, I had already won one. So Al Pacino hadn’t won anything because he was Italian-American? If I had been nominated seven times and I didn’t win any Oscars, someone would have said it was because I was Black. There is prejudice and racism in Hollywood, as in all kinds of jobs. You have to be very careful with all that and never use racism as an excuse,” Washington told EL PAÍS when he presented The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) in Madrid. He did not take it quite so well when years later, the Oscar for which he was regarded as favorite for Fences ended up in the hands of Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea.

Washington has never consented to race determining the roles he plays. The backbone of his career was not designed for “Black men.” Julia Roberts lobbied to become his co-star in The Pelican Brief (1993), Alan J. Pakula’s political thriller. According to rumors, this went against the wishes of John Grisham, author of the novel. When Washington got the part he removed, motu proprio, the love scenes between his character and Roberts’. “Don’t I have a pulse? Of course I wanted to kiss Denzel. It was his idea to take the damn scenes out,” said the actress later.

Denzel Washington and Geena Davis at the Oscars in 1990.
Denzel Washington and Geena Davis at the Oscars in 1990.Images Press (Getty Images)
Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington in 1996 in Los Angeles.
Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington in 1996 in Los Angeles.Steve Granitz (WireImage)

The actor didn’t want to offend what he considered his target audience. “Black women are not often seen as objects of desire on film. They have always been my core audience,” he told Newsweek. Since then, it has been rare to see him involved onscreen in interracial relationships, nor is he noted for shooting racy scenes. Only in Flight, where he played a pilot with addiction problems, did we get a glimpse of his anatomy. He is one of a fairly short list of actors who limit intimate contact to their real-life partners. Washington met his wife Pauletta before he was famous and they married in 1983. They have four children, all of whom are involved in acting. The most famous of them is John David Washington, star of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (which Washington Sr. has confessed to not understanding). They are a close-knit family far from the headlines, and one of the few long-lived couples in Hollywood.

Washington was also not the first choice to portray Tom Hanks’ lawyer in Philadelphia (1993). The producers were looking for a popular comedian, a Robin Williams or a Bill Murray, who would be familiar and “likable” to viewers. But during a flight he met Jonathan Demme’s co-producer, Edward Saxon, who was then working on the script. The actor asked him to let him take a look at what he was reading and knew he had to be Joe Miller, the lawyer whose journey takes him from homophobia to becoming a close friend of the main character.

Demme wasn’t convinced: casting Washington as the lead meant that a film intended for mainstream audiences would star an on-screen homosexual and a member of a racial minority (or two, as Antonio Banderas was also cast), but that meant saying no to one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. He tried the excuse that Miller had to be funny. “I said, ‘There’s a big problem... it’s meant for an actor with a gift for comedy,’” the late Demme would recall. Washington replied, “I can be funny.” There was nothing more to say.

Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in 'Philadelphia.'
Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in 'Philadelphia.'Michael Ochs Archives (Getty Images)

“Casting Washington in the lead guaranteed the film the Black audience that otherwise might not have had much interest in the prob­lems of a rich white homosexual with Aids,” Sight & Sound’s review noted. Washington was now officially on the A-list and hits like Crimson Tide (1995), The Bone Collector (1999, one of those thrillers born in the shadow of Seven in which he shared the screen, but not a chaste kiss, with Angelina Jolie) and The Hurricane (1999), which earned him another Oscar nomination, cemented his status.

And then came Training Day (2001). His first collaboration with Fuqua allowed him to distance himself definitively from his idol Poitier, because the star of Lilies of the Field could never have allowed himself to play amoral characters as during his era “Blacks were not even considered fully human.” Fortunately, times changed and Washington took on the role of the corrupt detective Alonzo Harris, one of the great characters of his career and the one that, paradoxically, allowed him to equal Poitier as the second Black performer to win a Best Actor Oscar.

As he has revealed, he improvised most of the role. For his co-star, Ethan Hawke, that shoot was the best acting school. “It was like playing music with Miles Davis or baseball with Babe Ruth,” he told The New York Times. “Denzel changed my life. To be 30 and get to work with one of the greats of all time? I’ve never seen anybody be a flat-out better storyteller. He knows what the audience is thinking. He knows how to surprise them.”

Denzel Washington in 1989.
Denzel Washington in 1989.MediaPunch (MediaPunch via Getty Images)
The cast of 'Much Ado About Nothing': Denzel Washington, Kenneth Branagh, Keanu Reeves, Emma Thompson and Robert Sean Leonard.
The cast of 'Much Ado About Nothing': Denzel Washington, Kenneth Branagh, Keanu Reeves, Emma Thompson and Robert Sean Leonard.Eric Robert (Sygma via Getty Images)

“I did not try to be his friend, hang out at a Lakers game or go to birthday parties,” Hawke added. Washington values privacy highly and doesn’t play the Hollywood game or expose his life on social media. “If they see you for free all week, they won’t pay to see you on the weekend,” he once said. “I don’t tweet. I don’t have Instagram.”

About to turn 70, he claims to be in his interpretive autumn and wants to dedicate it to working with the best. When Paul Thomas Anderson declared that he was one of his favorite actors, Washington called him. “I went to his house,” he confessed to The Times. “I want to be with the best filmmakers, because I’m not going to make many more films, I know that. That’s why I want to work with the best.” He has already worked with Joel Coen and has also contacted Alfonso Cuarón and Steve McQueen. “I want to work with the greats.” He may feel his career is coming to an end, but that doesn’t imply he’s in decline.

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