Denzel Washington: God's gift to the movies

Denzel Washington is blessed. No, really. And he's modest, too. Tiffany Rose meets the actor on the eve of his latest release
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Acharacter actor in a leading man's body, despite his being 49, Denzel Washington is not your obvious heart-throb. He doesn't possess, for example, the sexuality of a Brad Pitt, or the cheekiness of a Will Smith. He's more like the guy you hope would move in next door, so you can share a beer on a summer's day. But his new action movie, Man on Fire, has opened to rave reviews Stateside and grossed $23m in its opening weekend.

You may think you've seen Washington in this role before (John Q comes to mind), but this two-time Academy award-winning actor (for Training Day and Glory) is mesmerising as a burnt-out former CIA assassin.

Having interviewed the star on numerous occasions, I don't recall a time when he hasn't been in a chipper mood. If your house was flooding, he would probably tell you there's no need to water the plants for a month.

When I ask him a question, not only does he query my motive by firing back a few thought-provoking questions of his own, but, after unnervingly fixing his eyes on mine, he will offer a thorough, 300-word, response.

When I mention that he's been dubbed "the thinking woman's sex symbol", Washington bursts out laughing. "Would I have got this far if I had been pig ugly?" he grins. "This sex symbol thing is a bit hard for me to figure out," he concedes. "You know, when I was at high school, I only had one girlfriend. No one wanted to go out with me." Don't they all say that?

The black community use Washington's name as a description. Doing a "Denzel" apparently translates into being suave and debonair.

Washington cracks up for the second time in less than 10 minutes. (This causes me to feel a little paranoid. I can never get a sense of when an actor "turns off" their acting). "Suave and debonair? I've never heard that," he slowly repeats, somewhat coyly. "I guess no one has ever said that to me, but, no, I'm not suave and debonair. I play the parts. I'm an actor. It depends on the role."

He attempts to explain his iconic status. "I arrived here with the greatest of God, first of all. I'm talking God-given talent, and hard work, and a dash of luck. What do they say? Luck is where opportunity meets preparation. So I try and be prepared and when the opportunity comes, I box to work out. I've been doing it for years. I love it."

He continues with a smile. "There was a kid in the gym today, 24 years old, pro football player, and he's boxing because he says it helps him with his vision, it's a different way to work out. So when he's on the field, people say: 'Oh he's a gifted natural athlete.' But it's not that complicated. It's hard work."

Washington covers a variety of topics in a space of a few minutes. He reaches for his coffee before going on. "God is first. That's the breath of life," he almost preaches. "For me, that's why I'm here. I've been blessed with these abilities. I believe that it's not what you're given, it's what you do with what you have. I learnt that from the Bible. What are you doing with what you have?

"Everybody has gifts to give. Who did you lift today? Who did you make better today?" An example comes to mind. "On my way to here, I saw some firemen on Sunset Boulevard, collecting money for muscular dystrophy. Maybe I can give a hundred dollars and the next guy can only give five. That doesn't make me better. What's important is to give. I can help. Let me help."

The middle child of three, of a strict Pentecostal minister father and a hard-working beautician mother from Mount Vernon, New York, Washington is a practising Christian, once donating $2.5m to his church. He met his wife, Pauletta, a former actress, on the set of his first professional acting gig, Wilma, a made-for-TV biography of the track star Wilma Rudolph. Twenty-two years and four children later (John, 20, Katia, 16, and twins, Malcolm and Olivia, 13), the honeymoon period still appears to be in full swing. They may say that behind a great man, you'll find a great woman, but Washington prefers: "Beside a great man, there's a great woman." "I have a great wife," he purrs. "We're not in Hollywood, which I think is part of us having a strong marriage.

"I don't do Hollywood things at all. The last premiere I've gone to that was not my own was when Julia Roberts [his co-star in The Pelican Brief] asked us to see Erin Brockovich. I went because she's my friend."

What's the secret? "You should ask my wife!" Washington chuckles, sipping his coffee. "She's just kind. She feels for me. I don't know. Just keeping it simple, I guess. Don't get me wrong, it's really tough for her. I'm away a lot, and so she's the one that gets up early every morning to make the kids breakfast, and takes them to school. I run off making movies. We know our jobs and we try not to step on each other's toes."

Washington prides himself on living life comfortably, not opting for the flashy lifestyle. "It just isn't me," he shrugs. He will rave about his new $39 Casio watch. "Why do I need to spend $50,000 on a watch when this one is just fine?" he asks. "I like to keep it simple."

When Washington was 14, his parents divorced, leaving him estranged from his father until his early twenties. The actor admits that, with the absence of his father, he had a lot of fist-fights during his teenage years.

"I grew up on the streets. There was fear, and there was danger," he has said. "There were four of us who hung out together. And of the other three, let's see, one died of Aids from shooting up drugs, one was murdered and the other is doing 25-years-to-life in jail."

His mother saved every penny to send him to an exclusive private school. Not only did the young Washington excel in sports, join the school band and earn good grades, but he won a place at Fordham University, where he discovered acting, and which led to a scholarship at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. He landed his big break on the television show St Elsewhere, which ran for six seasons.

There's a reason why Washington is paid $12m a role. He isn't afraid of the dark or controversy. He has portrayed many powerful figures in what he refers to as his "history man" roles, such as inMalcolm X (1992), as Rubin Carter, the boxer who was wrongly convicted of murder, in The Hurricane (1999), and as the black activist Steve Biko in Cry Freedom (1987).

"I sure don't think there's any room for me to play any more heroes," Washington chimes. "I've played everybody - Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, who's left? I can't BE everybody!" His laughter fills the room. "I just bought the rights to the Sammy Davis Jr book, In Black and White. I'm developing that with the writer," he offers. "Obviously I'm not going to play Sammy," Washington smirks. "Too tall, and I can't sing to save my life!"

InMan on Fire, Washington steps into the role of John Creasy, a one-time CIA assassin with a guilty conscience, who resorts to drink in a bid to deal with his collapsing life. He travels to Mexico to see his old military buddy Rayburn (Christopher Walken), who has a job for him: bodyguard to nine-year-old Pita (Dakota Fanning).

Creasy tries to keep his distance, but Pita breaks him down. The two develop a bond that makes her kidnapping a do-or-die situation.

Washington attempts to put himself in his character's position. "You killed my daughter." He knocks on the table. "I'd be at your door. I wouldn't wait. It's easy in the movies. I could do something awful; well, now my daughter's dead and I'm in jail for the rest of my life. In my heart I don't feel it's right to kill another person, but if it was my child? Ah, man, that's a tough one."

This year marks a birthday milestone in Washington's life - he's turning 50. "I embrace it every day," he leans in and whispers. "Every day is my birthday. I work out every day. My mind is clear. I feel great and the gift to myself is my own health and happiness."

'Man on Fire' is released on 8 October