Denzel Washington is not the kind of man to fret in the face of disaster.
Cool-headed Washington instead gives even more of himself in order to make the situation right. This is exactly what the actor did on his recent film “Fallen,” according to producer Chuck Roven. The story goes like this: on the last day of principal shooting in Philadelphia, the set was supposed to be graced with piles and piles of man-made snow for the scene.
Nature played an ugly trick on them, however, and presented a huge rain storm, leaving the set six inches under-water and all of the snow melted.
When Roven and Washington arrived on the set, Washington turned to Roven and said, “What can I do to help?” To Roven, Washington’s attitude created the right mood to accomplish the impossible task before them. Six hours later, after bags of gravel had soaked up the flood, and newly man-made snow was churned out to re-create the correct atmosphere, shooting began. Washington and the rest of the crew shot for 23 hours straight.
“He was right there until the last shot, because he was in it,” says Roven. “He was pretty terrific. He set the tone of the movie. Needless to say, I really liked working with him.”
This attitude is echoed again and again by the people who have been in the trenches with Washington. Tom Rothman, president of 20th Century Fox Film Production, worked with Washington on “Much Ado About Nothing” as well as “Mississippi Masala” and most recently on “Courage Under Fire.”
“I’ve known him awhile,” says Rothman. “He is a pro’s pro. He is not into the whole star trip. He made ‘Much Ado’ in Italy and was living in the same run-down conditions as everyone else.”
Laura Ziskin, president of Fox 2000, remembers Washington from the TV hit series “St. Elsewhere.” “I was addicted to that show and he was one of the reasons.”
Ziskin also worked with Washington on “Courage Under Fire” and puts him in the category of the old-fashioned big-time movie stars. “He is so beautiful. He is good at the genuine leading man with the large range from period to contemporary and across the board. There’s a handful of guys you build a movie around, and Denzel is one of them.”
No one believes in Washington’s commitment more than actress Angela Bassett who starred with him in the ground-breaking “Malcolm X.” Bassett says that the film played an important role in both of their careers. She re-called that Washington had portrayed Malcolm X on stage and on television prior to the movie. Although she admitted to being nervous at the audition, she says she really felt very at ease with both director Spike Lee and Washington.
She described a moment in which she really understood Washington during the audition process. “For an audition, you try to dress up and look the part. But at the same time you desire to be attractive to go in for the job interview. But the character is a Muslim. She is supposed to wear little or no make-up. That goes against what I need to do for the audition,”
Finally, she says, she decided to wear lipstick. Bright red, she said. At one point during the audition, sitting knee to knee with Washington, he jumped up and left the room. “I looked after him, and at Spike. I was so comfortable, though. When he returned, he had a tissue in his hand and he reached toward me and wiped the lipstick off my mouth. I just leaned back and let him. I wasn’t offended or surprised. It was natural, like a peg fitting right into its spot.”
Bassett related other incidents in which Washington gave a lot to the preparation of their scenes together and even those she had alone. “He had a lot to do being in every frame of the movie, and I wasn’t. But he was there for me. He was very patient with me. He knows how important this is for another artist,” she says. “This is indicative of him as a person and indicative of his theater background. It is not about celebrity. It’s about getting the work done.”
Jerry Bruckheimer, producer of “Crimson Tide,” says Washington was at the top of his list for the movie. “He is a brilliant actor.” A copy of the script was sent to Washington, and he then agreed to meet Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott to discuss the role. They met over drinks. “It was our job to convince him to do ‘Crimson. We must have given him the right drink,” crowed Bruckheimer.
Washington was drawn to the strong story, as well as the dramatic, heroic character. During readings and re-hearsal, Washington helped mold the character. “His idea about the characters and the story were exceptional. It is great for a producer when an actor brings something to the role. I’ve worked with a lot of actors who just give their lines and go home. He went beyond that. He was also a big proponent of promoting the movie. He stood behind it and was there for the picture and for Disney.”
Bruckheimer traveled overseas with Washington to promote the movie. They were in a relaxed atmosphere and had a good time, he says. “I’d love to work with him again.”
Bruckheimer also noted Washington’s professionalism. “He knew his lines and was on time. He had a great sense of humor and never yelled at people. Everyone else knew they had to be at the top of their game, because he kept them on their toes.” Julia Roberts, who starred with Washington in “The Pelican Brief,” thought working with him was “a dream.” She found him kind, funny, charming and a total professional. “Then,” she added, “When you meet his family, you think — this is a man who not only has it all, but he’s smart enough to know he has it all.”
Family and commitments outside of acting are also extremely important to Washington. On the board of Sundance, he contributes his time generously, according to Rothman.
“He aggressively gives back to the community,” says Rothman.