Denzel swims new waters

ShoWest’s 1997 Male Star of the Year is an out-of-work actor.

“What I’m loving right now is not having a job,” says a casual and seemingly relaxed Denzel Washington. “For the first time in a long time, I finished shooting a film and didn’t know what I was going to do next. That feels good.”

With nearly two dozen films under his belt, an Academy Award to his credit and seven years of starring in movies back-to-back, Washington is taking what he says is some much-needed time off from acting after recently complet-ing “Fallen” and having had two movies — “The Preacher’s Wife” and “Courage Under Fire” — released last year.

This year’s Actor of the Year is one of Hollywood’s most versatile and sought-after leading men, best known on the big screen for bringing intelligence, intensity, integrity and charisma to his characters. He possesses the talent and popularity that has resulted in both award-winning performances and box office successes. But Washington didn’t land on the A list overnight. In fact, he remembers the last time he took a break from acting — and it wasn’t by choice.

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“It was the two years before I started acting again,” Washington says, recalling the last time he was out of work. “I took a big break — involuntarily.”

Since then, the 42-year-old actor has won an Oscar for his performance as a runaway slave in the Civil War epic “Glory” (1989) and played historical heroes including South African activist Steven Biko in “Cry Freedom” (1987) and Malcolm in “Malcolm X” (1992). He starred as a homophobic lawyer in “Philadelphia” (1993), a driven re-porter in “The Pelican Brief” (1993), a down-and-out private eye in “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995), a naval officer at odds with his captain in “Crimson Tide” (1995), and, most recently, a tormented Army tank commander in “Courage Under Fire,” a guileless angel in “The Preacher’s Wife” and a homicide detective in the upcoming super-natural thriller “Fallen.”

Despite his success in Hollywood, Washington maintains he never had aspirations of being a movie star, and says he’s not even a big fan of films.

“My interest is in acting, not in movies,” he says. “I started in the theater, and to me the ultimate was to work on Broadway — to do great plays. We were ignorant, young and snobbish — the people I was running around with. We never thought about California or Hollywood.”

But there came a time, shortly after he graduated from college, that his ideals met reality. “All of a sudden, you get out of college and the rent comes due. Then you get two weeks on a television movie that pays you $2,500 a week and you think you can live off that for a year and a half.”

Now that Washington commands a $10 million salary for his starring roles, the criteria by which he chooses his projects has evolved.

“Whatever I did before has a lot to do with what I’ll do next,” Washington says about how he now picks his roles. “I’m always looking for something different. If I’ve just done some real serious work, I might be looking to do something a little lighter, which was the case with “The Preacher’s Wife.” He said “The Preacher’s Wife” also al-lowed him to share a message of “family and those warm and fuzzy feelings.”

Washington’s break in work now affords him time to spend with his four children and his wife, Pauletta. He’s happy for the opportunity to do “normal” things with his family while he tries in earnest not to think about his next project. Instead, he’s thinking about how he can capitalize on his success by using it to help others.

Washington is exceptionally private about his many charitable donations, whether it be in the form of time or money, saying only that he takes his cue from Katharine Hepburn, who “doesn’t talk about humanitarian things that she has done.” Washington and his wife have donated millions of dollars to their church, hospitals and chil-dren’s organizations. Washington is a national spokesman for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and was recently invited by Robert Redford to join the board of his Sundance Institute.

“You use what you have by what you do and by who you are as an artist and as a parent. As one who’s being interviewed, you get the message out that way. It’s not what I do, it’s everything that I do. You have to pass it on.”

Washington grew up the son of a preacher in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and graduated from Fordham University before studying acting at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. He had performed in many plays, including the role of Malcolm X in “When the Chickens Come Home to Roost” on Broadway, before landing his break-through role as a young doctor on the popular TV series “St. Elsewhere.” Washington’s film debut came in 1981 with “Carbon Copy,” but he has been performing professionally now for 20 years.

“When young actors talk to me, I tell them what I think it’s about,” Washington says. “I try to lead by example in the work. I’m not acting right now, but I am doing some work on the other side of the camera as a producer and as a director down the line. I’m interested in putting African Americans to work because the more people I put to work, the more influence I can have, and the more I can share ideas and my own philosophies with them.”

Washington says creating job opportunities for others is as important to him as his own work. Finding time to do it all is the tricky part.

“The problem with success,” Washington says with a laugh at himself, “is that there’s just not enough time to do everything you want to do. ‘Are you going to do something to help other actors?’ Yea, I’d like to do that. ‘Are you going to act?’ Yea, I’m trying to do that. ‘Are you going to produce a film?’ Yea, I’m working on that. ‘Do you want to do some theater?’ Yea, I’d love to. I’ve got four kids, too. There’s only so many hours in a day.”

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