Few stars can boast the consistency of Denzel Washington.
At 52, this year’s Stanley Kubrick Award honoree — to be given by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Los Angeles at tonight’s Britannia Awards — has an almost unbroken 20-year run of box office winners, with nary a bad performance or flop in the bunch.
Talk to the people around Washington, and a few words tend to come up over and over again: trust, loyalty, dignity. Those words, applied to a hundred choices every day, go far in explaining Washington’s career.
“There’s no grand design,” says Washington. “It’s just what I like, and what’s next and what have I done.”
Still, over time he has assembled a team of intimates he consults with closely: longtime agent and confidante Ed Limato, now of William Morris; Todd Black, producer on both his directing projects, “Antwone Fisher” and “The Great Debaters”; publicist Alan Nierob of Rogers & Cowan; lawyer Walter Teller; and ICM agent Brian Sher, about whom Washington says, “I’m no longer at ICM but he’s still a friend — he brought (“Great Debaters”) to me.”
Washington’s trust isn’t lightly given, but once earned, says Black, Washington is fiercely loyal.
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“He makes people around him better at their jobs,” Black adds. “He demands perfection from people in their jobs. In a nice way, but he demands it.”
Being so exacting in his efforts, it’s not surprising that he works with certain directors over and over again. He’s made four films with Spike Lee, is about to make his fourth with Tony Scott, and has done three with Ed Zwick and two each with Jonathan Demme and Carl Franklin.
“First of all, you want to have a good time, you want to have a positive experience,” says Washington, modestly adding that he doesn’t take it for granted that people will want to continue working with him.
“Probably first and foremost, they came back to me. That’s a nice thing to know, that people like your work.”
Washington’s loyalty extends to his audience as well. He is acutely aware that he’s built up a reputation with the public for being in good movies, and he guards that reputation carefully.
“People work hard during the week, and they spend their money to be entertained,” he says. “I don’t know if the word is ‘responsibility’ or ‘obligation’ but sure, I want to do a good job. I don’t like to just slough off, like I don’t care what they think. I do care what they think.”
He is especially selective about his choices, never dropping in for a day or two on a picture unless he can support it completely.
“He does not want people attaching his name to anything he’s not committed to doing and anything he doesn’t have a firm understanding of,” Black says.
Washington has maintained his reputation in part by keeping a sense of dignity, both in the roles he plays and in the way he conducts himself. He’s not tabloid fodder and is selective about granting media access. He lets himself be seen on magazine covers now and then, such as the current Men’s Vogue, but not many.
“Sidney Poitier gave me a piece of advice years ago: If they see you for free all week, they won’t pay to see you on the weekend,” he says. “I think a lot of the young kids today should take that and learn from it. If you’re interested in the marathon and not a sprint, then you have to keep some mystery.
“Quite frankly, I’m not that interested in publicity. I do it because it’s a part of my job, promoting the movie. I’m not interested in promoting myself. That’s not what I do for a living. I’m an actor, and learning to be a director. That’s what I do.”
Looking ahead, he says he won’t start shooting another film as a director until his youngest children graduate high school in June 2009. His likely next directing project is “Brothers in Arms,” a drama about an African-American tank battalion in World War II. He is also developing “In Black and White,” the story of the young Sammy Davis Jr., and may direct that as well.
There are a few genres that he hasn’t visited often. He tried horror with “Fallen,” but the film didn’t catch fire. He has one science fiction credit, 1995’s “Virtuosity” (with “American Gangster” co-star Russell Crowe); one flat-out comedy, 1990’s “Heart Condition,” since his film debut in 1981’s “Carbon Copy” with George Segal; and few romances, despite being acknowledged as one of Hollywood’s sexiest leading men.
But those close to him acknowledge he’d like to do another laffer, perhaps with a top-flight comic performer like Eddie Murphy.
“He has to be challenged,” Black says. “He’s the most fearless actor I’ve ever met.”