AFI Honoree Denzel Washington on ‘Backing Into’ Acting

Considering Denzel Washington is a two-time Academy Award winner and widely agreed upon as one of the greatest actors of all time, it’s strange to think he never considered acting until he was in college.

“I kind of backed into it,” Washington admits. “I never thought about acting, I didn’t know anything about it. But I fell in love with it. Ignorance is bliss.”

Washington began acting on a whim in 1975 while at Fordham University. “Someone said, ‘Hey, you ever thought about being on stage? You seem like a natural,’” he recalls. “That fall, I did a musical. I found out I couldn’t sing, but I was off to the races.”

Forty-four years later, Washington’s career has seen a wide variety of roles in all genres and brought him numerous accolades. And on June 6 he will be honored with the prestigious AFI Life Achievement Award at a ceremony in which he’ll be feted by the likes of previous recipient Morgan Freeman and actors Julia Roberts and Chadwick Boseman.

“Denzel is more than worthy of this honor,” Freeman says. “He is one of the people in movies that I admire and envy the most as he embodies the three qualities that this profession takes: perseverance, versatility and charisma.”

Freeman starred in the 1989 Civil War epic “Glory,” which landed Washington his first Academy Award, though he was nominated in 1987 for “Cry Freedom.” “It’s been great to see his career fly since we worked together in ‘Glory.’ Denzel is one of those great actors — he is giving, his responses are real, he’s right there with you as an actor and he’s creative, which is marvelous. He can take a line and make it sound like something more than what was written on the page.”

Following Sidney Poitier and Freeman, Washington is only the third African-American actor to receive the award and he admits he has never attended the ceremony — he’s not sure what to expect.

“It kind of feels like a surprise party, but I know about it,” he says with a laugh. “To be honest, I don’t want to know. Whatever they do, it’s fun and a great honor and family and friends will be there.”

Though Washington didn’t come to acting until he was in college, he credits his formative years for giving him the grounding to follow through, specifically his time in the Boys and Girls Club of America; he is now the national spokesman for the organization.

“I grew up in the club and it quite honestly worked for me,” he says. “I remember my teacher telling me, ‘Your natural ability will only take you so far so you have to work on your foundation and your fundamentals.’”

So when he became interested in acting and was getting a good response — he was cast in his first TV movie, “The Wilma Rudolph Story,” while still at college — he didn’t coast: “I knew my natural ability was only going to take me so far.” He applied to several master’s programs and ended up attending the American Conservatory in San Francisco. “The lesson I learned in the club directly applied to myself early in my acting career. [Without] going to San Francisco and studying Shakespeare and movement, I wouldn’t be the actor I am today.”

An icon for an icon Washington earned one of his nine Oscar noms for 1992’s “Malcolm X.”
David Lee/Warner Bros/Largo Inte

Washington’s early goal was just to “get on Broadway and make $650 a week.” Stardom came calling, but at heart he still feels most at home on stage and tries to get back as much as possible. “It’s my first love, it’s where I started,” he notes. In 2018, he played the lead in the nearly four-hour-long “The Iceman Cometh,” which landed eight Tony nominations. After he shoots “Little Things” opposite Rami Malek this fall, he’ll make a film version of “Macbeth” alongside Frances McDormand for director Joel Coen. Asked what drew him to this adaptation and he says simply: “Shakespeare. Joel Coen. Frances McDormand. Pick any one of those!”

As for the enduring appeal of Shakespeare, he cites another legendary playwright. “Like August Wilson, he’s timeless,” he says. “It’s great literature, open to interpretation — there’s no one way to skin a cat. It’s the most challenging for an actor, it’s hard to do and figure out. I’m just looking for challenges, I’m looking to grow and get better as an actor and a director. And I’m on baby steps as a producer.”

After bringing Wilson’s “Fences” to the Broadway stage and the big screen, he’s looking to adapt more of Wilson’s work in future iterations. “One at a time, but that is the goal, to do them all.”

For someone who has played everything from the classics to futuristic worlds, Washington says he tries not to reflect too much on the past. “People always ask what my favorite or most challenging role is and I say my next one,” he says. “That’s what the work is all about. As an actor I’m always looking to get better. I’m blessed to have four different jobs; I act in plays, I act in movies, I direct movies, I produce. And I’m excited about each one. I try not to look in the rear-view mirror.”

He’ll have to take a look back during the Life Achievement ceremony, but no matter how many honors (including two Oscars, three Golden Globes, a Tony Award and a SAG Award) Washington racks up, he says it’s always thrilling to him. And it was “unbelievably exciting” to watch his oldest son, John David Washington, earning accolades last awards season for his work in “BlacKkKlansman.”

“I was sitting with him when he found out about the Golden Globe nomination,” Washington recalls. “I was actually the one who got all emotional and fell apart. You don’t know how it’s going to hit you ’til it hits you.”

What: AFI Life Achievement Award
When: June 6
Where: Dolby Theatre, Hollywood
Web: afi.com

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