Emmanuel Itier: Was there a decisive moment in your childhood when you realized this is what you wanted to be doing?
Denzel Washington: Not in my childhood. I was 20 years old when I started acting. In college, I did a Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones play. I got good reviews, which didn’t mean much to me because I never had a review before. People at the school started talking to me and about me. I remember being backstage and looking out the curtain--that wasn’t the moment, but I remember looking out there like, “Wow, all these people that come to see this play...maybe I’m good at this.” You find your calling.
I had a liberal arts education. I studied journalism, I studied biology, I studied political science, then I started taking acting classes. I was having success without getting paid. I didn’t know about the money part of it. Had I known, I probably wouldn’t have done it, but it turned out all right. That’s when I said, “Okay, this is something I’m good at and people are telling me I’m good at it, so maybe this is what I’m supposed to do."
EI: I understand you also entered a military school for a while...
DW: No, it was just a private school, but it wasn’t military.
EI: Did that affect the way you approach your work at all?
DW: Everything affects the way you approach your work--your life experience affects the way you approach your work not necessarily more than anything else. I developed an appreciation for reading in private school. We had one teacher, Mr. Underwood, who used to have us read The New York Times every morning. You had a homeroom class of half an hour and I would read The New York Times. I still read The New York Times. He introduced me to Hemmingway and different writers--F. Scott Fitzgerald... At that time, I had no idea I was going to be an actor. When I became one, I didn’t say, "Because he introduced me to reading, I’m a better actor," but reading helps.
EI: You said everything has an impact in your life. Did 9/11 have an impact in your life?
DW: I’m from New York. I was at Ground Zero the first day they allowed planes to fly. Not commercial flights, even before that, they allowed private planes to fly. So it happened on a Tuesday. Friday night, I was in New York at Ground Zero as close as I am to you now looking down in the hole. In retrospect, for everyone involved, it was a traumatic experience. I would see certain people just sitting there exhausted because the guys are already working two or three days straight. In fact, the guy that was walking me around had lost his voice just from tension and/or from the dust. I remember I collected some of the dust and put it in a little bag. I took it home. I still have it. It was really traumatic. It was weird because people were asking me to take pictures. I was like, “I don’t want to do that at a time like this,” but the guy was like, “No, no, no, that’s helping them feel a little better. So if you could do that...” I was like, you get there, you want to do something and it’s like, what can you really do? Number one, you look at the size of this thing and you go, “My God. Where do you begin?" And you look around and you started seeing like, “Are those people way down?” You see flashlights way underneath the rubble. It’s like more brave men and women that were just unafraid, and then there arrows pointing to things that they had painted. I said, “What is that?” “Body parts.” And then, in the middle of it, either somebody stood it up or it was just sitting there, it was like an attaché case just sitting there like it was just waiting for somebody to come pick it up. Maybe somebody stood it up, I don’t know, but it was just a massive feel of chaos and debris and destruction. It changed my life. I’m a native New Yorker to the day I die. I had to be there. I was stunned. I was supposed to start directing, and I did three weeks after that. I couldn’t move like a lot of people.
EI: Did it change your perception or your feeling of what it means to be American? You played Malcolm X in a film which I saw just a few days ago on DVD again, who was very critical, obviously, of the United States and who converted to Islam. Now we’re living in a society when we hear Muslims, we think of Taliban--not the nation of Islam anymore. Does this current political climate change something in you?
DW: I always ask people: "What’s the long-term effect of too much information?" You have to be taught to hate. You have to be taught to dislike. Malcolm X said that, in World War II, we were taught to hate the Germans and love the Russians. Ten year later, we were loving the Germans and hating the Russians. Who changed your mind? If I had anything to say to people is be real careful about your information that you’re taking as the gospel truth and who is giving it to you, and why you believe it. People say, “Are you a Republican or a Democrat?” I’m like, “I’m independent.” I’m not in the Independent Party, but I try to be an independent thinker. We’re bombarded with propaganda from the left and the right all over television and everywhere else. It’s like all day long, “It’s his fault. It’s his fault. It’s his fault.” Then you’ll come out of the house, “It’s his fault.” Islam is not to blame for 9/11. Radical factions or aspects of it are to blame. That’s no more than Christianity being responsible for whatever radical aspects. Obviously, those are always fringe, and people are hurting. They have a pain that they need healed. Everyone has to be aware of what they’re receiving. It’s not always the truth. It’s just information. I’m not knocking the information-givers. They've got 24 hours of news to fill up. They've got to come up with something. That’s why every show now has three guys with different opinions. It’s the same show over and over. “Well, how do you feel about tape recorders?” “I hate them. I think they’re the reason that the world is coming to an end.” “I love tape recorders. My uncle has a tape recorder business.” It’s the same thing over and over and over. You can become frozen and fearful and you don’t leave the house. You watch the TV, you won’t want to leave. “Don’t go out--the Bogeyman is out there. Shut your door.”
EI: You seem to embrace characters that are normal, working class, everyday people who find some kind of inspiration within them and rise to challenge and inspire others. Is there someone in your life like that?
DW: You mean like American Gangster? I’m kidding. No, I think it just so happens the last two films I’ve done with Tony [Scott], that was the theme--Pelham and then this one. Book of Eli, I don’t know if he would be the regular guy.
EI: You did John Q as well.
DW: Yeah, John Q. That was 10 years ago already. We shot it in 2000.
EI: You get a lot of recognition for people like Detective Alonzo Harris. With these darker, more complex characters that you play...
DW: They’re not necessarily more complex. They might be darker...
EI: How deep can you go into a character like that and still come up for air and not get lost?
DW: It’s acting. I guess I’m affected by it, sure. I know how to put it down. I don’t walk around the house... When I was younger, I think I did. My wife is like, “Who’s coming home today?” Like, “Put that trumpet down. Please, put the trumpet down.”
EI: You played real people and you played a couple of very controversial characters--Malcolm X and Rubin Carter...
DW: Frank Lucas...
EI: Particularly those two, though--Malcolm X and Rubin Carter. Were you wholeheartedly in support of the characterization of them in those movies? Was that important to you?
DW: No, you can play a part and not agree with it. It’s acting. I welcome the opportunity to play those roles. I guess, in the case actually of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter more than Malcolm X, you didn’t necessarily know all the consequences going in when you start to come to terms with or go face-to-face with the people, the parents, or the family of the people that were killed. It’s like, “Whoa, wait a minute.”
EI: It was pretty unequivocal. He did present to you as an innocent man, and there has been some control...
DW: Maybe that’s helped me to move into filmmaking, because it’s really the filmmaker’s point of view. You can skew it one way or the other real easily in the editing room. Not to say that’s what Norman [Jewison] was doing, but it’s his right as a filmmaker. My thing is like, if you disagree, make your own...which is what I’m starting to do. There are prejudices no matter what--biases. You come into the world with them. They’re going to creep into your films no matter what you do.
EI: You already have two Oscars as an actor. Do you want an Oscar as a filmmaker?
DW: Awards are great, to be recognized. I never made a film to win an Oscar. Lord knows I didn’t think I was going win one for Training Day. But you can’t go into it that way. That’s like, every time I write, this is going to be my Pulitzer Prize-winning article. You don’t know. You try to do good work and see what happens.
EI: How did you relationship with Tony Scott get started?
DW: The first time, I didn’t really know him. It was more of an introduction to Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson with Crimson Tide and the opportunity to work with Gene Hackman. I was like, “Whoa, okay.” It’s evolved. We did one movie 16 years ago, and then we didn’t do a movie for nine years, and now, in the last seven years, we’ve done four. I like working with him. I know he’s going to make a good movie. He’s so passionate, especially Man on Fire. Man on Fire was the film he wanted to make after he did The Hunger, but the studios didn’t believe. He did The Hunger 25 years ago. They didn’t believe in him so he said, “I took this little job called Top Gun.” He said, “I just took this other job. I figured I’ll do that so I can get back to doing Man on Fire.” Man on Fire, for him, he was just so passionate about it. I just had to go along for the ride. And then we made a movie that I’m very proud of and that I love. So when he called me again and again and again, I just like working with him. He’s easy to work for. Nobody works harder than he does. We’ve had a good time and we’ve made good movies, and we’ve made money making those movies.
EI: He said he tricks you into every stunt you’re doing.
DW: He does. Did he say how so I can use this next time?
EI: He said he always does and you always fall for it.
DW: I don’t fall for it. What else am I going to do?
EI: How did you feel on that 45-mile-an-hour train?
DW: Tricked. I feel tricked. I feel deceived.
'Unstoppable' is in theaters now.