Denzel Washington: ‘People retire because they think they should, but you need that work to live’

Can Denzel Washington really be about to turn 60? He came late to film but he’s already built up a fine legacy

One of Denzel Washington’s great tricks is the sudden, disconcerting mid-sentence shift of mood.

We’re nattering about his early years on the stage when he spies me casting an eye towards the PR operative with the stopwatch. It goes something like this: “That was before we had ‘too much information’. We weren’t all looking towards Hollywood. You got your eyes twitching over there? Don’t you? You’re watching like they’re coming to get you. Ha ha!”

There is no figurative paragraph break. Even a full stop seems excessive. Without taking a breath Washington swivels the conversation round and causes me to flap like a stranded seal.

In the past, Washington had a reputation for being just the tiniest bit prickly. All that seems to have vanished. The man is, in short, an absolute hoot. He will indulge in a bit of ribbing, but he’s willing to take as much as he gives. Why should he be morose? He may be 59, but his appearance seems to have scarcely altered in the last two decades. There’s a picture in an attic somewhere.


“I stay in the gym. I drink a lot of water,” he says “I’ve got to thank my genes. My mother is 90. Oh, if she hears me say this she’ll be mad. Delete that part! Ha ha! She’s way out in Maryland. But I can hear her say, ‘you were talking about my age!’ I’ve always looked young. When I was in my 20s I had trouble getting into clubs and had to carry ID.”

This week, Washington turns up as the lead in Antoine Fuqua's remake of the 1980s vigilante series The Equalizer. Hard though it may be to believe, the trim lithe Washington is a full four years older than was Edward Woodward when he took on the role. We were so much older then; we're younger than that now.

No retirement plans “I think the good thing about my profession is that you don’t have to retire,” says Washington

. "It's a bad thing about retirement. People retire because they think they should, but you need that work to live. Look at Clint Eastwood. Look at Morgan Freeman. "

Denzel Hayes Washington was born in Mount Vernon, just north of New York City, in December, 1954. His father was a preacher and his mother ran a beauty parlour. He has speculated that, had his mother not sent him to a private school after the break-up of her marriage, he could have ended up in trouble with the law. More than a few of his pals spent time behind bars.

“That could have happened to me,” he says. “You never know. My three closest friends all did end up like that. But my mother had vision. She had foresight. ‘I have to get him out of here.’ It was to do with the school I was in. It was 1968 with all that was going on then. You never know in life.”

Washington seems to have gone through a period of indecision after leaving high school. He studied for a while in Texas, took a BA from Fordham College in New York City and played some pretty decent collegiate basketball. But, like so many actors, he bumped unexpectedly into his vocation rather than carrying it around throughout his early life.

“I took a drama class because somebody said it was easy and I liked it,” he recalls.

Stage commitments

By 1976 he had committed himself to the stage. His career turned out to be an irregular sort of creature and he didn’t really become a proper movie star until the end of the 1980s. But he was never out of work for long. He tells me that he had applied for a “day job” in 1981, but, before he received a reply, a role on stage as Malcolm X came his way (a part he was, of course, to play for

Spike Lee

a decade later).

Shortly after that, Washington appeared in the hit A Soldier's Play and, later, the film version, A Soldier's Story. A regular part in the TV series St Elsewhere also helped sustain him throughout the 1980s. But his watchful mother musthave worried about him drifting into such a precarious profession.

“Well, it began at college,” he says. “So there was nothing at stake. I got my first professional job then in a TV movie. I had decided to go to the American Conservatory. There was no going back then.”

There was no one big breakthrough for Washington. In 1988 he received an Oscar nomination for his turn as Steve Biko in Richard Attenborough's Cry Freedom. Two years later, he took the best supporting actor gong for Glory. Mainstream hits such as Philadelphia and Crimson Tide gradually arrived in the 1990s.

“I’m glad it happened that way,” he says. “I think you miss out if you have that sudden big break. I was able to do 15 to 20 plays in that time. I wouldn’t like to have missed that. Theatre was my first lover. I didn’t think much about movies. Let’s be honest. There weren’t many people that looked like me in movies then.”

Well, quite. There are still roads to be travelled, but the situation has greatly improved for African-American actors over the past 30 years. It's hard to imaging, in 1984, a black actor securing the lead role in The Equalizer. If, say, Eddie Murphy had managed such a feat then his "blackness" would become part of the plot. Washington helped change that.

Family in the business “Well, thank you,” he says

. "But, you know, we were snobs anyway back then. We wanted to do theatre. The movies we liked were things like Taxi Driver; New York movies. You had to see it to want to do it. And I didn't see many people who looked like me in movies. So I didn't want it."

Washington has helped clear a path for his own children. One of his sons is a film-maker and another daughter is an actor. As they make their way in the world, dad faces up to the arrival of a seventh decade in December. Denzel Washington is about to be 60. It hardly seems possible. You may as well tell us he's 146.

“Oh well, 60 is the new 50 and 50 is the new 40. Have I got that right? Ha ha.”We’ll take the man’s word for it.