An Evening with Denzel Washington took place Thursday, Sept. 17 at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
“It’s the black man standing on the white man,” Denzel Washington exclaims as he looks down at his black sneakers with white soles.
This is pure improvisation, as he did in the title role of Malcolm X for director Spike Lee over 20 years ago.
“I can make a speech about anything,” Washington tells an audience at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts the night of Thursday, Sept. 17.
While Lee filmed Denzel giving these speeches in one of the actor’s many Oscar-nominated roles, he would allow Denzel to go off-script and improvise speeches while playing the noted civil rights leader.
Washington sat down with Dr. Todd Boyd, Professor of Cinema and Media Studies in the USC School of Cinematic Arts, for a discussion of his work at the Annenberg Center, where the actor has been appointed as one of the Artistic Advisors for the 2015-2016 season along with Patti LuPone, Arturo Sandoval, Suzanne Farrell and Judith Jamison.
While Washington is able to offer numerous insights and anecdotes concerning his work in over 50 films and several Broadway productions, he does not offer a meditation on what other actors might call the craft.
Unlike other Hollywood legends who might expound on how their work derives from teachings by Stanislavsky or Stella Adler, Washington insists, “I have no style,” and paraphrasing Bruce Lee’s advice concerning how his martial arts skill developed, “I take what is useful. If I were a bottle maker, I would make the best one that I can.”
Throughout the interview, Washington expresses a lack of nostalgia for revisiting his work, despite taking pride in the performances that he has given.
“People ask me what my favorite movie is, and I always say it’s the next one,” he says, “because it’s about the process and the journey. Unless I’m directing the film, I will look at a film maybe once or twice so that I know what I’m talking about, but after that, it belongs to the people.”
Even after over 30 years of acting in feature films, the actor identifies the experience of blending in and living in other people’s worlds as part of the joy of acting. While blending in may seem impossible for one of our most recognizable celebrities, Washington insists that it is possible even for him.
Citing his experience training for Courage Under Fire in the mid-’90s, Washington says that for a day or two, the soldiers treated him like a celebrity, but after that they acted as if he was just one of them.
“You’re famous for 24 to 36 hours. People are just waiting to see where you come from.”
The very idea of celebrity seems to baffle Washington, who during an audience question-and-answer session could not even come up with a a single guilty pleasure he indulges in from being famous, aside from the ease of getting restaurant reservations.
“First of all, I’m a human being, and my profession is acting. Movie star is something other people call you. They also call you a celebrity. They also call you a has-been, so I don’t try to get caught up in that,” he tells. “I’m an ordinary guy with an extraordinary job.”
Still, he was amused that his appearance at a boxing match with the muttonchops he required for his role as a cowboy became a meme on Twitter.
Despite his focus on whatever his next project may be and an indifference to particular acting school techniques, when pressed Washington can still offer insight into his previous roles, in particular the two roles that won him Academy Awards. He insists that Alonzo Harris, the corrupt cop he played in Training Day, had to die at the end of the script because it was the only possible ending.
“The wages of sin are death. To justify him living in the worst way, he had to die in the worst way. It wasn’t arbitrary that I was on the ground crawling like a snake,” he says.
His famous line from the film, he says, was improvised.
“He thought he was so big that, literally, King Kong had nothing on him.”
For Glory, the film for which he won his first Oscar as Best Supporting Actor, Washington drew on his family’s history in order to play a black soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War.
“He wasn’t a slave,” Washington informs, “he was free. That’s the problem.”
To prepare for the famous scene, he went into a room and prayed to his enslaved ancestors for advice.
“I came out of the room, and all I felt was strong and powerful. I took my shirt off and started spitting.”
None of the white actors on the set wanted to be the bad guy who whipped Washington, but eventually the actor who held the whip (which, despite its felt tip, was still painful because the rain made it wet) matched his intensity to Washington’s own.
“He must have called on his ancestors, too,” Washington jokes.
After completing his latest role in the remake of The Magnificent Seven, Washington will move on to a long-term project for HBO. He will recreate his Tony-winning role in August Wilson’s “Fences” for the network, serving as both star and director. After that, Washington will executive produce each of Wilson’s nine other plays for the network, one per year.
Washington calls Wilson “a bright brilliant shining light who was here then gone, but his work will go on forever.” Comparing him to such luminaries as Martin Luther King Jr., Washington says Wilson had “a concentrated dose of life. People like that were here for a short time, but they live on for generations.”
Unlike many celebrities who trumpet their charity work, it is not widely known that Washington has strong ties to the Boys & Girls Club of America. The actor cites his work with the club as part of a reason for his childhood success, and he beams when speaking about his work as a counselor and educator.
During the question-and-answer session in which Washington fields numerous inquiries into how to become an actor – the archetype of Eve Harrington spans all ages, races and genders, after all – the one audience member who elicits delight from Washington is the one who said that viewing Glory inspired him to be a historian. Washington embraces him when he takes the stage; one suspects that what audiences have gained from the decades of the actor’s performances on stage and screen has been lost by the many students who might have excelled having him as a teacher.
This drive to better the next generation can be seen in Washington’s advice to his son, John David Washington, who appears in HBO’s “Ballers.” The younger Washington was nearly dissuaded from becoming an actor because he would be under the shadow of his famous father.
“I asked him if he ever heard of Kirk Douglas,” Washington says. “He hadn’t. He did know who Michael Douglas is.”
For more information on the 2015-2016 season at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, visit thewallis.org.