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Denzel Washington: The Fresh Air interview

Washington was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He spoke to Fresh Air in 2008, about the film The Great Debaters, which he directed and starred in.


Other segments from the episode on July 8, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Interview with Denzel Washington; Interview with Megan Rapinoe; Review of Both Sides of the Blade.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, in for Terry Gross. Today we're going to listen to portions of our interviews with an actor and with a sports star, both of whom are new recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

First, we hear from actor, director and producer Denzel Washington. One of his first acting jobs was playing an intern on the NBC medical series "Saint Elsewhere" in the 1980s. Since then, he's won two Academy Awards - in 1990 for his supporting role in "Glory" and in 2002 for his starring role in "Training Day." His other films include "Malcolm X," "Philadelphia," "Mo' Better Blues" and "American Gangster." More recently, he starred opposite Frances McDormand in "The Tragedy Of Macbeth," which earned him an Oscar nomination. In 2010, Washington won a Tony Award for his leading role in the August Wilson play "Fences." And in 2014, he co-starred in the Broadway revival of another play, "A Raisin In The Sun." Aside from his work on stage and screen, Washington has served for over 25 years as national spokesman for the Boys and Girls Club of America.

Terry spoke to Denzel Washington in 2008. He had just directed and starred in the film "The Great Debaters." He played a coach and mentor to a debating team at a small African American college in the segregated South, preparing to break the color line by taking on an Ivy League debating team. Terry asked him about the contrast between this role and his role as a corrupt cop in "Training Day" and the drug kingpin in "American Gangster."


TERRY GROSS: Does it affect you differently when you're off the set if you're playing, you know, a drug kingpin who will willingly kill somebody if he thinks it's necessary versus, you know, a professor whose, like, mission is training his students to be winning debaters? I mean, that's such two different kinds of personalities. Does it change what you take home with you at night?

DENZEL WASHINGTON: You know, I read a book years ago, "Cagney By Cagney," written by James Cagney. And he talked about, you know, it's his job. He's at the studio. You do your job. You know, you shut your door, and you go get in your car and go home. I guess it does. I couldn't tell you what it is 'cause I'm not thinking about it. But basically - well, it's different in the case of directing because you don't ever turn off the - you're working all the time. But when I finished "American Gangster," I was done with it. I didn't, you know, think about going into the drug business. I don't know. You know, it's a job. And I've been at it a long time, and I know how to do my job, I think. But, no, I don't think I carry it around too much, I hope.

GROSS: Well, we should hear a clip from "American Gangster." And you play a drug kingpin in Harlem in this. And you've brought up your family from the South, and you've basically made your brothers into foot soldiers for your operation. And one of your brothers, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is kind of so kind of taken by, like, the money and what he could do with it. So he's wearing this outfit with, you know, like, a - it's the early '70s with a big collar and a big hat. And you think it's, like, much too flashy. And in this scene here, you're explaining why that's a problem.


WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) What is that you got on?

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) What's what, man?

WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) Yeah, that - what you got on.

EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) This is a very, very, very nice suit.

WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) That's a very, very, very nice suit, huh? That's a clown suit. That's a costume...

EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) Come on, man.

WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) ...With a big sign on it that says, arrest me. You understand? You're too loud. You're making too much noise. Look at me. The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room. I told you that, all right? What - you trying to be like Nicky Barnes now?

EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) What's your problem with Nicky, man? I like Nicky.

WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) I ain't got no problem with Nicky. Oh, you like Nicky.

EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) Yeah.

WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) You want to be like Nicky? You want to be superfly? You want to work for him, share a jail cell with him, maybe cook for him?

EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) He wants to talk to you.

WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) Oh, so now you talking to him about me.

EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) What? You...

WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) About what? What is it about?

EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) It ain't like that.

WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) Then what is it like?

EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) We were talking, and your name came up.

WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) About what?

EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) I don't know, man. I told him I'd tell you.

WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) You know, boy...


WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) You know, if you wasn't my brother, I'd kill you. You know that, don't you? I'm taking you shopping this week.

EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) I went shopping.

GROSS: That's my guest Denzel Washington with Chiwetel Ejiofor in a scene from "American Gangster." I remember when I interviewed Michael Caine, he talked about how, when you're playing somebody who's very powerful, you shouldn't, like, move around and fidget a lot, gesture a lot because powerful people don't have to do all that because the people underneath them are hanging on the powerful person's every word and looking for every clue that they can about what his mood is and what's he going to do next and how he's reacting to things. And it seems to me like you're that kind of person in "American Gangster." You don't move around a lot. You don't gesture a lot. You've got a lot of power. And you know you do. You met Frank Lucas, the person who your role is based on. Was he like that when you met him?

WASHINGTON: Well, I mean, you know, Gotti moved around a lot. He had a lot of power. I don't know. I personally wouldn't hold any hard, fast rules about who moves around a lot or who doesn't. I've never thought of it that way. The perception of power is power. Yeah. I think the perception is established by his violence right at the top of the movie.

GROSS: Yeah.

WASHINGTON: So you see a guy who's this violent who can walk down the street, shoot somebody in the head, come back inside and forget. His only question was, what was I talking about before I was interrupted? You know, that's a sociopath.

GROSS: I really like "American Gangster" and your performance in it.

WASHINGTON: Thank you.

GROSS: Does it ever bother you to play people who aren't role models? Like, in life, so many people see you as a role model. Does it bother you? Like, in "The Great Debaters," you are very role model. You know, you're very ethical.

WASHINGTON: No, it doesn't bother me. I mean, I'm selfish, I think. I think an artist has to be. You know, I'm not worried about what people think. I'm going to play the parts that I find interesting. That's what - it bothered me more to be just pigeonholed into doing what people think is ethical. Or, you know, that's boring to me. I don't pick parts with that in mind, and I just find interesting stories. If it's interesting to me, then I do it.

GROSS: One of your most known role model performances is in "Training Day," for which you won an Oscar. And I'd like to play a short scene from that. And in this scene, you're a cop who is really brutal when he wants to be and really nasty. And you're initiating this new rookie cop who's your partner, played by Ethan Hawke. And in this scene, Ethan Hawke has been trying to apprehend two suspects - probably, like, crack addicts. They've beaten him up. He's finally gotten them handcuffed. You haven't helped him at all. You've basically just been watching. And then after he gets them handcuffed, you kind of move in, insult them, take $60 out of one of their pockets. And you decide not to arrest them. You just leave them there. And Ethan Hawke is mystified. And here's the conversation in the car afterwards.


WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo Harris) Want to book that 60 bucks? Here. Go ahead. Book it into evidence, man. Where the suspects? Go back and get the suspects.

ETHAN HAWKE: (As Jake Hoyt) I don't know where they are. You let them go.

WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo Harris) Oh, I let them go.

HAWKE: (As Jake Hoyt) You let them go.

WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo Harris) All right, man. You want to run and gun, man? Stay in patrol, OK? This is investigations, all right? Let the garbage men handle the garbage. We're professional anglers, OK? We go after the big fish, chasing them monkey-strong crackhead mother*******. Anyway, you know they'd have killed you without hesitating.

HAWKE: (As Jake Hoyt) I know. That's why they belong in prison.

WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo Harris) For what? They got beat down. They lost their rock. They lost their money. Them SH from Hillside probably going to smoke them. I mean, Jesus. What more you want?

HAWKE: (As Jake Hoyt) I want justice.

WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo Harris) Is that not justice?

HAWKE: (As Jake Hoyt) That's street justice.

WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo Harris) What's wrong with street justice?

HAWKE: (As Jake Hoyt) Oh, what - just let the animals wipe themselves out, right?

WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo Harris) God willing. [Expletive] them, everybody who looks like them. Unfortunately it doesn't work that way. The good guys - they die first, right? The schoolkids and moms and family men - they're the ones that catch the stray bullets in the noodle. To protect the sheep, you got to catch the wolf. And it takes a wolf to catch a wolf. You understand?

HAWKE: (As Jake) What?

WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo) I said you protect the sheep...

HAWKE: (As Jake) OK, I heard you.

WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo) ...By killing the [expletive] wolves. No, you didn't hear me. You listening, but you didn't hear me.

HAWKE: (As Jake) Yeah, all right, whatever.

WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo) Yeah, whatever. Whatever the [expletive] ever.

HAWKE: (As Jake) Let me ask you this then. When do you lock anybody up? I mean, it seems like you're pretty busy keeping people out.

WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo) What the [expletive] you talking about? You don't know what you're talking about, Betty Boop. Got nothing but [expletive] between your ears. They build jails 'cause of me. Judges have handed out over 15,000 man-years of incarceration time based on my investigations, OK? My record speaks for itself. How many felons have you collared, huh? Yeah, I rest my case.

GROSS: That's my guest, Denzel Washington, with Ethan Hawke in a scene from "Training Day." And Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his performance in this film. And of course, after what we just heard, since you've said it takes a wolf to catch a wolf, you teach Ethan Hawke how to howl (laughter) like a wolf. You make him howl...

WASHINGTON: (Imitates wolf howl).

GROSS: (Laughter).


GROSS: Now, I read that you wanted to make sure that this cop, your - you know, the character you played, was killed at the end or that there were real consequences for his behavior.


GROSS: Was that not the case when you first saw the script?

WASHINGTON: No, not to the degree that was satisfying to me. Like, as I told the director, I couldn't justify him living in the worst way unless he died in the worst way - that the community turns their back on him, he's slapped around, crawling around on the ground like a snake, and basically gets filled full of lead. So we just made it a violent, awful ending for him.

GROSS: And why did you insist on that?

WASHINGTON: I just thought that's what he deserved. There was a bit of a cop-out the way the script was, and it smelled like they were looking to do a part two or something.

GROSS: Uh-huh (laughter). There is a scene in this where you're holding two guns on someone, and you kind of scrape the guns against each other as if they're two knives that you're sharpening. Now, was that a bit of business that you came up with when you were holding the guns?

WASHINGTON: Of course. I mean, you know, it's just rhythm, you know? Acting is like music, you know? And you improvise, and you - it's like jazz, you know? There's no rhyme or reason to it. It's not a plan. I just did it. You know, it's just a rhythm. It's - to me, it's just a rhythm. It's like you do - Stanislavski said, you know, you cut 90%. You do all your research, and you prepare, and then, you let it rip, you know? And that's how it is, you know? You practice the music, and then, you just play it.

GROSS: Well, let's talk about another film that's very important in your career, and that's "Malcolm X," which was directed by Spike Lee. Let's hear a scene from it. And this is a scene in which you're making a speech.


WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) I must emphasize at the out start that the honorable Elijah Muhammad is not a politician.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) That's right.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) That's right.

WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) So I'm not here this afternoon as a Republican nor as a Democrat.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Tell it, brother.

WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) Not as a Mason nor as an Elk.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Tell us what you're here for.

WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) Not as a Protestant nor a Catholic.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Tell it.

WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) Not as a Christian...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Come on, brother.

WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) ...Nor a Jew.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) All right now.

WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) Not as a Baptist nor a Methodist.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Come on, brother. Come on.

WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) In fact, not even as an American. Because if I was an American, the problem that confronts our people today wouldn't even exist.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) So now we ain't Americans, huh?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) What are you trying to say, brother?

WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) So I have to stand here today as what I was when I was born - a Black man.


WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) Before there was any such thing as a Republican or a Democrat, we were Black. Before there was any such thing as a Mason or an Elk, we were Black.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character). That's right.

WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) Before there was any such thing as a Jew or a Christian, we were Black people. In fact, before there was any such place as America, we were Black.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) Right.

WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) And after America has long passed from the scene, there will still be Black people.


WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) I'm going to tell you like it really is. Every election year, these politicians are sent up here to pacify us. They're sent here and set up here by the white men. This is what they do. They send drugs in Harlem down here to pacify us.


WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) They send alcohol down here to pacify us.


WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) They send prostitution down here to pacify us.


WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) Why, you can't even get drugs in Harlem without the white man's permission.


WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) You can't get prostitution in Harlem without the white man's permission.


WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) You can't get gambling in Harlem without the white man's permission. Every time you break the seal on that liquor bottle, that's a government seal you're breaking. Oh, I say and I say it again, you've been had.


WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) You've been took.


WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) You've been hoodwinked.


WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) Bamboozled.


WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) Led astray.


WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) Run amok.


WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) This is what he does.

GROSS: That's Denzel Washington in a scene from "Malcolm X" for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. When did Malcolm X first enter your consciousness?

WASHINGTON: I hadn't heard that in about 15 years.

GROSS: Yeah? What'd you think, looking back?

WASHINGTON: Well, it was interesting. I hadn't heard it in a long time. I hadn't heard it since I'd seen the movie, I guess. Sounded pretty good.

GROSS: Yeah.

WASHINGTON: I believed him.


GROSS: Since...

WASHINGTON: When did I what now, you said?

GROSS: So when did Malcolm X enter your consciousness?

WASHINGTON: I did a play about Malcolm X, actually, about 10, 11 years before that down at the new Federal Theatre in New York City, Henry Street Settlement - a fictional meeting between the honorable Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. So that's when I really began to dig deep and listen to all the speeches and read his books and study the man. I mean, I knew who he was, but I didn't know who he was until about 1981.

BIANCULLI: Denzel Washington speaking to Terry Gross in 2008. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2008 interview with actor, director and producer Denzel Washington. The Oscar- and Tony-winning actor has just been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


GROSS: Let's go to the very early Denzel era. And let's see if our listeners recognize you in this scene. And hint - it's the pilot for a series, a TV series, that ran a long time, and you co-starred throughout the run. And it helped make you a star. So here we go, the very early Denzel.


WASHINGTON: (As Dr. Philip Chandler) 42-year-old white, obese female - four-day history of right upper quadrant pain, no history of cholithiasis (ph) or peptic ulcer disease.

ED FLANDERS: (As Dr. Donald Westphall) Mmm-hmm. Has the pain changed with time or position?

WASHINGTON: (As Dr. Chandler) No, physical examination temperature was 39.5 degrees centigrade, blood pressure 130 over 80. No jaundice present.

FLANDERS: (As Dr. Westphall) Is the abdomen distended?

WASHINGTON: (As Dr. Chandler) No, there's a plus-two over four tenderness in the right upper quadrant. The liver is 10 centimeters in breadth, 2 centimeters below the right costal margin. There is a palpable mass just below the liver edge with a positive Murphy sign.


GROSS: (Laughter) That's your first scene.

WASHINGTON: I think I mispronounced that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WASHINGTON: I think it's cholelithia (ph). I think it's cholelithiasis. It sounds like I said cholithiasis (ph). I believe - any doctors out there, if they call in, let me know. I believe it's cholelithiasis.

GROSS: Well, that's you in your first scene in the pilot of "St. Elsewhere."

WASHINGTON: Twenty-five years ago.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

WASHINGTON: But I remember that cholelithiasis. That's interesting.

GROSS: That is. I hope you never had it, whatever the heck it is (laughter).

WASHINGTON: Yeah, I couldn't tell you what it is.

GROSS: How did you get the part on "St. Elsewhere"?

WASHINGTON: I was doing a great play - and I say that 'cause it was - called "A Soldier's Play," which went on to become "A Soldier's Story" - you know, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982.

GROSS: The movie version was "A Soldier's Story."

WASHINGTON: Yeah, the movie version was "A Soldier's Story." The play was an off-Broadway play in New York, and they came to New York reading actors. I never really wanted to do television. I wanted to do plays and movies, and I didn't want to become well-known for television. But this was an interesting script with many characters, so my agent thought, well, you know, you could get lost amongst the other characters. And so they - to make a long story long, they chose two actors, I believe, from New York, myself and David Morse.

GROSS: What was the audition like?

WASHINGTON: Shoot, that was 25 years ago. I don't remember. I guess it was good. I got the part.

GROSS: You don't remember...

WASHINGTON: I guess it was good.

GROSS: ...What you had to do?

WASHINGTON: Oh, no. No, I - actually, I don't. I imagine I - maybe I read that scene. Maybe that's what I had to do, you know? And did you say that was from the pilot?

GROSS: It's from the pilot.

WASHINGTON: That was from - so maybe that's - that's probably what I had to read. That's a perfect example of where your speech training and training in the classics, you know, Shakespearian training, comes in - to be able to say those lines.

GROSS: And to rattle off all those...

WASHINGTON: To rattle off all the - yeah, all of that...

GROSS: ...Medical conditions most people don't know. Yeah.

WASHINGTON: ...Techno speak - yeah, exactly. I don't know. Cholelithiasis - I do remember that, though.

GROSS: So straighten me out on something. When I say your name, should it be Denzel, equal beats on both syllables, or Denzel, more emphasis on the second syllable?

WASHINGTON: The doctor who delivered my father was named Doctor Denzel. And he had 11 or 12 brothers and sisters, so maybe they were running out of names. And they just named him after the doctor. So his name was pronounced Denzel Hayes Washington Sr. I'm Denzel Hayes Washington Jr. My mother would say Denzel, and both of us would show up.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WASHINGTON: She said, all right, from now on - she says this is not true, but this is the way I remember it. But she said, from now on, you're Denzel. So I was named - I was called Denzel, so we would know who she was screaming at.

GROSS: Now, when you were growing up, your mother owned a hair salon?


GROSS: And your father was a Pentecostal minister who also worked for the water department.

WASHINGTON: And S. Klein's On The Square.


WASHINGTON: He was the night watchman for Klein's up in the office...

GROSS: Klein's department store? Oh, oh, I see this is a different...

WASHINGTON: ...On Central Avenue in - yeah, well, the original one was on the square - 14th Street, I believe.

GROSS: On Union Square.


GROSS: Yeah.

WASHINGTON: And - because it used to be called S. Klein's On The Square.


WASHINGTON: And so they had one up in Yonkers on Central Avenue, and he was the night man there. And he was a minister.

GROSS: Did you go to his church?

WASHINGTON: No, of course not. Yeah, you kidding me? - all the time, more than I wanted to, trust me. I used to try to sneak out - had to go to church.

GROSS: How often - once a week or more?

WASHINGTON: Once a - shoot, all day Sunday, and then we - not that - because he worked so much. You know, we didn't have so many services during the week. But I was there all day on Sunday in Mamaroneck.

GROSS: One last question - is there a particular movie that meant a lot to you when you were growing up, that you watched many times?


GROSS: What would that be?

WASHINGTON: "Wizard Of Oz."

GROSS: Really?

WASHINGTON: I loved that movie. That was the big - that was the event of the year, to watch - are you kidding me? The wizard - I was like, turn "Bonanza" off. "The Wizard Of Oz" is coming on.


WASHINGTON: You know, "Bonanza" was huge. I mean, you know, when I was a kid, "Bonanza" was huge.


WASHINGTON: That was it.

GROSS: Yeah.

WASHINGTON: That's what we got to watch Sunday night, "Bonanza," "Ed Sullivan Show" - that then "Bonanza." When I sign an autograph now, I always write, God bless, and I put my name. And I got that from Red Skelton because at the end of "The Red Skelton Show," he would say, good night and God bless. And I was like, I always liked that. So I said - you know, I didn't say, when I get famous, 'cause I wasn't even thinking about it then. But when I did sign my first autograph, for whatever reason, I thought about that. And so thank you, Red Skelton.


WASHINGTON: And thank you, "Bonanza." And thank you, Auntie Em (laughter) and everybody else.

GROSS: Did you love the songs? Did you love the songs from "The Wizard Of Oz"?

WASHINGTON: Are you kidding me? (Singing) Follow the yellow brick road.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WASHINGTON: (Vocalizing, singing) Wherever a wiz (ph) there was. Follow the yellow brick road.

You know, I mean, that was - you got to remember, they only showed that, like, once a year. What was it? What was the guy's name? Danny Kaye.

GROSS: Oh, Danny Kaye.

WASHINGTON: Danny Kaye would introduce it. Right. Danny Kaye would introduce - I mean, we couldn't wait. That was huge - huge. And then, of course, "King Kong."


WASHINGTON: Yeah, 'cause "Million Dollar Movie" - they would show the same movie...

GROSS: "Million Dollar Movie," yes.

WASHINGTON: ...Like, 90 times the same week.

GROSS: "King Kong," "Godzilla," "Godzilla."

WASHINGTON: "King Kong," "Godzilla."

GROSS: "Hunchback Of Notre Dame."

WASHINGTON: I didn't watch that one. You're asking me. This is what I remember.

GROSS: Great. It's been so much fun to talk with you. Thank you very much.

WASHINGTON: Bye. All right. (Singing) Because, because, because, because...

BIANCULLI: Denzel Washington speaking to Terry Gross in 2008. The actor, director and producer has just been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. After a break, we'll hear from another new recipient of that same award, Olympic soccer champion and LGBTQ activist Megan Rapinoe. And Justin Chang reviews the new French film "Both Sides Of The Blade," starring Juliette Binoche. I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.


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