It’s hard to come up with a comparison for Denzel Washington—he’s peerless. No other modern actor has both dominated genre fare and turned in Oscar-worthy performances, often back to back, every year, for a span of decades. No one else is as beloved by such a broad cross-section of people. Even actors a fraction as respected as he is start coasting at this point in their career—not Denzel.
At 63, Washington may be the best he’s ever been. This decade, he’s turned in some of his most enjoyable popcorn pieces—Unstoppable in 2010, Equalizer in 2014—as well as some of his most stirring dramatic turns in 2012’s Flight and 2016’s Fences.
In 2018, he’s coming off two back-to-back Best Actor nominations to produce both Equalizer’s sequel as well as going back to Broadway to star in Eugene O’Neil’s the Iceman Cometh, where he played a murderer who tries to convince others to give up on life.
“I like the variety,” Washington tells me. “To do a Western, then turn around and go to Broadway, or to do Fences, or to do Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, and now to come back to this, I love that variety. I’m on the move—you’re not going to nail me down to any one thing. Not enough time for that.”
What drives Denzel? Equalizer 2 director Antoine Fuqua with whom Denzel has made four films, puts it simply: Getting better is his obsession.
“That’s why I go back to Broadway and try to do hard things. I chose one now with Hickey in Iceman Cometh,” Washington says with a smirk, “just to challenge myself, to keep growing as an actor.”
“It’s hard for me to say that he gets better, he just surprises me with the energy and the passion each time. He’s always moving and feeling the scenes, you know what I mean? Just like in Training Day. It’s always him,” says Fuqua.
“Just because I know him, and watch him, he’s so much in the moment. He never comes out of the moment. Anything can happen. A writer can write a direction on the page, but you don’t know that’s what’s going to happen. How do you know until you’re in the room? We don’t have to play the character, he does. There’s a power in that, because you know he has the ability to make it work,” says Fuqua.
It’s no wonder that Denzel has chosen to work with some directors so many times—it takes the right kind of director to know how to fully harness his skill.
You have to be prepared for something he made new that you didn’t prepared for. But you have to be on your feet to know that you’re going to get that, and want that, and recognize it. He doesn’t force anything. He’ll do it, it’s up to you to get it and know how to use it,” says Fuqua.
With Equalizer 2, Denzel returns to a role for the first time in his career. In Robert McCall, Denzel seems to have, much like Tom Cruise with Mission Impossible, settled into his own franchise, his own superhero, and the space where he can defy age in elaborate action set pieces and, of course, punch dudes in the face.
“Which of your stunts do you insist on doing yourself?”
“All of them. Well, I don’t crash the cars. They won’t let me,” says Washington.
Because of that, Denzel won’t take on roles in that vain. He’s The Equalizer now—accept no substitutes.
“Are there certain roles that you’re not interested in anymore?” I ask.
“Yes, I’m getting Equalizer-type offers now, but I already have Equalizer,” he says.
Even then, he seems to be momentarily done with the action fare.
“I’m not looking to do Equalizer right now… I’m not interested in that right now. I’m interested in other things,” he says.
What will he do next?
“I’m talking with [Flight director] Bob Zemeckis about a different kind of film. Couple other people. I like the challenge, I like the new territory.”
Searching for new territory is less about achievements than exercises.
“What do you feel you haven’t accomplished yet?”
“I don’t look at it that way,” Denzel shoots back.
“I know you regretted turning down David Fincher’s Seven twenty years ago,” I say.
“I didn’t regret it that much but people ask me about it so I tell the story,” Denzel admits. “It was someone else’s movie, it wasn’t for me, and that’s fine. I’m all right. I’m eating.”
“So there’s no other regrets you might have?” I ask.
“In life?” He asks back.
“In you career.”
“I made a couple movies I regret,” he says, smiling and looking away.
“Which ones?” I ask.
Denzel doesn’t hear me, or chooses not to.
“But no, not regret. You learn from every experience hopefully. Regrets, what good does that do you?”