Interview: Denzel Washington

Jonathan Dean 13 April 2022

He’s the best actor of his generation and starring in Macbeth—so why is he calling up directors and asking for work?

“Now, don’t get me excited here!’ Denzel Washington says with a laugh, as our conversation veers onto God and Macbeth. He’s a big fan of both. “So, I don’t know if Macbeth followed God at the start…” He pauses. “Shoot. Hang on.” He disappears to root around his home. “You’ve got me breaking out my script!” he says, beaming. “I don’t think I’ve ever done this before.”

What follows is remarkable—and something I’ve not experienced in almost two decades of interviewing. For nearly ten minutes I’m treated to a personal performance from a man acclaimed as the greatest actor of his generation, and a master class in how he played one of Shakespeare’s greatest roles.

Washington leafs through his script, muttering lines. “Weird sisters… Where was it? Scorched earth… ‘Oh full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!’” More leafing. It feels as though I’m taking part in an immersive theatre show. “Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown…” He reads out all that bit (he really is very good at acting). “And then Macbeth says, ‘Mine eternal jewel’—which is his soul.” Off he goes again.

“Anyway,” he says finally, “I found something in that line. He was willing to give his soul to the Devil. The Devil fooled him. The witches got him.” Suddenly it feels rather intense. “When the dark side came into his life, they knew he was ready. That they could get him. Turn him. He was vulnerable.”

Washington is a blast, filling the miles between us—he is in Los Angeles—with his deep, booming voice, like soft thunder, for Act I of our interview, the performance. For Act II he is solemn and philosophical, talking about God, family, time. His mother died last year and it changed him. It made him want to be even better.

"His mother died last year and it changed him. It made him want to be even better"

Yet two years ago The New York Times called him the greatest actor of the 21st century. He lorded over Daniel Day-Lewis, with Tom Hanks gushing: “He is our Brando. Nicholson. Olivier!” He has a point. From the brawny action films made with Tony Scott to the cerebral fare Malcolm X and the race drama Fences, Washington makes acting look easy.

Now for a challenging part—the lead in The Tragedy of Macbeth. It’s directed by Joel Coen, with Coen’s wife, Frances McDormand, as Lady Macbeth, and was shot on a soundstage in Burbank, California. It is heavyweight Shakespeare, counting nine Oscars between director and stars. Washington plays Macbeth as tired and, with text stripped back, it is him and his lady in a great wild monochrome wrangling of the soul. 

Denzel with wife, Paulette and mother, Lennis Washington, at the Oscars in 1990

“It’s the stuff of movies,” Washington says, grinning. He would get to the set at 5am to run lines. Then he would work with the troupe and panic: “Oh, he’s good—I’ve got to catch up!” His insecurity came from theatre, when he would do speeches thousands of times. No such luxury here, but Washington has previous experience with Shakespeare: Othello, Richard III, Julius Caesar, Much Ado About Nothing, Coriolanus.

“Well, in Coriolanus I did eight lines.” He recites them, of course. “Whatever they were.” It was in 1979. “Shakespeare’s how I cut my teeth. My second play in college was Othello and I’m coming into the years where King Lear is on the horizon. I’d love a crack at that. Shakespeare lets you into so many places, man. I heard some people talk about our Macbeth in regards to our last president and I thought, OK, if that’s what you think!”

I phone Coen. What freshness can he bring to this much-trodden turf? “Age,” he says. Washington is 67, McDormand 64. Lady Macbeth’s fertility is no longer a concern, rather a historical issue. “Fran brought this to me and we are of a certain age, so it had to be about that,” he says. “And that brought interesting ways of looking at it. Most notably this idea it’s a couple plotting a murder and, in my opinion, they have a good marriage—built on time. Old ages cast new light on that.”

"He would get to the set at 5am to run lines"

And how important is the casting of a Black man as Macbeth? “Not important.” Which suits Washington, a Black actor who, with a few obvious exceptions in his career, has lived by his old quote: “I’m very proud to be Black, but Black is not all I am.”

He was born in New York in 1954, middle child to an ordained minister father, also Denzel, and a beauty parlour-owning mother called Lennis. They split when he was 14, but his own marriage has been long. He wed Pauletta in 1983. They have four children, including John David Washington, the actor who took the lead in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. In 1995 the couple renewed their vows in South Africa—the late Desmond Tutu presided.

The older he gets, the more religious Washington becomes. “Don’t play with God,” the actor said recently, and all this faith chat led to that exhilarating moment when he went to get his script to find the part where Macbeth gives up on his soul. Heaven, Hell and spiritual reckonings swirl in the play and, in life, the actor is concerned about a world full of temptations that lead people down a bad path. It is a fear that informs his roles.

Alongside Frances McDormand in Macbeth

“I heard a saying,” he states soberly. “The ‘enemy’ is the ‘inner me’.” That works for Macbeth. And for his alcoholic pilot Whip in the underrated Flight. Not to mention his corrupt cop in Training Day, a man so far gone that Washington plays him like a walking scream.

Still, even when he plays rotten apples, he needs to understand them. “I’ve got to,” he says. “Why did he do this? What did he think he deserved? How far is he willing to go?” Is this salvation? The idea anybody can be saved if you find out where they went wrong? “Well, I like to shine a light on things, yes. With Flight it was alcoholism. With Roman J Israel, idealism. But I’m not looking to lead the people with every role.

There wasn’t much to lift up anybody in Training Day. I wrote on my script, ‘The wages of sin is death.’” (Romans 6:23) “The only way I could justify him living in the worst way was him dying in the worst way.”

He delivers every spoken line like the end of a soliloquy. Comparing Flight and Macbeth, he rolls out: “Whip was just a drunk flying planes. Who had to admit to his issue. But Macbeth ain’t admitting to nothing. The solution for him is to kill the next guy. Kill their babies. In Flight it was spirits. In Macbeth it’s blood. His drink is blood.” He gets the script. “I mean, he’s all in!”

What a wild hour this was. It all means so much to him. Every role, he says, needs a purpose, and he admits that it is an overused word, but it suits him—he wants to know what his purpose is as a human being.

“And that’s become clearer for me recently,” he says. “It came to a head this year.” He pauses. “I buried my mother,” he says, as quiet as he gets. Lennis died in June. “And then I started to understand that you’re only here for a time and then you’re out. I’ve only got so much time left.” His voice rises, back to his boom. “But I’m excited about the future and want to contribute. Not about lifting people up—I’m not heading down that road. I’m just an actor. I’m an ordinary guy, with an extraordinary job. But I like my job.”

"You’re only here for a time and then you’re out. I’ve only got so much time left"

Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand and Joel Coen

And he wants to get better at it. Even better. Paul Thomas Anderson said last year that Washington was the actor he most wanted to work with. “Tell him to call me!” Washington bellows. He takes a beat. “Actually, I spent the day with Paul,” he admits. “I went to his house. You know, I thought about the top film-makers, because I’m not going to do many more films. I know that. So I want to work with the best.”

First there was Coen, with McDormand, best actress at last year’s Oscars. He has also called Alfonso Cuarón and Steve McQueen. “I called Steve! I need them to push me. Steve seems lovely. We kicked around ideas. I want to work with the greats. I need that.”

So this new appreciation of the shortness of life has led to him calling up the best in town and offering his services? “Yes. It’s like Macbeth, man. I’m at that yellow-leaf stage.” He laughs. “He’s in the autumn of life and that’s where I’m at. If I’m lucky, that’s where I’m at. So I’ve got to get on with it.”

The Tragedy of Macbeth is available to stream via Apple TV+

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