Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2017: Maltin Modern Master Denzel Washington Reflects on His Career

Few names inspire as much respect as Denzel Washington’s. Audiences know him from, well, countless stellar performances in virtually all genres.

He’s an action star to some and a dramatic genius to others, a performer with two Academy Awards to his name already—and who is possibly on his way to a third one.

Following an upset Best Actor win for Fences at this year’s Screen Actors Guild Awards—surprisingly, the first for him—Washington appeared at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival last week, traditionally the last stop in the Oscar campaign trail. At the festival, the actor-director received the Maltin Modern Master Award and engage in a candid discussion about the pivotal moments in his professional life that led him to be a national treasure.

Renowned film critic Leonard Maltin, after whom the award is named, guided a delighted packed house through Washington’s extensive resume through series of clips that left no question about his legacy. From Glory to Philadelphia to Training Day to Malcolm X and The Great Debaters, the poignant speeches, the physical transformations, the memorable villains and the triumphant heroes the star has put to screen piled on.

Take a look at some highlights from the conversation between Washington and Maltin below.

On His First Encounter with Sidney Poitier

“I started acting in 1975, and James Earl Jones was big in the theater world, and I started in the theater. Sidney was just coming off of the height of his career, and because we were the theatre, “t-r-e,” we didn’t care about L.A. We were doing plays for $500 a week. So yes, he was a model. I’ll tell you a Sidney story. I was in the Beverly Wilshire hotel, and I saw Sidney. This was before he knew who I was, so of course, like any young actor, I went to my car and got my resume, and I gave it to him, and it didn’t turn out too well. I seized the moment!”

On His Breakout Role in Norman Jewison‘s 1984 Film A Soldier’s Story

“In the case of A Soldier’s Story, in my mind, I had the luxury of having been on St. Elsewhere. I had been practicing in front of the camera, and I thought I probably had an advantage over the other actors, because I was in front of the camera almost every day. In terms of the acting style, I wouldn’t say it was that much of a difference [between film and theater]; you just don’t have to reach the back rows. Over the years, it’s been more of an adjustment readjusting for the theater. I have to get the diaphragm working.”

Denzel Washington in Fences, which he also directed based on August Wilson’s play. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

On Careers He Explored Before Becoming and Actor

“You don’t have to know at 15 what you’re going to do for the rest of you’re life, so there’s nothing wrong with not knowing. If you do know, that’s fine! I didn’t know, so I started pre-med, and I knew it wasn’t for me. That segued to political science; I was going to be a lawyer. That didn’t work out. Then I segued into journalism, and would cover city council meetings at Pace College, and the girls were cute. I took an acting class, and after taking that class, that summer I worked at a YMCA camp, and the counselors put on a show for the kids, and someone said to me, ‘You know, you were really natural on stage. Have you ever thought about acting?’ So I was at Fordham University in the Bronx, and I transferred to the Lincoln Center campus.”

On the Positive Interaction That Allowed Him to Dream Big

“The mayor of our town came to the club one day and spoke, and asked if anyone had any questions. I had one, so it turned into a debate. I was 10. When I was leaving the club, Charles, one of the directors, said to me, ‘You’re so smart, you could do anything you want.’ I remember feeling like, ‘Wow, I could be a fireman? I could be president? I could do anything I want!’ So when we as adults feed our youth with positivity, it goes a long way. I never forgot that.”

On Loving Unlikeable Characters and Constructing Fences

“One of those acting teachers told me that you have to love the character you’re playing… When constructing Fences, I changed locations of certain scenes, and I was worried about that, because it tilted it, and made you like him less. One of the things that I did was I put the other woman [character] in the scene in the bar, and I didn’t like that, so I took that out, but the reason I took it out was because some people said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that was Alberta; I thought that was another woman,’ and I said, ‘No, Troy’s not a liar. This isn’t the story of a liar.’ So I took it out. One of the things that I was concerned about, in the balance of the story, was when, in the movie, Rose [Viola Davis] comes to his job and confronts him, and in the play, it happens at the house. I knew I was tilting the scales, and making Troy less likeable, because I shot her thinking about it, and then we cut to her there, and he still has to say what he says—that he’s going to see the other woman—and I agonized over that, and I called on August Wilson for guidance. I went with it, because Troy’s brutally honest, so I just went with it. The other aspect of not seeing Alberta, which is the genius of August Wilson, is that you don’t see Alberta until you see the little girl. You don’t have any clue of what her mother looks like until you see her. I heard a few women react to this—and their reaction was ‘Hmmm.'”

On How the Stage Prepared Him to play Malcolm X

“Theater is wonderful. I played Malcolm X in a one-act play at the Federal Theatre called When The Chickens Come Home To Roost. It was 175 scenes, and somehow it turned into 1,000 people a night trying to get in. It was a phenomenon. That was a really a moment, going back to an earlier question, where I thought, ‘What is going on? Something is changing.’ I remember sitting on a bench in the park across the street from the Federal Theatre, and I see all the people lining up, and I’m making $125 dollars a week, and I’m realizing that my life is changing, because all of these people are coming to see me. So, I knew that it was something there, I’m not saying I’m a messenger, but I’m trying to do the best I can, and I’m OK with that. If I hadn’t done the play, and hadn’t gotten that response, I might have felt intimidated. I knew I could play the part. I had the glasses! Ignorance is bliss, and I was like, ‘When does the movie start?’ And because of Spike Lee, I had the freedom to fail and try everything. I would put speeches together, and he would keep rolling the camera, I would just keep talking about everything. I would learn all of his speeches, and just go, and Spike would just keep rolling.”

Washington as Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s 1992 film. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

On His Relationship with Spike Lee

“My son [John David Washington] now works with Spike Lee. My son graduated from AFI—shameless plug—and he works for Spike. I asked him, ‘What do you do for Spike?’ He said, ‘Everything.’

Spike and I have done five movies together, and we have a shorthand. We were learning each other on Mo’ Better Blues, and got to know each other better on Malcolm X. Spike: They named him right. He’s tough, he’s unusual, but he’s put more African-Americans to work in this business, especially at that time, and he’s still doing that, and I’ll always support him. He could see further than I could, because he’s a filmmaker. He understood what he was doing and why. He was lifting up, and I was just one of the actors, and over the years I’ve grown to appreciate him more and more.”

On How His Children’s Achievements Overshadow His Awards

“[My Oscars are] next to each other, and now they have a little SAG friend. They’ve got three buddies from the Golden Globes. But they all miss their uncle Tony in New York. I will admit, I did go into my library today and talk to them. I did! But I’ll tell you what, in the cabinet next to them, it says ‘Malcolm Washington, University of Pennsylvania;’ ‘Katia Washington, Yale;’ ‘John David Washington, Morehouse College;’ ‘Olivia Washington, NYU.’ There’s life and there’s making a living. I used to think acting was my life, but when that first one [of his children] came out, that’s life. They’re all in the business. My wife is a real movie buff. She watches all the movies, so they grew up watching movies. Two of them are in front of the camera, and two of them are behind the camera. John David, my oldest boy, he said, ‘Dad, you’re a good guy, but your shadow is so big!’ I said, ‘You ever heard of Kirk Douglas?’ He said, ‘No.’ ‘But you’ve heard of Michael Douglas, right?’ He said, ‘Yeah, of course.’ ‘Well, go Google Kirk Douglas and then we’ll talk about big shadows.’ True story!”

Kevin Spacey with Washington at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, January 29, 2017. Photograph by Kevin Winters, courtesy of Getty Images

On Becoming a Director and Following Warren Beatty’s Advice

“Todd Black, who I’ve partnered with for over 15 years, brought me Antwone Fisher. I don’t know why he brought it to me, and I tried for as long as I could to try to get out of it, but I ended up backing into it. In fact, Warren Beatty—I said to him, ‘I want to direct it, not be in it,’ and he said, ‘No, be in it.’ I said ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘That’s a way in that they’re used to.’ So that made some sense. I’ve directed three films now, and I don’t necessarily want to be in them, but it’s called show business, and sometimes to get the money to do the movie, you have to.” MM

Denzel Washington received the Maltin Modern Master Award on February 2, 2017 at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

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