Actor-turned-director says sharing ideas with young actors and collaborating makes directing more fun than acting.
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Denzel back to the program. You know you’re all that when you just say “Denzel” and you know who we’re talking about. The two-time Oscar-winning actor is one of the – not one of, no; I don’t know who wrote that – he is the finest actor of our generation with an outstanding body of work that includes films like “The Hurricane,” of course. “Philadelphia,” “Antwone Fisher,” and most recently “American Gangster.”
He is both star and director in his latest project, “The Great Debaters,” which is inspired by the story of an all-Black debate team in Texas in the days of the Jim Crow South. The film is in theaters now around the country. Here now, a scene from “The Great Debaters.”
Tavis: I didn’t know what clip, D, they were going to play, but as I see that clip it reminds me that Harrison County, as you know, where Wiley, the county we’ll talk about in a moment exists – I didn’t know this till I started reading about our conversation – Harrison County, where Wiley sits, was the county in Texas that had the most slaves –
Denzel Washington: Is that right?
Tavis: – of any county in the whole state.
Washington: Is that right? I did not know that.
Tavis: So I’m just cracking up that we play a scene where you’re referencing slaves, and here’s a school in the middle of all of that that produces this championship debate team.
Washington: Right, right, right.
Tavis: Yeah. It’s amazing. Good to see you, first of all.
Washington: It’s good to be seen by you.
Tavis: So “Antwone Fisher” wasn’t enough for you, huh? You had to go back for a second time? You had to go back a second time.
Washington: Yeah. I enjoy directing at this point in my life more than acting, definitely. So I was looking forward to the opportunity to get in front of – or behind the camera, and in front this time, again. Didn’t want to, but had to.
Tavis: What makes directing more fun for you?
Washington: Collaboration with all the departments. As an actor, you’re a color of paint on someone else’s palette. But as a director, it’s your canvas and you make the painting you want to make.
Tavis: That’s funny to hear you say that you have more fun directing now than acting, because I don’t believe everything I read, but every time I read a conversation with you about directing this project or “Antwone Fisher,” I always get the sense that I am sitting next to you but you are nervous as all get-out, you’re pulling your hair out. When I read this stuff, I always get the sense that this is really – you take it personal. It’s like making a baby.
Washington: Yeah, it is personal. I am the first one there and the last one to leave, and it is personal, it is personal. As an actor you can always say, “Well, that was the director.” (Laughter) You can’t do that now. You can’t do that now. But I enjoy it. Again, at this point in my life, it’s brand new. It’s exciting and I plan to continue.
Tavis: What’s the risk you take, if there is a risk, in being a director at this point in the game? And I ask that –
Washington: Other than not getting paid? (Laughter)
Tavis: That’s a big enough risk.
Washington: Yeah, that’s a big enough risk.
Tavis: That’s a big enough risk there. No, I ask that against the backdrop of the fact that to my earlier comment, and I’m not the only one that feels this way, you are the finest actor of our generation, as far as I am concerned.
Washington: Well, thank you.
Tavis: Along with that means you don’t have to take a risk. Why put something out there that people may not critically acclaim, but you know your acting is all that and then some?
Washington: I think that’s why I do it, because it is risky and exciting and/or terrifying, and I just was ready. With “Antwone Fisher” I felt like what am I getting myself into? A day or two before shooting I had to go to the chiropractor. I was locked up. I was, like, I must be out of my mind. Twenty minutes after saying “action” it was like I’d been doing it all my life.
So I just love it. I love it, and I love watching other people, seeing other people do well. We have four brilliant young actors in the film, Jurnee Smollett, who’s been around for a little while.
Tavis: “Eve’s Bayou,” yeah.
Washington: “Eve’s Bayou” and Nate Parker and little Denzel Whitaker and Jermaine Williams. And in the case of “Antwone Fisher,” I’m proud to see Derek Luke’s career –
Tavis: Yeah, take off.
Washington: Yeah, so I enjoy that. I enjoy that actually more than the acting.
Tavis: For a guy who’s as good as you are at what you do, but knowing you as I do you were so not into the adulation, how does one direct oneself?
Washington: Quickly. (Laughter) Quickly. Four takes.
Tavis: Next. Moving on.
Washington: Moving on, moving on, moving on.
Washington: Again, the reason I’m in this film is because in order to get the money to make it I had to be in it. Basically they said, “Well, we’ll give you $2 to make it if you’re not in it and $4 to make it if you are.”
Washington: And I couldn’t make it for $2, and they knew that. So I sort of got – and I’m not bad casting. I could see – I got ready to fire myself a couple of times, but I talked myself out of it.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter) I don’t think you’re ever bad casting. But how does it feel, though, to want to really stand back and to direct a project when the Weinsteins or somebody says, “Denzel, we really, really want you to be in this” and you’re like, “But I don’t want to be in it, I just want to direct this thing.”
Washington: Well, again, I understand. Fundamentally, the most important thing is to get the film made for me and to get as many people to see it as possible. And if I help that, then – I know I help that, let’s put it that way. I do know that I help that. It is called show business. We spent a little bit north of $25 million. And if I loaned somebody $25 million, I want my money back or I want some guarantee that I might get it back. So I understand where they’re coming from.
Tavis: One of the things I regard about you and the capacity that you have in invoking, using that capacity to bring stories to life that otherwise wouldn’t be told, here’s a great story that would never have been told if somebody like you didn’t have the capacity to actually bring it to life. So let’s talk about the story and how it came to you, how you heard about this.
Washington: About four years ago it came across my desk. At that time, Oprah Winfrey’s company had it for about six years with The Weinstein Company. It was written by Bob Eisele and Suzan Lori-Parks, who wrote “Top Dog,” “Underdog,” and other plays.
Tavis: Pulitzer Prize winner.
Washington: Yeah, was working on it. We went through a process over four years getting it to the screen. I was just massaging the material. In fact, that Willie Lynch letter scene wasn’t even in the script. I sort of wrote that in. And just a process, just getting it together and visiting Wiley College. Actually, we tracked down and met Mel Tolson’s son, who’s about 80, whatever he is now.
Henrietta Wells, who was actually the first woman on the debate team who debated on the 1931 team, is still alive. I put all of them on film. They will all be on the DVD. And we met about a half-dozen other folks, anywhere between 89 and 96 years old, and just documented them. And they all had multiple Ph.D.’s and just brilliant people.
Tavis: How would you describe the story? The story you wanted to tell, at least?
Washington: Just the little train that could. This little school that I never heard of – maybe you had, but I’d never heard of Wiley College – 360 students – in 1935 had the best debating team in the country. Whipped everybody. We used Harvard because Harvard’s the academic standard. In fact, USC were the national champions and they whipped up on USC. Every team that they – every White college, big university they debated always could decide whether it would be a decision debate or a non-decision debate. They all chose it to be non-decision because nobody wanted to say they lost to Wiley College.
Tavis: Tell me about Tolson, the debate coach who you play, of course, in the film.
Washington: Right, who later on or even during that time, but later on became well-known for his poetry, was just a radical, kind of an interesting man, a brilliant teacher that they all loved, and a bit eccentric. They talked about him coming to school in his pajamas and different-color shoes and socks. And as I say, again, in that Willie Lynch scene, that they were there for these children.
They understood, as all of the professor did at that time, from 1853, Emancipation Proclamation, when most of these historically Black colleges began to open – Morehouse, Tuskegee, Fisk, whatever – they understood that this was the one way, especially in the Depression, this was the way that these young people were going to be able to move forward and move upwards.
And these professors made that sacrifice. A lot of them were ivy-league trained in other places but couldn’t teach at those schools. Tolson went to Columbia. Dr. Farmer went to Boston U. people like Dubois and others went to Harvard. They couldn’t teach at those schools, so they returned South and taught at what we now call historically Black colleges.
Tavis: Denzel mentions Farmer. One of the debaters in the movie, one of the persons on the debate team, a guy named James Farmer, this school, Wiley, went on to train not just national champions but some persons who went on to do some wonderful things. James Farmer, of course, as you know, founded CORE, one of the organizations founded in the annals of Black history, founded by a guy named James Farmer who was on the debate team at Wiley.
I was just reading an article before our conversation about some of the trouble that Wiley is in. Many HBCUs, as you know, are struggling. I get the sense that they are sitting on the precipice of something they hope is going to be good for them, based upon how well the movie does.
Washington: If you call them now they say, “This is Wiley College, home of ‘The Great Debaters.’”
Washington: As a result of – you’re probably talking about the “Times” article, and others.
Tavis: (Unintelligible), sure.
Washington: They’re starting to get calls from people that are making donations. So I’m happy about that. They don’t –
Tavis: I saw that Wal-Mart, one of our sponsors, just gave them a big check.
Washington: Right. Right, right, right. They don’t know it yet, but I can say it now because it’ll be out – this won’t come out until after they find out. I’m going down there tomorrow and going to help them to get their debate team started again. So make a contribution as well.
Tavis: What do you make of the fact that it is, in fact, a school that had a national championship debate program back in the ’30s and for all sorts of reasons the debate team fell off, doesn’t exist anymore?
Washington: Well I think as – and you know this, you were a debater. As a spectator sport, if you will, it started to wane. I think with the advent of television, post-World War II, it just wasn’t as popular an event as it used to be. Why that particular school, why it didn’t happen, I think it had something to do with Tolson leaving, as well. He moved on to other things in the ’40s.
Tavis: Part of the storyline here is that although, to use your phrase, they whipped up on USC in real life, Harvard in the movie because they are the gold standard, they could not be officially crowned –
Washington: That’s right.
Tavis: – national debate champions, and they couldn’t be crowned that because they wouldn’t let Negroes in the debate society.
Washington: In the debate society, exactly.
Tavis: Until after World War II.
Tavis: That’s sick.
Washington: Well, it’s not new, though. It’s not new.
Tavis: Your son, we all know from reading about him, went to Morehouse. Contrast, comparison? Anything you learned just hanging around and researching about the difference between your son having a chance to go to a school that he is – Morehouse just raised, like, $120 million. Wiley would love to do something like that.
Washington: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And one of the reasons Wiley opened was because the Fisks and Howards were the schools in those days and there wasn’t one west of the Mississippi. So that’s why Wiley got started. I shouldn’t say they don’t have the legacy; they do. But they have a different history than a Morehouse, and have struggled. And one college right there at Morehouse, Morris Brown, has struggled over the years. So it’s not a simple solution.
Tavis: I lauded you earlier for using the capacity that you have to bring stories like this to life. The flip side of that is whether or not you feel a particular pressure – or maybe pressure is the wrong word. But do you feel something on you, given your statue in Hollywood when you get a chance, not with every project, but with certain projects to do something that is a bit socially redemptive where the storyline is concerned?
Washington: No, no, I don’t feel pressure, because I do what I want to do. I don’t feel pressure at all. I’ve never done any movies because I thought this was what somebody wanted me to do. I’m a bit more, for lack of a better word, selfish than that. But like I say in the movie, you do what you have to do so that you can do what you want to do.
So this was a film that I really wanted to do, and that actually came out of my household. I don’t know where I got it from, but that’s something my kids have been raised on. Do you what you got to do.
Tavis: I’m sure Paulette has said it.
Washington: Yeah, I probably got it – I’m waiting to hear from somebody. (Laughter) I know I got it from somebody. My mama gonna call, “Boy, I can’t believe you was talking about you just made that – ” yeah.
Tavis: I’ve been telling you that for 50 years, exactly. (Laughter)
Washington: Slap you upside your head.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let me switch from “The Great Debaters,” if I can, for a couple minutes to “Gangster.” Great movie, all kind of buzz again about you maybe getting another nomination for that. The one thing I’ve wanted to ask you about that has been talked about so much, and I didn’t get a chance to talk to you when the movie came out, you have been very forthright and very frank, D, about talking about sharing with the media and with the public the conversation you had with Frank Lucas.
Tavis: When he says to you he wants to you play him in the movie. But I’ll let you say it to us, what you said to him. You’ve said it many times before. You said it – I’m not trying to glorify you.
Washington: Oh yeah, right, no.
Tavis: You were very frank and direct with him about what you were not trying to do given the kind of life that he had lived, and yet you decided to do it anyway. Why?
Washington: Well, one of the most fascinating parts of his life story, which I injected toward the end of the movie and it didn’t seem like the writer and/or filmmaker wasn’t as interested in, was the turn that happened in Frank’s life when he was six years old and witnessed his cousin being murdered because of reckless eyeballing.
They said this 12-year-old, whatever he was, 12, 13-year-old cousin was looking at a White woman. Klan types or whatever, authority figures came to his house, smashed a shotgun in his cousin’s face, and blew his head off in front of him. And he ran in the woods and hid, and his family was looking for him. And he said it destroyed his family because his father or his uncle, one of them went after one of the guys and he had to leave the state.
And he said from that time, he began to steal for food first, for the family, and it escalated and escalated. So it was just an example to me of how, if I was directing the movie, that would have been more of what it was about. How you make that turn. And in fact, when you look at “The Great Debaters,” it’s not the same thing but you have a character like Henry Lowe, who was actually based on a real man, Henry Heights, who took a long time to get through school, who was heading in the wrong direction, but who had someone like Tolson to help turn him in the right direction.
In fact, they say Henry Heights was Tolson’s best debater; he was his favorite. So that was as much the story, to me. And also just the fact that he paid the price. He paid the price not only with the time that he spent in jail, he’s still paying the price, even with his own body.
He’s had tremendous problems with his body, talking about Frank Lucas, and is unable to walk and things. So the consequences of his actions were just as important to me. All the more reason why I’m more interested in getting behind the camera, so that I can tell the story the way I want to tell it.
Tavis: Which raises the question for me, given your comparison and contrast between “The Great Debaters” and “American Gangster,” just around storyline, what for you as a actor or a director makes for an interesting storyline that you want to do, and is there a difference between the two, in front and behind the camera?
Washington: It’s not any one thing. I can’t say this is the set rules that I have. Right now I’m not looking to play a dope dealer or a debate coach.
Tavis: Right. (Laughter)
Washington: Or a dope-dealing debate coach. (Laughter)
Washington: Not right now. (Laughter) I’ve done that. So interestingly enough, my son – I’m going to blame him. With “Training Day” and with “American Gangster,” my oldest boy was like, “Oh, you got to do this, Dad. Yeah, this is another side. People are tired of seeing you like this; you’ve got to do this.”
Tavis: The flip side of the advice from your oldest son is this debate that you may or may not know because I know you’re so above all this. But you may or may not know that in the Black community, there’s this debate that continues to rage. We all regard you, we all think you’re the best actor of our generation, and yet there is this debate that goes on all the time in beauty shops and in barber shops and beauty salons about why the Academy apparently thinks that Denzel is better playing gangsters than the stuff that we think in Black America he should have been honored for.
Washington: You mean because of “Training Day?”
Tavis: No, I mean “Training Day,” critically acclaimed; “American Gangster,” critically acclaimed. Buzz about Oscars. Obviously you won the Oscar for “Training Day.” But for the stuff that Black folk think you should have been regarded for.
Washington: Well, I won for “Glory.”
Tavis: For “Hurricane,” for – that’s one, that’s true, that’s true.
Washington: Yeah, so I won an Academy Award for “Glory.” So are they saying that’s a gangster –
Tavis: No, no, no, no. I think the comment generally is that they did not respect you on “Malcolm X,” that they did not respect you on “Cry Freedom,” Steve Biko. They can run the – you’ve done so many things that people think that you should have been regarded for, that what they regarded you for the (unintelligible) was “Training Day.”
Washington: Right, right. Yeah, I’ve heard that. Al Pacino –
Tavis: You’ve heard.
Washington: Al Pacino is a great –
Tavis: Why you make me work so hard, man? You’ve heard this before, you make like you ain’t never heard this.
Washington: Because you was on a roll, I just wanted to let you keep riffing.
Tavis: Come on, man, making me work like this.
Washington: You’re riffing, man. Listen, I was enjoying myself. (Laughter) Al Pacino got nominated eight times. He did “The Godfather,” all these great films – never won. He won for “Scent of a Woman.”
Tavis: Yeah, you should have won.
Washington: I voted for Al Pacino, personally, because he should have won long ago. So that’s the nature of the beast. They don’t always give it – there’s what I call the make-up award sometimes. I voted for Al Pacino, I didn’t vote for me, because I thought he should have won a long time ago. Now, can he say it’s racism? That they’re against Italian-Americans or something? He didn’t win for a lot of – I don’t think “Scent of a Woman” was his greatest performance. I don’t think “Training Day” was mine.
Tavis: Does that speak, then, to the politics of what’s behind the awards?
Washington: No, I don’t think it’s necessarily the politics. I think it’s the sentiment. I forgot what happened when it was, like, let’s say “The Godfather.” Maybe there was somebody else who didn’t win eight times before, either, that they gave it to him. I think that’s the nature of the beast. But like my mother says, “Man gives the award, God gives the reward.”
I don’t get bogged down. That’s a 12, 15-pound piece of gold-plated lead. It’s important to other people; it’s not that important to me. People ask me, “Where is it?” I said, “Next to the other one.” (Laughter) It’s not that – it’s more important to me to sit here and talk to you about “The Great Debaters” and what that’s about.
Whether they get an Oscar or not, I think it is a wonderful story. Whether somebody gives me an award for it, I can’t control that, and you can’t make films for that.
Tavis: Which raises this question, then. After you put your heart, mind, body, and soul into a project that you care so much about, like “The Great Debaters,” what for you, then, signifies that it was received in the way you it to be received? Box office, acclaim, what?
Washington: Box office. Acclaim is nice, now. I’m not saying – I like the – I didn’t give my Oscars back.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Washington: I didn’t give them back. But I’ve heard that, and I think the industry were shocked, maybe, by “Training Day.” Oh, he can do that? I’m like, that was the easiest part I ever played. That was real easy. That’s closer to who I am. (Laughter)
Tavis: You don’t want to say that.
Washington: Yeah, it’s true.
Tavis: We’re going to cut that part out of the conversation.
Washington: No, I don’t mean the criminal aspects, but that’s easy. That’s easy. It’s like I tell young actors, “Can you do that on Monday and Julius Caesar on Tuesday? Then you’re acting.”
Tavis: I’ve had – I’ve lost count, I was trying to go back in my head and put this back together – at least four, maybe six – six people on this show in 2007 who referenced advice that you had given them. I’m talking from Will Smith and Jamie Foxx on down.
Tavis: Are you feeling like you’re at that point in your career now where you feel comfortable dispensing advice to younger actors?
Washington: Well they’re just younger now. (Laughter) Which means I’m older.
Tavis: But you look good, man. You look good.
Washington: It’s not what you have, it’s what you do with what you have. You can’t take it with you. What do they say, you never see a U-Haul behind a hearse? The Egyptians tried it. You can’t do it. So what do you do with what you have? Who do you make better? Who do you lift up? Sidney Poitier, when I was young, gave me great advice. Like if they see you for free all week, they won’t pay to see you on the weekend.
Which means don’t be everywhere, grinning all the time. Don’t be a celebrity. That’s what I got from it. I’m not interested in being a celebrity; I’m interested in being a better actor and now a better director. So I try to pass those things on to young people. He opened doors for me. I don’t think it’s any coincidence since I won, even though it was maybe a film that the folks in the barber shop didn’t wish I won for.
But since then, Jamie Foxx won and then Forest Whitaker won. African Americans have won three out of the last six Academy Awards for best actor, and before that, it was a 40-year drought. So there’s something to be said for that.
Tavis: Well, Sidney Poitier, who I love, his advice notwithstanding, I’m glad you came out to see us today. (Unintelligible)
Washington: Do what you got to do so you can do what you want to do.
Tavis: I like it. Good to see you, man. The movie, as you well know, “The Great Debaters,” starring and directed by one Denzel Washington. Theaters, right now. That’s our show for tonight. Catch me on the weekends on PRI, Public Radio International. You can access our radio podcast through our website at PBS.org. And I will see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.