Oprah: How did you feel the first time you read the script for The Great Debaters?
Denzel: The reaction you had in the screening room is the one I had. Man, it just moved me. I felt an emotional connection. What I learned while doing research for the film is that many black colleges, like Wiley and Morehouse, opened during the decade following the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. That's because education was believed to be the way out, so when millions of black people were finally let go after almost 250 years, boom, we opened schools. And that's partly why Melvin Tolson's debate team was able to beat these other national teams in the '30s: Great thinkers such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Melvin B. Tolson couldn't teach at schools like Harvard or Columbia. But the film is really about the kids and the journey of one boy in particular.
Oprah: I'm in awe of how you made the words from the script come alive on the screen. Do you think directing is your gift?
Denzel: It's my passion. More than anything, I enjoy seeing talented people do what they do well. When you're an actor, you come out of your trailer, do your thing, and then go back in. Directing is about collaboration—the production, the costuming, the script, the actors. I love it. It brings me joy. At 52 years old, I'm blessed to be able to segue into directing. I want to be Clint Eastwood when I grow up!
Oprah: When you're directing, does it seem like you've accessed a higher part of yourself?
Denzel: Even a 20-hour day went by like that [snaps his fingers]. For a 7 a.m. call time, I was up at 3 and on the set at 4; no one could get there earlier than me. I worked around the clock, even on weekends. Leadership is quiet, but strong and consistent. As our friend Nelson Mandela has said, a leader is like a shepherd—he sends the fast, nimble sheep out front so that the rest will follow, not realizing they're all being led from behind. On this film, I know there were some who probably thought, "Yeah, right: He's an actor, and now he wants to direct." But by the time the team arrived, I'd been preparing for hours. I was like, "Where have you all been? I've already made breakfast!"
Oprah: Great directing is in the preparation and details.
Denzel: Exactly. I hope I never get to the place where it gets stale. The other day, I was doing the math: I'm 52, and if I direct a picture every five years or so, I could work on six more, if I'm lucky.
Oprah: How difficult was it to both direct this film and act in it?
Denzel: Sending your child to Baghdad is difficult; what I do is not hard. But to answer your question: When I'm directing, I can't focus the way I'm used to focusing as an actor, because I don't have the quiet time. I've always taken 40 deep breaths for relaxation before I do a scene. During this movie, 40 breaths was all the time I had to myself! I'm not that great at spinning ten plates at a time. I know that about myself.
Oprah: When did you know you wanted to act?
Denzel: When I was doing Othello in college. Everyone was coming out of the woodwork to see the show. I was so green, I would look right out at the audience just to see who was there! But I was like, "Wow—all these people showed up. Maybe I'm good at this." So I had a drive to perfect the craft.
Oprah: I can only imagine how many parts must come your way now.
Denzel: I'm one of the few—whatever you call it, A-listers—who's still available for parts right now because I've been busy directing this film all year rather than reading scripts and signing contracts.
We Hear You!