Oprah: You said "A-listers" under your breath.
Denzel: Titles have nothing to do with me. That's not who I am. It's like the term "movie star": What does that mean? It's just a label they give you until they replace it with another one: "has-been." I don't claim either.
Oprah: If you're not a movie star, then who is?
Denzel: First, I'm a human being. I love my work, but acting is what I do; it's not my identity. I love the way Julia Roberts put it: "I'm just an ordinary person who has an extraordinary job."
Oprah: Didn't you ever fantasize about being a movie star?
Denzel: Not so much, because my background is in theater, and in the 1970s, I didn't see anyone I wanted to be like; other than Sidney Poitier, there weren't many African-American film stars. As a kid, I'd wanted to be a football player. Then, after I got into theater at age 20, I saw James Earl Jones do Oedipus the King at St. John the Divine on 112th Street in Manhattan, and I was like, Wow. I sneaked into his dressing room and looked at his props and his rings while he was meeting people. I thought, "One day I'll make $650 a week and work on Broadway." It was never my master plan to go to Hollywood.
Oprah: Now that you've had all this success, how do you feel about it?
Denzel: I ask, What am I going to do with what I have? I can't take anything with me. You know the saying: You never see a U-Haul behind a hearse.
Oprah: There's a line I love in The Great Debaters, when Forest Whitaker's character, James Farmer Sr., a charismatic minister, asks his son, "And what do we do?" and James Jr. answers, "We do what we have to do so that we can do what we want to do." Where did that come from?
Denzel: It came from my house—it's what I tell my kids. If one of them walked in right now, I'd ask, "What do we do?" and they'd answer with that line.
Oprah: The last time you were on the show, we surprised you with a video clip of your son John David, who said, "Because of my dad, I want to be the best in what I do."
Denzel: You have no idea what his words meant to me that day. Awards and accolades are great, but I'd easily trade them all for a moment like that. My son is fulfilling my dream, playing football like I'd always wanted to [John David plays for the St. Louis Rams]. My daughter Katia is at Yale—a place where I didn't dare apply. I dig seeing them do their thing. I went to watch my daughter sing with her school's a cappella group. She was so happy.
Oprah: Raising children who are smart, kind, and generous and who know themselves has become more difficult than ever in our consumer culture. Were you ever worried about spoiling your children?
Denzel: They live well, but we don't just give them anything they want. When our twins turned 16, I bought them used cars. Okay, they're BMWs, but I wanted them in something safe! [Laughs] I got them into athletics, which has also been important. They've learned about hard work and fair play. But when it comes to the kids, I give complete credit to my wife, Pauletta. Early on, we decided that we wouldn't drag them around to all the places I go. Pauletta was the consistent one who made breakfast every day and took them to school. She taught them their prayers.
We Hear You!