Photo: Kwaku Alston
The two-time Oscar® winner, one-time Sexiest Man Alive, and second-time director opens up about his close-call adolescence, his close-knit family, falling into acting, falling in love with directing, and (after his mother finally stepped in to negotiate the deal) making a movie—The Great Debaters—so powerful it cost Oprah three tissues and totally wrecked her eye makeup.The first time I read the screenplay for The Great Debaters, I was riveted. But I wasn't prepared to be so deeply moved by it a second time, when I watched the film (which is coproduced by my company, Harpo Films) with its director and star, Denzel Washington. He showed me a rough cut; three tissues and one makeup-smeared face later, I had what I call an emotional headache (and I mean that in a good way).
The story is inspired by the life of Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, one of the first black Southern colleges. Tolson formed a champion debate team that dared to challenge segregation by debating white college teams in the 1930s, a time when lynch mobs were still commonplace. Along with Denzel as Tolson, the film stars Forest Whitaker and Kimberly Elise, as well as three incredible newcomers who play the members of the debate team.
After more than 30 years of acting and two Oscars—Best Supporting Actor for Glory in 1989 and Best Actor for Training Day in 2001—Denzel has discovered a new passion: directing. The Great Debaters, which opens on Christmas Day, is the second film he's both directed and starred in (the first was Antwone Fisher in 2002). Yet he says his most significant role is played away from the film set: He's the father of four—John David, 23; Katia, 20; and twins Olivia and Malcolm, 16—and he has been married to actress-singer Pauletta Washington for 24 years.
His own parents, Denzel Sr., a Pentecostal minister, and Lennis, a hairdresser, divorced when he was 14. When Denzel began to get into trouble on the streets of Mount Vernon, New York, Lennis, though barely able to get by on her wages, scraped together the money to send him, his older sister, Lorice, and his younger brother, David, to boarding school in upstate New York. After graduating, he attended Manhattan's Fordham University, where he made a decision to try acting in the school's production of Othello. His successes have been building ever since.
When he was a young man, Denzel was told by an influential visitor to the Boys & Girls Club that he could be anything he wanted to be. That sentiment and Denzel's deep spiritual beliefs, as well as his belief in the importance of education, are pivotal elements in his life, and he has instilled them in The Great Debaters.
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.
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.
Oprah: You've been working very steadily for most of their lives. Were you ever able to be one of those families that sat down and had dinner together?
Denzel: I joined in as often as I could. When my parents were together, my father worked a lot, too. He always had two or three jobs, so he was never home either. Children adjust. My kids knew that I was always trying to get home to be with them. I'd tell them, "You have school Monday to Friday, and I have work. We both have our jobs to do."
Oprah: You do what you have to do...
Denzel: ...so you can do what you want to do. Doesn't that line cover a lot of territory? Once your homework's done, even Dad can't say anything about you going to the movies.
Oprah: How did you meet Pauletta?
Denzel: We met at a hotel restaurant. I was just arriving to start work on the film Wilma [the 1977 television film biography of track legend Wilma Rudolph], and it was her last day of shooting.
Oprah: Did you immediately know she was The One?
Denzel: No—that happened over time. We met, but then we saw each other again at a party a year later. People who say they knew right away are lying! [Laughs] It's a marathon, not a sprint.
Oprah: Is Hollywood hard on a marriage?
Denzel: Hollywood gets a bad rap; it's just a place with some footprints in cement. I don't live there, I live in Los Angeles. But it's probably helped our marriage that we're apart a lot.
Denzel: Sure. If I were Pauletta, I'd get sick of me! You know, she gets used to running the house without me, and then here I come, messing things up.
Oprah: So there's a period of adjustment when you get back from filming?
Denzel: Yes. I have a strong personality. I can be a bully. Pauletta and the kids would get used to doing things a certain way, and then I'd arrive and start telling the kids what to do. It was a long time before I noticed her sighing as I did that. I've had to work on it.
Oprah: You know, earlier today, you said something that grabbed my heart. When I asked if you'd been nervous about directing this movie, you said, "Everything was already prayer-filled." How big a role does spirituality play in your life?
Denzel: The word "role" suggests a compartment. It doesn't play a role in my life; it is my life. Everything else is just making a living. If I get away from that idea, I get lost. This business is not who I am. Anyone with a spiritual base understands humility. When you start using the words "I" and "me" too often, you get in trouble.
Oprah: Or worse: When you start referring to yourself in the third person.
Denzel: How do people get to that point? "Denzel wouldn't do..."—I can't even finish the sentence! I just wasn't raised like that.
Oprah: Is it true that, at one point during the financial negotiations for this movie, your mother stepped in?
Denzel: I was out of my mind, going back and forth with Harvey Weinstein [The Weinstein Company coproduced The Great Debaters with Harpo Films]. I finally said, "Harvey, what's your mother's phone number? I'm going to ask our mothers to work this out." So they talked, and afterward Harvey said to me, "I don't know what you did, but everything's settled."
Oprah: What did your mother say?
Denzel: I didn't even ask her.
Oprah: Are you proud of what you've done with this movie?
Denzel: I don't go there, Oprah. I don't even know what that means.
Oprah: Well, I'm so proud of you, Denzel.
Denzel: I'm pleased that you're pleased. That's why I asked whether you liked it.
Oprah: The fact that I went through three tissues and smeared my makeup didn't give it away?
Denzel: I just wanted an answer, and now I can move on. I don't read reviews. It's enough for me that you like it.
Oprah: You won't look at the reviews?
Denzel: Well...I might sneak a peek.
Oprah: What do you most want people to get out of the movie?
Denzel: That depends on what they bring to it. As I watched it with you today, I cried—and I haven't cried over this movie in a while. Even the energy of other people in a room can impact the way we see things.
Oprah: After winning two Academy Awards, how important is the whole Oscar® thing to you?
Denzel: I'm about the process.
Oprah: You've been nominated many times—
Oprah: Every time your name is read, even if you don't care about it—
Denzel: I didn't say I didn't care! [Laughs] Every young actor wants to win an Oscar. Years ago I was in a parking lot across the street from Spago, and I could see the stars with their Oscars going into the after party. I said to myself, "I want to do that one day." When I was at Fordham, I recall looking at Avery Fisher Hall and the New York State Theater and saying, "I'm going to work in those theaters." I've had those dreams.
Oprah: What was it like to win the first time?
Denzel: Kevin Kline was in the wings. He'd won the year before  for A Fish Called Wanda. After I got the Oscar and walked offstage, I said to Kevin, "Did that just happen?" It felt like I fell asleep in the mail room and I was going to wake up and find out it was all a dream.
Oprah: Okay, I have to ask you this: In 1996 you were the first black man to be named People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive. At that point, did the sex symbol thing intensify for you?
Denzel: Nothing changed. It still hasn't. I don't walk around like I'm the sexiest man alive. Then what happens—do you stop being sexy 365 days later? Don't get me wrong: It's nice. But I don't buy into it. It's another label.
Oprah: Isn't there some part of you that's influenced by the categories you're put in?
Denzel: Of course. Celebrity itself is an influence. For instance, it can make you more of an introvert; you can't just go places unnoticed. On the other hand, I'm probably more confident, because I don't have to worry about certain things. I try to remember what it felt like to really not know where I was headed or how I was going to eat. At the same time, I've always been a very positive person, and I'd like to think that some of my success came from that. People say you should have something to fall back on, but if I'm falling, I want to fall forward, not prepare to fall back. My religious instruction has taught me that what you believe and speak is what you become. If I constantly say that I'm "struggling to make it through," then that's exactly what I'll do: struggle just to get by.
Oprah: What role have you been most honored to play?
Denzel: Oh, I can't pick one. I've played Stephen Biko, Malcolm X, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, Herman Boone, and now Melvin B. Tolson. I just enjoy the experience. But I do still remember the first time I landed in Zimbabwe to start filming Cry Freedom [the movie about the life of South African activist Stephen Biko]. I was alone, I was listening to Janet Jackson on my Walkman, and I was like, "Wow, I'm in Africa. What a life."
Oprah: When you first touched ground in Africa, did you feel a connection?
Denzel: It felt like going home.
Oprah: At this point in your life, what makes you happiest?
Denzel: Watching my children grow. Also, my wife recently said, "You love this directing thing; you're happy now." I'm reenergized. As a director, my job is to put great people around me and let them do what they do well.
Oprah: You sound like a born leader. In all my years of interviewing, I've never met someone who defines himself as a person who likes to see others succeed.
Denzel: I'm a regular guy. I'm comfortable like this. I may look at my Aston Martin—the one I bought during a midlife crisis—but I drive my truck.
Oprah: What does a regular guy do to relax?
Denzel: When I have time, I watch football—but I have to stay busy. I'm not good at doing nothing. I tried it. It's not healthy for me. I need to go somewhere every morning, even if it's just to the gym.
Oprah: What makes you the most proud?
Denzel: I'm careful about the word "proud"; I'm happy to have read the Bible from cover to cover. I'm on my second go-round—I read one chapter a day. Right now I'm digging John. He just had dinner with Mary, and things are about to take a turn for the worse. I tried to instill spirituality into The Great Debaters. Remember that old church prayer, God, we come before You, knee bowed and body bent, in the humblest way we know how?
Oprah: Yes! It reminds me of a poem I performed in high school forensics club. It's called "Listen, Lord: A Prayer," from James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones, and it has that line in it ["...knee bowed and body bent"]. I think it's very important to have this film debut at a time when so many of our children are dropping out of school.
Denzel: Our children's problems are our fault—we created and allowed this environment for them. But despite all the negative press about our kids, a lot of great work is getting done, and this film is a call to teachers and community leaders to keep fighting. When I was a kid, I was influenced by folks at the Boys & Girls Club, which was a lifeline for me. I was reminded of that while we were filming in the backwoods of Louisiana. I took a drive just to get off the set for a while, and I came across a black family living way out in the woods. I pulled up a chair and chatted with them, and the two girls, each probably around 14, just about passed out! Both were straight-A students; they even showed me their report cards. I said, "Have you thought about Harvard? As smart as you are, you can do anything you want." Those were the very words the mayor once said to me when he came to visit the Boys & Girls Club. I never forgot it.
Oprah: And those girls will never forget your words. Do you feel positively about the state of the world right now?
Denzel: Absolutely. I don't mean to be smug, but I'm not surprised by much. It has all been foretold and written. I just stay focused on the question of how I will serve while I'm here. How can I lift people up?
Oprah: What are you most grateful for?
Denzel: The opportunity to do that. I hope we can remember that we each have that chance.