Denzel Washington Has a Warning For Parents: “You’re Never Done”

The Oscar-winner talks 'Macbeth,' why parenting never ends, and the thin line between comedy and tragedy.

by Donna Freydkin
Denzel Washington
Credit: Getty, BDG

Denzel Washington, one of the most esteemed and awarded/compensated actors of all time, is shockingly down to Earth. Not in the sense that he can relate to your day-to-day — he’s been an A-list actor with the mansion and lifestyle since the 1990s — but because he comes to everything he does curious and ready to engage. Like this interview. Instead of delivering rehearsed on-brand answers to softball questions, Washington wants to have a real discussion, meaning, sometimes, he fires questions right back. He’s not an asshole about it, at all. He’s just — Denzel, a guy just as curious about you as he is about himself. The two-time Oscar winner, 67, is back in contention this year thanks to his broodingly homicidal turn as a power-mad Scottish nobleman in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, which streams on Apple TV+ on January 14. His take on the performance, near-universally hailed by critics is something he shakes off, saying “I was miscast,” with straight-faced honesty. “Yeah, that’s what I told Joel. That’s a true story, you can ask him. I was like, ‘I think I was miscast, Joel.’ That’s what I thought.”

Washington has so perfected the fine art of the deadpan comeback that it’s hard to tell if, or when, he’s actually kidding. Which is clearly the point. Everything in life isn’t one way, meaning when he’s kidding, he’s serious, and when he’s serious, he’s kidding. Maybe. Take, for example, his headlining turn in Macbeth, which actors superstitiously refer to as “the Scottish play.” Not Washington, who looks a bit puzzled when you ask him about it. “I just called it Macbeth. I’m not superstitious,” he says.

When he’s working, Washington has zero vanity. Need proof? Watch 2012’s Flight, in which his deeply troubled pilot, hospitalized after a crash, stumbles around in search of a smoking area, baring his posterior in an unflattering hospital gown. Now granted, tackling one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays is a whole other kettle of fish. But Washington takes the same approach to every project.

“We rehearsed it like a play,” Washington says of Macbeth, “The play’s the thing.”

“It starts with the words. Starts with the text and getting those in your bones and learning them and understanding what they really mean and what they mean to you. Then, just being comfortable with the language and then getting in there with the other actors, and obviously getting in there with the director and seeing what his or her vision is,” he says.

In this case, it revolved around a powerhouse trio: William Shakespeare, Joel Coen, and Frances McDormand, who plays a ferocious Lady Macbeth. “The play’s the thing and the clues are there in the play, so you just dig into the text and figure out what the heck he was talking about. It was like being back in the theater. We rehearsed it like a play, we felt like a company, and you just didn’t want to drop the ball, you wanted to do your part,” says Washington.

What he took away from this experience is pretty simple and straightforward: Once you’ve consumed a Chateau Margaux, you’re no longer interested in swilling Two Buck Chuck (with all respect to the affordable libation). “A desire to want to work with the best,” says Washington. “Not to knock anybody I’ve worked with before. I shouldn’t say that. But where I’m at right now in life and to meet up with Joel and Fran and Shakespeare, that’s where I’m at going forward. It’s hard to top that, but that’s where I’m at.”

Not that he’s stressed because after all, “Shakespeare wrote a lot of plays.”

Back in 2017, Washington mentioned to a reporter that going forward, he only wanted to work on passion projects, stories that touched his soul. How has he fared? Like any dad, he makes sure that he “pays the bills,” but he’s not cynical about it. He’s funny, in the same way, he’s funny in his movies, even when the movies aren’t comedies. So why, for the love of Hollywood, hasn’t he ever done an outright comedy? “Nobody asks me,” he retorts. “Get the word out there. Nobody asks me.”

“Training Day is a comedy,” Washington says. “He’s a wacky cop that just makes some bad decisions.”

Still, he’s not sure that his films are devoid of comedy. In fact, he views 2001’s Training Day — which earned him his second Oscar for playing an unhinged, morally loose cop — as possibly a comedy film, and not a stressful thriller.

“It’s a comedy! It’s a comedy,” Washington insists playfully. “He’s a wacky cop. You’re son’s 11? Tell your son he can see it. He’s a wacky cop that just makes some bad decisions, like Macbeth.” With this statement, Washington is both messing around and deadly serious, too. He’s defying us to put his movies into neat categories, and he’s pushing back on the ways he’s perceived, too. Nothing is ever one thing.

For example, you might think of Washington as a cool, strong, man. Someone who is in touch with their masculinity. Both Training Day’s Alonzo Harris and Macbeth would seem to prove the case — not to mention The Equalizer, The Hurricane, and countless other roles. Macbeth, in particular, is a man who hungers for power and recognition, and whose crafty wife Lady Macbeth plays on his ideas of what manhood means to encourage him to strive forever. Being a man is equated with cruelty and violence, with an utter lack of empathy or remorse. How does Washington define masculinity as it relates to these characters?

“Isn’t that interesting that you asked me that and that’s a woman telling him [Macbeth] how he’s supposed to be? Let’s start there. ‘Be a man, man up. Go kill somebody, for crying out loud.’ Yeah,” he says. “What was the question?”

How does he define masculinity?

“I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know. How do you define — Does it have to have a definition? And by whom? Who gets to define masculinity? Who’s the expert on it?” he shoots back. He’s not upset, or flippant. He’s thoughtful and searching. Which as at the core of Denzel. He’s never done. Not even with self-reflection.

“I never thought of it … Again, I never thought of it that way. That’s something outside of the character. That’s not something I would look at, like, ‘Is he masculine or is he not? In what ways is he?’ Again, I take my clues from the text.”

His wife Pauletta has seen the movie and liked it, but Washington isn’t sure what she thought of his performance. “I’ve got to ask her that. That’s a good question. I’ll ask her. I know she liked it,” he says.

“You’re never done. Your kids come back,” Washington says. “They come back after college.”

All four of their kids have entered the family business, as producers, directors, or in the case of John David Washington, well-regarded actors. The paterfamilias chortles when asked if his kids are out of the house. Sort of. Maybe. When he learns that this reporter has an 11-year-old son, he starts laughing. “You’re never done. Forget it. What, you think you’ve got, like, six more years or something, eight more years? No, they come back. They come back after college,” he says.

He doesn’t have advice for the younger generation or none that he’s ready to share. Nor does he share any insights into their experience versus his own because let’s face it, that screams cranky old codger. “You know, that sounds like some kind of … Like a bitter old man. ‘Oh, it was tougher.’ He and they are going through what they go through. My son, one of my daughters as well, and God bless them. They’re talented and they have a lot of opportunities,” says Washington.

Neither does he dole out parenting or relationship advice. “Husbands, listen to your wives? I don’t know. I don’t know. That’s a tough one. There is no book on how to do it. It’s sort of trial and error, hopefully not too much error. I’m going to start charging you for this now,” he riffs back.

As storied a career as Washington has had, he’s unwilling to parse it or to pick out a role that he thinks particularly defined it. Simply put: “I don’t look back. For what? Something might be … Who said that? ‘Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.’ Satchel Paige. He said, ‘Don’t look back.’ I think that was his quote, ‘Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.'”

He hopes to return to New York theater, where he has been majestic in Fences, The Iceman Cometh, and A Raisin in the Sun, if or when COVID-19 finally calms down somewhat. And at his age, it’s gratifying and exhilarating that Washington firmly believes his best work is still ahead of him. He doesn’t dwell in the past, nor does he watch his old films. His best performance?

“Oh, hopefully, my next one. I never look at it that way. I don’t look back at them like children or something and, ‘This is my favorite child,’ or whatever. I watch a movie one time so I know what I’m talking about and then that’s pretty much it,” he says.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is streaming on Apple TV now.