Denzel Washington’s magnificent outlook: ‘Acting is not life to me’

With a long marriage, a loving family, several Oscar wins, and the upcoming release of The Magnificent Seven on September 23, the legendary actor seems to have a pretty magnificent life of his own. But when asked what makes him proudest, his answer isn’t what you’d think.

Denzel Washington attends BET 106 and Park in New York City. Brad Barket | BET | Getty Images

In 2008, Oprah Winfrey asked Denzel Washington what he’s done in his life that’s made him the most proud.

Washington had a lot to choose from. By that point, he’d been nominated for five Academy Awards, winning two of them (Best Supporting Actor for 1990’s Glory and Best Actor for 2002’s Training Day; he’s since been nominated for another). He’d just directed his second film—The Great Debaters—reveling in its creative collaborative process. Sure, he was a decade removed from his Sexiest Man Alive title, bestowed annually by People magazine, but the then-52-year-old still looked as young and strong as ever. He’d been married for nearly 25 years. They had four fantastic kids. Proud? Take your pick.

Washington paused. “I’m careful about the word ‘proud,'” he told her. “I’m happy to have read the Bible from cover to cover.”

The guiding hand of faith

That is where we must begin with Washington: With his faith.

Washington, a Pentecostal Christian, reads the Bible every day. In 1995, he donated $2.5 million to construct a new building for the Church of God in Christ in West Angeles—a church he still faithfully attends. And when you look at Washington’s resume, you’ll notice something about the characters he tends to play: they have a sense of integrity about them, a desire to do the right thing. Some of them may be explicitly spiritual, such as the Bible-toting wanderer in 2010’s The Book of Eli. Some may be in desperate need of salvation, like Whip in 2012’s Flight, who eventually cries out to God. And even when he goes against type—as he did in Training Day, where he plays a corrupt, vicious cop Alonzo Harris—he insists that there should still be a lesson for the audience. Indeed, the irredeemable Harris was originally supposed to survive the movie: it was Washington who insisted that the bad man should get his just desserts.

“I’ve been fortunate as an actor,” he told Parade magazine in 1999. “I’ve made some interesting films, and I think some of the work I’ve done has touched people. Maybe it sounds corny, but I try to do things for goodness’ sake—to send a good message.”

THE BOOK OF ELI, Denzel Washington, 2010

Denzel Washington in The Book of Eli. David Lee | Warner Bros. | Courtesy Everett Collection

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It only makes sense, then, that in the upcoming star-slathered remake of The Magnificent Seven (in theaters September 23rd), Denzel Washington would play Chisolm—a grizzled bounty hunter who rounds up a band of desperados to protect a small, defenseless town. The pay may be terrible. The chances of survival may be slim. But this time, Chisolm is willing to lay down his life for the sake of others—an echo, some might say, of another great sacrifice made a couple thousand years ago.

“[Faith] doesn’t play a role in my life,” he told Winfrey. “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.”

‘We weren’t allowed to watch movies’

As a boy, Washington never had an ambition to get into “this business.” Indeed, he barely knew it existed.

“My father was a minister in the Church of God and Christ,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “My mother was a singer in church, so we weren’t allowed to watch movies.”

There were few exceptions to that rule, all of them Christian. He was allowed to watch “King of Kings, Ten Commandments and that’s about it.”

Instead, life in the Washington household in Mount Vernon, New York—which also included older sister Lorice and younger brother David—revolved around church. With his father, the Rev. Denzel Hayes Washington Sr., being a pastor, they’d all go to church every Sunday, often spending the entire day there. He spent so much time listening to his dad preach that, when he was asked to play Malcolm X—another preacher of sorts—he had plenty of personal experience to draw from.

“Preaching is preaching,” Washington told GQ in 2012. “I remember certain cadences in the way my father would set up certain things. And when I would hear Malcolm X, I would say, ‘Oh, he sets it up the same way.’ It’s a rhythm. It’s almost music.”

Denzel Washington standing behind microphones on the city street in a scene from the film ‘Malcom X’, 1992.

Denzel Washington in a scene from the film Malcom X. Archive Photos | Stringer | Getty Images

But for Washington back then, church was a duty, not a joy. “I can relate to the people who don’t like it because there was a time when it was a job,” he told GQ. “We all go through our rebellion.”

Still, it was one of the only times of the week that his family was together. In addition to preaching, Denzel Sr. often worked a couple of other jobs, and he preached at more than one church. His mother, Lynne, owned a beauty parlor that took up much of her time. Washington says he didn’t see much of either of them. And in Washington’s early teen years, Denzel Sr. and Lynne were having serious problems themselves.

“My parents were like night and day,” he told Parade magazine in 1999. “She’s urban, raised in Harlem. My father was just this spirit-filled man until the day he died [in 1991], a country boy raised on a farm in Virginia. They say opposites attract, but my parents only grew apart.” When Washington was just 14, they divorced. The split couldn’t have helped Washington, who was struggling mightily himself.

Growing crooked, going straight

If you visit TCL’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood to see the handprints and footprints of moviedom’s greatest stars literally cemented in stone, you’ll notice something unusual about Denzel Washington’s right hand. In the print, the pinkie finger is splayed out at an awkward angle, almost as if it had been snapped like a carrot.

That’s because it had been.

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Washington broke his pinkie playing basketball when he was a boy. He didn’t have it set correctly, and he lived with the odd little finger for most of his acting career. Even at its best, the pinkie never looked quite “normal.” Sometimes part of the finger would pop out of place, contorting grotesquely and looking for all the world like Washington had a run-in with the mob. He’s since gotten the pinkie fully repaired. But when his own kids were younger, they’d bring friends over and ask him to show them his “magic finger.”

It’s kind of appropriate that Washington suffered the injury as a child. Back then, Washington’s whole life was a little broken.

“I went through a very rebellious stage,” Washington told Parade. He was running with a rough crowd, getting into trouble. And by the time the future Oscar-winner was 14, his mother had run out of patience. She sent Washington off to a private boarding school in upstate New York. It was a decision that, Washington says, “changed my life, because I wouldn’t have survived in the direction I was going. The guys I was hanging out with at the time, my running buddies, have now done maybe 40 years combined in the penitentiary. They were nice guys, but the streets got them.”

‘You’re going to speak to millions of people,’ the note said. ‘You’re going to do great things.’

Today, Washington believes that God’s hand might’ve been in his mother’s decision. “Maybe it wasn’t my fate to fall into those traps,” he says.

But Washington’s crooked life had yet to turn straight to stardom. He graduated high school and began attending Fordham University in New York City. But he struggled to find his calling there. His grades sank, finally hitting a 1.8 grade point average. He took a semester off and, according to the interview with GQ, found himself standing in front of the Army recruiting office, wondering whether he should sign up.

He didn’t join the Army, but he still wasn’t feeling that great about school, either. Then one afternoon—March 27, 1975, he told Parade—he found himself sitting in his mother’s beauty parlor.

“In a mirror I kept seeing this woman looking at me,” Washington said. “I was doing so bad in school, and this woman said, ‘Somebody give me a piece of stationery! I’m having a prophecy!’”

The woman scribbled her “prophecy” on a small slip of paper. “You’re going to speak to millions of people,” it said. “You’re going to do great things.” Washington was skeptical. “I thought, ‘Yeah, right. When’s that going to start? On Monday? I’m flunking out of school.’”

Washington paused in his interview with Parade. Then he said, “That fall, I started acting.”

Finding film, embracing faith

Washington still has that sheet of paper. He feels that he’s made good on that beauty parlor prophecy. But even recently, he’s wondered whether there’s more for him to do—whether there was more to it than just Washington’s acting career. In an interview with The Guardian in 2013, he admitted as much.

“I remember some years ago asking my pastor: ‘Do you think I’m supposed to be a preacher?’ And he said: ‘Well, you are. You have a pulpit of your own.'”

That pulpit has been very, very generous. Not just professionally, but personally, too.

In 1977 he appeared in the television film Wilma and met Pauletta Pearson on set. Denzel and Pauletta married June 25, 1983, and they’ve been together ever since—33 years and counting. They have four children: John David, Katia, and twins Olivia, and Malcolm. Some have dipped their toes in their father’s career, with John David currently appearing in HBO’s show Ballers.

“Life is family to me,” Washington told Parade. “Acting is not life to me. It’s making a living.”

Actor Denzel Washington and wife Pauletta Washington arrive at the Los Angeles Premiere “The Book Of Eli” at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on January 11, 2010 in Hollywood, California.

Denzel Washington and wife Pauletta Washington arrive at the Los Angeles Premiere for The Book Of Eli at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in California. Barry King | Getty Images

But even though he’s not going to move from stage to a true pulpit anytime soon, Washington is using the platform he’s been given to encourage people to explore and embrace faith.

“There’s never been a time when God didn’t direct, protect and correct me,” he said during the keynote address at Church Of God In Christ’s annual “We Care” Charities Banquet in 2015. “There may have been times when I was less than faithful to him. But he had faith in me. … I’m going to make a conscious effort to speak about what God has done for me, for my family.”

That same year, he delivered the commencement speech for Dillard University, a historically black liberal arts college in New Orleans. His advice to graduates was simple.

“Number one, put God first. Put God first in everything you do,” he said. Then later, he added, “I pray that you put your slippers under your bed tonight, so that when you wake up in the morning you have to get on your knees to reach them,” he said. “And while you’re down there, say thank you. Thank you for grace, thank you for mercy, thank you for understanding, thank you for wisdom, thank you for parents.”

Denzel Washington has a lot to be thankful for. And he never forgets who to thank.

Paul Asay
Paul Asay
Paul Asay is a movie critic for Plugged In and has written for a variety of websites and publications, including Time, The Washington Post and Beliefnet.com. He’s authored or co-authored several books, including most recently Burning Bush 2.0: How Pop Culture Replaced the Prophet.

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