American Gangster: The Denzel Washington Interview


Though there’s pretty much only one Denzel Washington on this planet and nobody can come near to filling the formidable actor’s shoes, he strangely enough started out on the big screen, grabbing attention in the movie Carbon Copy. Only the second African American star to win a Best Actor Oscar besides Sidney Poitier, Denzel will hopefully not shock or disappoint his fans with his new movie, American Gangster, in his turn as one of the baddest big city crime lords ever, Frank Lucas. Doing the opposite of Frank today as he sat down to gab about the Ridley Scott directed thriller, Denzel was his more familiar warm, vivacious and just plain funny self. The man voted Most Sexy guy a whole lot more than just once, Denzel talked about just how sexy all that street cred and power can be, doing mean on the screen with flash and style, something about the silence between words bringing out the truth that Watergate’s Bob Woodward enlightened him about, and how those St. Louis Rams better get his rookie running back son John out on that field sooner than later.

Hey, what’s happening with your son John, the one who’s a running back now with the St. Louis Rams?

DENZEL WASHINGTON: What’s happening with him? He’s not gettin’ on the field! So what’s happening with the Rams, is the question! Nah, he’s still with the Rams. He’s on the practice squad.

Do you worry about him? And you’re not pushing him, are you, like one of those football dads, you know, like a stage dad?

DW: Well, he’s already in the best league in the world. So…I think he’s doin’ okay. You know, he’s just trying. He’s his own man. Hey, he’s twenty-three, going on twenty-four. And he pays his own bills! So he makes his own way. But we talk all the time. And he’s working hard, trying to…get on the field!

Do you play football?

DW: No! Wait, in a movie once!

Now about American Gangster, how comfortable were you playing that real life mobster Frank Lucas and, you know, shooting people in the head and stuff?

DW: It’s acting, first of all. And just because I play certain parts like that, doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t play other parts. Like people were shocked when I did Training Day. But that was one of the easiest roles for me. As was this one. And in this case, I had the real man to talk to, and to draw from.

But did you ever have doubts about playing such a bad guy?

DW: You have doubts…You have doubts about coming in here, and talking to you! That’s just life. Nah, I don’t feel that way about you! In fact, you’re the reason I’m here!

Hmm…So you actually spoke to Frank Lucas.

DW: Sure, yeah.

And how did that impact upon the character you’ve put up there on the screen?

DW: Oh, it was great. It was a history lesson, first of all. But I just got the chance to hang out with him. We would ride around Harlem, and we’d talk about events that happened to him on different streets. And how they were on the wrong side of the law, but that they had the utmost love and respect for each other. So yeah, I spent quite a bit of time with him.

Is it true that Frank can’t read? He said on some talk show that he’s illiterate.

DW: He said that? Well he said to me that his favorite book is Atlas Shrugged! That’s what he told me. Hey, maybe somebody read it to him! But it was interesting talking to him, because he’d be the first to say he loved that lifestyle. Even though he knew they were getting closer to him, and he knew that he was gonna get caught eventually.

But he had to have that world, it’s like a boxer. Like you know you’re over the hill, but there’s just something about the roar of the crowd, and that scene. And the power. You know, it was sexy. And he couldn’t give it up.

So how do you get at the truth of a guy you’re portraying, and not just whatever he’s feeding you and wants you to know about his image?

DW: As an actor, if you hang around someone enough, you’ll get the real story. Just like with your job, you know what I mean? Like when I worked with Bob Woodward, doing research for The Pelican Brief. And Bob used to say to me, let the silence bring out the truth.

Like you hang around frank and listen to him, and you let him brag. And he’ll tell you, I did this and I did that. But you just keep hanging around. And some days after eleven hours, somebody’s tired! And then another side comes out.

Or, you see how he treats somebody he’s close to, or who works for him. And you see glimpses, and then you go oh, okay. Or you see a look in his eyes, and you go – ooh…And quite a few people who aren’t here any longer, they saw that look! So, you get below the surface.

You really cultivate absolute mean in this movie, but with flash and style.

DW: Yeah, there’s really something interesting about smiling at somebody…Before you knock ’em off!

How was it getting together again and working with Ruby Dee as your mom in the movie?

DW: She’s great. But I couldn’t get her to slap me, she didn’t want to do it. And I said look, this is the only way that man’s gonna stop. It’s gotta be something to do with the heart, and his love for his mother.

So I said, you gotta do something to jar him to his senses. You know, like a mother! And at first she didn’t want to do it, but then…she did it pretty well!

Now, Frank was notorious for smuggling drugs out of Nam during the war, in the body bags of the dead soldiers coming back. Do you think that has an extra resonance now, with the dead soldiers coming back in coffins from Iraq?

DW: Actually, we don’t see that now. The government makes sure that we don’t see the bodies coming back home. So that’s one difference between these two wars. We did see it in Viet Nam, but for some reason we’re not allowed to see it in this democracy now.

Do you think there’s anything lower than smuggling drugs in soldiers’ coffins?

DW: Yeah, you can start a war in the first place! But you know, Frank got the idea to do that, not just from watching the dead come home, but watching so many come home as drug addicts. You know, because they were trying to ease the pain of the experience of being in Viet Nam. So it wasn’t just something off the top of his head.

That was some premiere for American Gangster at the Apollo in Harlem last night. Talk about how wonderful it was to have the premiere in the neighborhood.

DW: It was great. And all the money raised is going to the Boys And Girls Club. But it was great for me, because I grew up in NY. My mother was raised in Harlem. And she took me to the Apollo as a kid.

You know, I met David Ruffin there, backstage. And he like ran out across the street, and got into a silver Corvette! But I remembered the arguments we used to have back then, like who had the biggest lines around the block, James Brown or The Temptations. But I’ve seen, i don’t know, 50 or 60 shows there over the years. And you know, I wanted to become a singer, from that day forward. I couldn’t sing though!

But it was full circle for me. I was like, wow. You know, I’m the headline now, I got my name up on the marquee! So to be back there, it was just great for me…

Okay, bye. Ovah!

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.