Donning tennis shoes and a Silliman College baseball cap, two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington spoke to students about his life as an actor, director, producer and father in a candid — and interactive — Master’s Tea Thursday afternoon.
Washington fielded questions for an hour and a half on topics ranging from his family and career to his favorite food (his wife’s curry, fried or jerk chicken). He shared personal stories and joked with his audience, which was limited to students from Silliman, the home of his eldest daughter, Katia Washington ’10.
Washington’s responses often elicited laughter and applause, although the first question posed to him by a Silliman student perhaps drew the loudest cheers: “I know you probably get this a lot, but how does it feel to be Katia’s father?”
“You have made my day,” Washington replied. “You have made my year, because that’s all I want to be known as … it’s what I live for.”
“I was there to ‘catch’ all four of my children,” he continued. “And with them I realized that that’s life. What I do as an actor, that’s making a living.”
Quoting fellow entertainer Julia Roberts, Washington said he thinks of himself as an ordinary person with an extraordinary job. He said the best thing about his work is the chance he gets to delve into the lives of his many characters.
“You get to dabble in all these different worlds, so it’s a fascinating job,” he said.
Washington offered a behind-the-scenes perspective on many of his movies, including the recent blockbusters “The Great Debaters” and “American Gangster,” as well as earlier films such as “Malcom X” and “The Pelican Brief.” He recalled meeting his wife Pauletta in the late 1970s shortly after shooting his first movie, “Wilma,” in which she also played a role.
When asked to name his favorite film, Washington admitted that he does not watch many movies, including his own. Instead he asked the question to half a dozen audience members, receiving responses from “Forrest Gump” to “Scarface” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the favorite of Silliman Master Judith Krauss.
“Movies belong to the people,” he said. “I’m not a film buff [and] never really have been … Maybe because it’s job-related.”
Washington also spoke about his latest project — a remake of the 1974 film “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” about the hijacking of a New York City subway train — which he is currently shooting with John Travolta and James Gandolfini of the hit HBO show “The Sopranos.” Regarding his future prospects, Washington said he is considering working on an early screenplay of M. Night Shyamalan called “Labor of Love.”
Students questioned Washington on his hobbies (boxing and watching basketball), his professional regrets (turning down Brad Pitt’s role in the hit movie “Seven”) and his experiences with racism.
More than 150 students attended Washington’s talk, and many said they were surprised and delighted by the star’s honest and easygoing demeanor.
“It was hilarious, and he was really laid back,” Amira Valliani ’10 said. “He didn’t feel like a high-powered person. It felt like a fun conversation.”
James Boumil ’09 said Washington handled every question — including one about his views on the death penalty, in light of his role as a wrongly accused prisoner in “The Hurricane” — with ease.
Before the tea, Washington stopped by the Silliman dining hall to meet a few of his fans on the staff. Dining Services employee Esther Bell said he was “down-to-earth” and has a “very sexy smile.”
“He came in here and walked around with us,” Jackie Jefferson, another staff member, said. “It was the coolest thing ever for me.”
Washington said the most talented actors he has ever worked with include Gene Hackman, Angelina Jolie and Dakota Fanning. (“I’m like, that’s got to be a little person,” Washington said of Fanning, eliciting laughter from the crowd. “I mean, she was looking through me.”) He said he would love to work someday with Al Pacino or Robert De Niro.
“My daughter will tell you how silly I got when Bob De Niro came by,” Washington said. “I couldn’t get myself together.”