"Family is life; acting is making a living," pronounces the no-nonsense Denzel Washington, whose labors are nonetheless borne out in high dramatic style in his latest film, John Q, the wrenching story of an ordinary working man who goes to extraordinary lengths to prolong the life of his child.
The imposing actor is so artless and unequivocal in his manner and speech, it's hard to reconcile him with his vaunted Hollywood stature and his impassioned performances as Malcolm X, Rubin Carter and Steven Biko, to name a few. He has appeared in more than 30 films, been nominated for countless awards (he won the Oscar for 1989's Glory), is currently editing his first self-helmed effort (The Antwone Fisher Story), and yet he says, "To be honest with you, I'm not a film buff. I don't watch a lot of movies. I'm just not a movie person. I wasn't allowed to go to movies when I was kid; my father was a minister -- 101 Dalmatians and King of Kings, that was the extent of it."
Nonetheless, the strikingly handsome leading man has transported audiences time after time, with courageous roles in sweeping dramas, legal thrillers, action pictures and period pieces. And Washington is similarly matter-of-fact about his approach to acting. "I just try to be honest and true to the character and play the part," he says simply, adding that for the sentimental role in John Q he was not concerned about going over the top. "It could be melodramatic, but that was not my intention. It wasn't even necessarily my intention for it not be."
To be sure, whether he relishes the image or not ("I'm not in the loop; I don't know any actors, really, just the ones I work with," he says coyly), Washington is a hot Hollywood property, and he gets first look at the best scripts in town. "I've been fortunate. I don't pick scripts. Scripts pick me," he says. "It's like it's obvious; you read it and go, 'Oh, man, thanks for sending this to me.' It's easy to pick a Training Day or John Q. It's not hard, 'cause you read 10 or 15 of them and can't get past page 14. Then you pick up one, and it's like, Oh this is over already? Wow, this is a good one."
John Q was directed by Nick Cassavetes, whose own daughter has a congenital heart disease. "I know about the runarounds you get from insurance companies, hospitals and doctors," Cassavetes says. The film tells the story of John Q Archibald (Washington), a factory worker whose nine-year-old son collapses during a baseball game and falls gravely ill, in need of a lifesaving heart transplant. John Q challenges the health-care system by taking a hospital emergency room hostage when the operation is denied because the family has no insurance. Also among the cast are Robert Duvall as a hostage negotiator; James Woods as a heart surgeon; Anne Heche as a hospital administrator; Kimberly Elise as John's wife; Daniel E. Smith as John's young son; and Ray Liotta as the police chief.
Washington immediately responded to the script. "It's really wonderful writing. When I read this script, the pages got wet. I mean, I have four children. Could you imagine having to tell your son or daughter everything that you want to teach them in life, over the course of their life, in one minute, while they're halfway gone? It's just good writing."
Washington prepared for the role by spending time alone with his onscreen family. "One of things we did right off the bat was I took Kim and Daniel on a trip to Niagara Falls," he relates. "Got a pickup truck, and the three of us drove to Niagara Falls. It's like a two- or three-hour drive from Toronto [where the movie was being shot] down there -- and we really got a chance to bond together. Went to lunch and took the boat ride under the Falls. Tried to be a normal family. People were running around taking pictures and stuff. But we did the best we could."
"Daniel, he became like my fifth child anyway," adds the actor fondly. "I really love that little boy, and it was easy to feel for him. And he was such a professional, too. He did a wonderful job. And Kimberly is such an emotionally available actress, and a wonderful actress, that half the time I was really doing what you see in the scene, which was keeping her together."
He also ensconced himself in the character's life by working a few shifts in the factory. "I've worked in a factory before. And I was a garbage man. And I worked in a post office before. It's not that long ago, so I remember. You kind of tap into that. And I like to think that I'm closer to that kind of character, just a regular guy as far as I'm concerned."
Washington's own journey -- from a blue-collar childhood in the Bronx to the elite of Hollywood -- has similarities with the first film he has chosen to direct. The Antwone Fisher Story is based on Fisher's rise from a life of abandonment, abuse, violence and petty crime to become one of Hollywood's most sought-after screenwriters.
"I have a new respect for filmmakers, that's for sure, 'cause it's not easy," Washington says of the experience. "But I had fun. If I'm allowed to, I'll be directing for the rest of my life. We just showed the film for the first time to about 20, 25 people and got a good response. I love it. I love the process."
Fisher, who wrote the screenplay, has given favorable reviews to Washington's efforts from the director's chair. "He loved it. He saw it and he just went on and on," says Washington. "It's got to be weird for him, seeing his life up there. He was very complimentary. I'm just glad I didn't mess it up...unless everybody's lying," he adds with a laugh.
"Every day was new. I didn't know what to expect. I got a lot of gray hairs after that. Every time I did something, it's something I never did before. I found out how much I actually know about it, just from osmosis. But one of the first things I knew was to put the best people around me and let them do their jobs. So even if I was terrible, it's going look good; it's going to all cut together nice."
While Washington edits the film, which should hit theaters in fall of 2002, the awards season struts on (he won the American Film Institute's Best Actor of the Year honor for his role in 2002's Training Day, and was nominated for both the Golden Globe and the Academy Award). Despite such attention for his work in the cop action thriller, the 48-year-old actor's future choices are unlikely to be in the action genre. "I don't like running around for two weeks without saying anything, ducking," he says. " That's not my forte. I don't care for it -- fight scenes and all, hanging off of stuff. It's just not for me. I'm getting too old for that stuff. It hurts."