THE THREE BILLION DOLLAR MAN; with One Oscar Already Decorating His Shelf, Denzel Washington Became the First Black Man since Sidney Poitier to Win Best Actor - but He's Not Banking on a Hat-Trick with His Latest Blockbuster. Now One of Hollywood's Philanthropic Powerhouses, He's Too Busy Trying to Save the World for Real
Byline: Elaine Lipworth
With a pair of Oscar statuettes gracing his Los Angeles home, and regular multimillion-dollar pay cheques, Denzel Washington isn't a man who is easily impressed. But a recent phone call from Harvard neurologist Dr Allen Counter did stir his interest. The professor was calling to ask whether Washington would host the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo on December 11, a clear indication that he's now regarded as one of the new elite of philanthropic Hollywood heavyweights, who are equally at home in the White House as they are on the red carpet.
Washington certainly moves in impressive social circles. Archbishop Desmond Tutu officiated when he and his wife renewed their vows in 1995 in South Africa, and he played a prominent role in the inaugural celebrations for President Obama early last year, while his work with the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund means that he knows South Africa's former president well enough to host him for dinner. 'When Mr Mandela came to California, he said, "I want to come to your house and eat with you." So my wife made some chicken and we invited friends like Oprah Winfrey over. He's like the grandfather I never had -- sitting in the living room telling stories. My children invited their close friends to meet him so they got to talk with him and take pictures. He's so normal and wanted to be treated that way -- and he was, apart from the helicopters and the security everywhere.'
We're sitting at either end of a green velvet sofa in an Art Deco suite at the Casa del Mar hotel on the beachfront in Santa Monica. He's an imposing presence -- 6ft tall -- and I'm conscious of how toned he is. A strict regime of weights, boxing and swimming is obviously keeping middle age at bay.
Washington's films have grossed a staggering $3bn worldwide, and include such blockbusters as The Pelican Brief, Crimson Tide and American Gangster. But he's also known for performances in groundbreaking dramas that have earned him five Oscar nominations, a record for an African American actor (held jointly with Morgan Freeman). And he has tackled controversial subjects, notably in Richard Attenborough's Cry Freedom, where he played South African anti-apartheid leader Steve Biko; Malcolm X, Spike Lee's biopic, about the assassinated black activist; and Philadelphia, which dealt with Aids.
At 55, the only clue as to his age is a distinguished smattering of grey in his hair. He's a devout Christian ('I read the Bible every day -- the Book of Joshua absolutely inspires me') and family-focused but deeply uncomfortable talking about himself. His new film, Unstoppable, is directed by his friend Tony Scott (brother of Ridley). It's a thrilling rollercoaster ride in which his character attempts to stop an unmanned runaway train.
'During the stunts we were running from carriage to carriage on top of a fast-moving train,' says Washington. 'In one scene we go backwards to catch up with the runaway train, and I climb up on top of a carriage and jump down between cars to turn on the manual brakes and slow it down. I was connected to a wire, but you can still fall off the side of the train at any moment. The camera guys are on top, but they're sitting down with a safety rail around them and they're strapped on, while I'm having to run and there are helicopters buzzing all around your head. The director says it's safe -- "Oh, the wire will hold you if you stumble" -- but the wire is loose, and I could still fall off the side or a passing tree or branch could hit me.'
He starts swaying in his seat, arms flailing, to illustrate his point.
'People are flying through windows; they crash real trains, they blow trains up. And you don't realise how tall a train is. You're way up there and it's not a smooth ride. It jerks all the time and the cars rattle and so at that moment it doesn't matter how much money you're making, if you fall off that train going 50 miles an hour, you're in big trouble. …