Denzel Washington, tall, imposing and well groomed, exudes his
charisma with ease. He's in Berlin for the film festival
(February 2000) with his latest film, The Hurricane, which made a
big impact at the festival; indeed, he won the Best Actor gong
(Silver Bear) for his portrayal. He relaxes easily into our
interview, explaining why he decided to approach the role of this
legendary boxer by examining Rubin Carter's physicality.
"That was the obvious way to start. I looked at the script
and it starts with boxing, and of course he [Carter] was a boxer
first, so I said ĎThatís what I have to try to become
firstí. And I had the luxury of time, so I wanted to learn
to box. Not only to appear to be somewhat professional on-screen,
but as an entrance to his way of thinking as a boxer - the way he
handled himself, the way he walked, the way he might express
Washington had been interested in boxing previously as a
spectator, but hadn't done any heavy training before. "I did
a little bit of boxing on Crimson Tide; in fact thatís where
I met the trainer who we used, Terry Clayborn. He was an
undefeated amateur and professional, but developed cataracts and
had to retire. He trained me for about 14 or 15 months, and I
said to him ĎYou look a bit like Emile Griffiní; so he
plays the first guy that I fight [in the movie]."
"As an actor, I was
taught to Ďscoreí a performance"
But the punishing preparation took its toll. "Yeah, I
still get headaches; and I have trouble with my rotator cuff;
with chips in my knuckles, my wrists..." he says.
Thereís no doubt Washingtonís portrayal of Carter is
remarkable (as evidenced by his Golden Globe and Silver Bear wins
for Best Actor and the Academy Award nomination); yet he
doesnít quite know how he does it. "Thatís what I
do!" he says. "I canít tell you how; itís
just what I do. As an actor, I was taught to Ďscoreí a
performance; to see what the arc of the character is. In Rubin, I
saw a sort of a spiritual transformation - so I had to see the
rough part of it in order to see the kind part."
The Hurricane, directed by Norman Jewison, examines the life
of Carter, a potential contender for a world championship title,
who was convicted of a crime he didnít commit - his
innocence was upheld by the US Supreme Court - and imprisoned for
Of course, many people will already be somewhat familiar with
Carterís story through Bob Dylanís song The Hurricane.
But Washington hadnít even heard the song until the
mid-1990s. He had a rather more personal introduction. "I
met Rubin Carter in about 1992, when I read the book. . . one of
the producers brought a copy of The Sixteenth Round to me. I
thought it was a fascinating book and I flew up to Toronto right
away and met Rubin and his Canadian friends." (These were
the people who were instrumental in the successful quashing of
"it was just a good
story, you know"
"Arnie Bernstein at that time had the rights; but I
didnít really talk to anyone [about making this film] until
about three years ago when Arnie came back to me with the script.
Then we started talking about directors; and when someone said
Norman [Jewison] was available I said Ďperfect!í So it
all came together."
The script, he says, attracted him because "it was just a
good story, you know. It had an interesting combination of events
- in Rubinís life, in Lezraís life, and the
Canadiansí lives - and I thought it would make a good film.
And it was a good part - gave me a chance to put some shorts on
Playing a real person, says Washington, did put added pressure
on him. "Well, yeah. I mean, heís still around - and he
was a boxer! So maybe fear inspired me (laughs). But it was
different from playing say Malcolm X because he was so famous. So
I actually felt more pressure in that film than in this
Although once shooting actually started Carter didnít
come on set very much, he collaborated heavily in the
preparation. "We talked about his not wanting or needing
anything, because that gave power to his oppressors, to his
jailers. And I talked to some of the guards who were there at the
time and they said they never broke him. Almost every inmate at
one time or another they broke, but they couldnít break
Rubin because he didnít do what everybody else did."
"I was nervous,"
Rubin Carter saw the film soon after it had been completed.
"I was nervous," says Washington. "I was waiting
to see what his reaction would be. And when I found out he was
really moved by it I was like ĎWell OK, Iíve done my
job!í If itís good enough for him, then thatís
"Itís important to me," says Washington
"that my films say something," and The Hurricaneís
examination of injustice and prejudice struck a chord with him.
He observes "Have things changed in America for the
better? Yes. Have they changed completely? No. Can they? I
donít know; but you can keep fighting against it. And I hope
a film like this can help. One of the themes of the film I liked
was that if you reach out to help someone, you never know what
the consequences of good can be."
As for the future, Washington is turning his hand to
directing. "Iím directing a film in the fall (late
2000). Itís also based on a true story - about a young man
called Antoine Fisher. He was born in prison in fact, his father
was murdered and he had a really hard life. But now he has a good
life; and itís based on that journey. I think we now have a
script I feel good about." Heís been working on the
project for three years already and now "after acting in 25
or 26 films, itís time."
important to me is that people see the film"
Of course, before he starts on his project, thereís that
nomination. "The Oscar would be nice to win, sure" says
Washington "but itís out of my hands now. All I can do
is keep voting for myself! (laughs). Whatís more important
to me is that people see the film"