Scene: The Washington office of a big-time lobbyist, with a view of the Capitol and a lot of chrome furniture. The cafeteria of the carpenters' union building on Constitution Avenue NW has been transformed, although even Hollywood cannot erase the aroma of brussels sprouts that permeates the area. Director Sidney Lumet and a lot of camera equipment are focused on actors Richard Gere and Denzel Washington, the former playing a political consultant and the latter a lobbyist. The movie is called "Power."
"We wanted you to know if you tried to screw us, something bad could happen to you," Washington says to Gere.
"Cut," says Lumet. Lights are adjusted, and a man fusses with the body mike taped to Washington's double-breasted pin-striped suit.
"You cannot go too far for me," Lumet tells Washington. "Quiet, please." Ready for Take Four.
The first part of the scene is repeated. This time Washington gives a sinister laugh before his last line. "We wanted you to know if you tried to screw us, something bad could happen to you," he says.
"Cut and print," Lumet says.
With that, Denzel Washington finished his part as an ambitious political lobbyist and prepared to return to Los Angeles, where he was rehearsing a play. That had to be completed before he resumed his part as a young doctor in "St. Elsewhere," the Emmy award-winning television series about an urban hospital which has its season premiere tonight. Washington is a busy man. Indeed, he is quite proud that he has hardly stopped working since he finished school six years ago.
He was touted for an Oscar nomination for his role as Pfc. Melvin Peterson in "A Soldier's Story" -- the deceptively innocent soldier who gives the picture its final twist. He didn't get it, although he had won off-Broadway's Obie award for the role during the original production at the Negro Ensemble Company. There have also been two television movies ("License to Kill" and "Wilma"), another feature film ("Carbon Copy," starring George Segal) and several other plays. And he recently fulfilled a childhood dream: He bought his mother a Buick. And paid cash.
It's as Dr. Phillip Chandler on "St. Elsewhere," however, that Washington, a one-time premed student, has gained the kind of popular recognition that is both the boon and the curse of serious actors. Chandler is an intelligent and ambitious young man, portrayed not as a black paragon, but as a human being with all the flaws and problems of anyone else. In the first episode of this season, tonight, he is featured in one of the intertwined story lines characteristic of the series, visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial here to honor his dead brother.
But Denzel Washington is, frankly, rather tired of talking about "St. Elsewhere" after three years.
"My philosophy is I'm kind of like a cupmaker. My interest is in making the best cup. Once I've made the cup -- and from the mail I get, I guess I'm making a pretty good cup -- I put my energies into making the next cup and not in worrying about what people think about it." But, he adds, "the television series has been very good to me. I do want to expand creatively, but they're going to have to kick me out."
Now 30, Washington is good-looking without being a pretty boy, the kind of looks malleable to the part. As Pfc. Peterson, he wore glasses and looked deceptively studious and earnest; in "Power," which is scheduled to be released next February, he is a suave, expensively dressed executive. His favorite part was playing Malcolm X in a play at the Henry Street Settlement in New York City.
Washington was raised in Mount Vernon, N.Y., a largely middle-class suburban area that he described as a "buffer zone" between New York City and its wealthy suburbs. His mother owns several beauty shops, and his father is a preacher now living in Dillwyn, Va. They were divorced when Washington was about 14, and that is another subject he doesn't much like to talk about.
"I guess it made me angry," he says. "I went through a phase where I got into a lot of fights. Working it out, you know."
He was a typical underachiever, he says, more interested in asking "why" than in following the strict academic line. But a guidance counselor urged him to apply to a private boarding school ("very rich and very white") in Upstate New York. He got in, with a scholarship, and went from there to Fordham University. There a latent interest in theater finally flowered when he auditioned for and got the lead in a student production of "The Emperor Jones."
"I had been involved with the Boys' Club and the YMCA for years," he says. "I went to camp so much, by the time I was 13 I was a counselor. I was a good leader. We put on shows and my group was always the best. I guess I was kind of a director in those days . . . Otherwise I was a jock. Football, football, football. When I was 14, I wanted to become a pro. And I played piano in a soul band called The Last Express. We imitated Grand Funk Railroad."
Some members of The Last Express have been in and out of prison, he says, a fate he escaped largely through the efforts of his mother. "She was very, very tough, a tough disciplinarian," he says. "Even when I was 15 or 16, I had to be home by the time the street lights went on. She saw to it I was exposed to a lot of things. She couldn't afford it, but she was very intelligent. She is basically responsible for my success."
But Washington is by no means content with where he is right now. He wants more and better parts, he wants more money, he wants to be a better actor.
"I wouldn't limit myself by having goals. I do what I do . . . I think I'm getting to where I want to go . . . It's like my son (1-year-old John David) trying to stand up. He falls down, he bangs his head. And I'm falling down too. So you rub your head, you get up, and you learn something."
On money: "I am not making as much money as I thought I would be. There's so much money in the world, I figure at least $20 billion of it belongs to me. Period . . . I just think that people play themselves real cheap. I don't. Whatever's coming to me, I expect. As a matter of fact, I try to create that for myself mentally." He says he's mad that he "wasn't a millionaire by age 25. I used to envision myself on the cover of different magazines, not as an actor. And (if I get it) I'm sure not going to feel guilty. I used to, but I've met too many millionaires and billionaires."
Yet he played Malcolm X for $700, for 12 weeks' work, and said he could have gotten five times what he made for his role in "Power" for a movie that he turned down because his character was hanged. "The producer told me it would be funny. I said, 'Funny to whom? To me? To black people?"
But Washington resists any effort to get him to talk about the position of black actors in Hollywood, or the cultural role model possibilities of his part on "St. Elsewhere." He used to see himself as a role model, he said, but felt stifled by all the implications. When Washington got a letter from a young black in New York who hadn't thought he could be a doctor when he grew up, Washington felt wonderful. But that's not why he's an actor.
"All I can do is play the part," he said. "I can't do this part for 40 million black people, or orange or green. On the other hand I'm not going to do anything to embarrass my people.
"I enjoy acting. It really dawned on me when I did "Carbon Copy." When I was shooting the movie, I said, this is when I feel most natural. This is really my world. I was obviously destined to get into this, and I guess I have the equipment to do it."