LOS ANGELES -- Want to know how brazen Denzel Washington is? Ask him if he thinks he's sexy. Other stars, questioned about the appeal that helped catapult them to celebrity, flush prettily before plunging Guccis-first into denial. "My lips," they protest, "are too full. My hair is a mess. See this bump next to my nose?" Washington merely looks puzzled. "What does that mean?" he asks. "Do I think people want to hear me say I'm sexy in the newspaper? Why do you want me to say it myself? That's embarrassing." The nerve of the guy. He's sitting in his publicist's wicker-and-Perrier office, smack in the center of Holly-weird, the town that bears the standard for an ego-driven world. And he's being, like, sincere. Shamelessly, with his whole, Hershey-bar smooth face hanging out, he goes on to explain why he avoids doing interviews. "I want to get away from reading about myself," he says. What's really important is "my sense about what I do, and not so much looking in the mirror, which is what reading about yourself is. You know, I'm flattered, but it's not productive. And it feeds on itself; the more you hear it, the more you want it ... and the more you may need to hear it." Right. An actor who avoids the mirror. A star ("Cry Freedom," "A Soldier's Story") less concerned about which gimmick will garner him more fame than about how well he handles the celebrity he already has. Take the time last year when Washington appeared in the Broadway play "Checkmates." "I would come out onstage, people would clap, respond, laugh. And then I'd come out after the show and 50, a hundred people would be waiting, screaming. You're signing autographs, you get in a limo and you ride away, it takes you across town, you go upstairs to your apartment and nobody is there. Your family's back home and nobody's there." It's human nature, he says, to get used to the cushion of that anonymous love, to expect it. So "the more people come up to you and say, 'Hey, Denzel, what's up?' then the more you wonder when maybe you go somewhere and nobody recognizes you. And then you start checking to see if somebody will." Washington is not supposed to be saying these things. He's not supposed to be saying much at all. By reputation, the actor is as private as he is congenial. So it's puzzling when he seems comfortable -- no, actually enthusiastic, discussing such personal issues as his continuing self-discovery as a black American, his effort to hoard his integrity in a town famous for squandering that commodity, the appeal of rising to the old-fashioned notion that much is required of those to whom much has been given. "We're all dealt a hand," he says matter-of-factly. "By the One above. And you've just got to play your hand... . I've been dealt a pretty good one, I know that. I've been given a lot. But in poker, you can be given three aces and still lose the game. It's how you play it." He thinks about this, picks a microscopic bit of lint off indigo linen slacks. "Maybe," he says, "I was dealt three aces." Then his laugh leapfrogs across three octaves. "Maybe Eddie Murphy was dealt five." He pauses. "But you know, how does he play 'em? I take my hat off to him, because he's kept his head on straight, he doesn't booze, he doesn't do drugs, he hasn't folded under pressure." He shakes his head. "And there's a lot of pressure." Washington, 34, knows. Though he has for some time been what he describes as that "minority among minorities, a working black actor," the star -- whose first role was in the 1977 made-for-TV movie "Wilma," starring Cicely Tyson as Olympic athlete Wilma Rudolph, and who made his feature film debut at age 25 in 1981's "Carbon Copy" -- has watched his career and celebrity take off in the last three years. Oscar-nominated in 1987 for "Freedom" (he lost the Best Supporting Actor award to "The Untouchables' " Sean Connery), Washington last year finished up a six-year run as Dr. Phillip Chandler on NBC's "St. Elsewhere." He won an Obie award for his role in the off-Broadway "A Soldier's Play," and recreated the part in the film version, "A Soldier's Story." Last year, he copped his first leading role in a feature film, the comic mystery, "The Mighty Quinn." Most recently, he appeared in "For Queen and Country," a little-seen exploration of the life of a modern day black British soldier. "Queen" was largely panned, but Washington received his customary good reviews. Next up: the "dramedy" "Heart Condition," costarring Bob Hoskins and Chloe Webb, due in October; and "Glory," a Civil War drama slated for a Christmas release. Okay, so the guy is versatile and talented. But there'd be less pressure on Washington if he didn't look so ... well, so good, in the least obtrusive way. Indeed, a man puzzled by Washington's mesmerizing effect on practically every movie-going woman he knew recently commented, "I mean, the guy just looks like a regular brother." Exactly. Despite the narrow intensity of his deep-set gaze and a face that's structurally as perfect as a pyramid, Washington -- like Kevin Costner and "L.A. Law's" Jimmy Smits today and Sidney Poitier and Gary Cooper once-upon-a-time -- could have been the hunk next door -- if you were extraordinarily lucky. There's a suggestion of Everybrother in his swaggering walk, in that savannah-wide smile. But ultimately, what resonates is something solid emanating from within. The result is, in the words of director Spike Lee, that "black women love them some Denzel." Washington, of course, knows this. And right now -- now that he has made it absolutely clear that he has no idea why anyone, even a reporter, would ask another person if he thinks he's sexy -- he's willing to fool around with the issue. Still, he's not above trying to act his way out of it. Stiffening, his voice robotlike, Washington intones the company line. "I'm very happy that I'm appreciated. By the opposite sex. When I was doing that play, 'Checkmates,' I really found out." Slowly, the steel drains out of his voice. "Because people are there -- not like in a movie, where the set is closed. And they, they really respond to you." He shakes his head. "It's ... live," he says wonderingly. "The women would" -- he grapples for a modest enough word and gives up -- "they'd holler. And it's great, it's flattering. I've learned how to deal with it, to enjoy it. Not to trip too hard, not to take it too seriously." He hesitates. "I'm getting better about it." Getting better. It seems to have been a lifelong obsession for the Mount Vernon, N.Y., native, the son of a Pentecostal preacher who worked days at the local water department and a mother whom he has called "a Harlemite cosmopolitan and a tough customer" who divorced when he was 14. Though he enrolled in journalism courses at Fordham University in the Bronx, an English teacher named Robinson Stone (who'd played Crazy Joe in the film "Stalag 17") encouraged his acting. It was in a Fordham drama class that the fledgling thespian stated that his goal was to be "the greatest actor in the world." Now he laughs at that. "Everybody looked at me like, 'Who is this stuck-up son of a gun?' " The comment was very much in character for Washington. His best friend, Los Angeles businessman Don Pope, says that when he moved to Los Angeles from Mount Vernon and was unsure exactly what kind of job to take, Washington gave him the best advice. "He said, 'Look, if you're gonna shoot for something, shoot big, especially if you have nothing to lose. If there's nothing to lose, what's the harm in it? If you fail big, so what?' " These days, Washington's goal is merely becoming "the best actor I can be." Which isn't easy in an industry that tends to let blacks, however talented, in one at a time. And though critics flatter him by calling him "the new Sidney Poitier," he hates the description because it is, by its nature, limiting. "I love Sidney, and that comparison bores the hell out of me. Because they want to put you in a box so they can know who you are." Anybody looking to box Washington might find him a difficult fit. Some would suggest his consistently fine notices and willingness to submerge his good looks (he gained 30 pounds to play the martyred Stephen Biko in "Cry Freedom") label him as an actor's actor in the Robert De Niro-Paul Robeson mode; for others, the sly humor he displayed in "Quinn" suggest he's the "closet comedian" he claims to be. Then again, that face and body would seem to indicate that he's a sex symbol -- despite the fact that, thanks to Hollywood's historic fear of portraying black sexuality, he has had only one honest-to-God love scene (a modest between-the-sheets frolic with Sheryl Lee Ralph in "Quinn"). What Washington is, he says, is isolated. One of the hardest things about being black in Hollywood can be the loneliness of "waiting for an opportunity to come your way but realizing there's no group of people like yourself who are successful, who can give you the faith to say, 'Well, if I wait, it will come.' So you end up taking {roles} ... that are not necessarily the best, that aren't optimum." He hesitates, mentally running down the list of black dramatic actors currently working as lead actors in film. "I have to look at it realistically," he says. "Who else is there? Who can I say? And you don't want to look at it along racial lines, but you have to. ... It's not like there's six or 20 black guys who are making lots of movies and it's all okay. You know? There's nobody. There's me." Dwelling on this, he knows, is counterproductive. "It gets to a point where either you do something about it or you keep complaining about it. And the way for me to do something about it is to not be a part of it, to continue to do my work, which is what I'm here to do anyway." That means staying too busy to notice, or at least to say, how unfair it is that despite having everything that, say, Costner has -- intelligence, sex appeal, real ability, that aura of concrete-solid Good Guyism we crave in our screen idols -- Washington hasn't yet attained mass recognition. It means having cross-country conversations with Brooklyn-based Lee regarding Washington's next project, the lead in Lee's next feature, "Love Supreme," a jazz-based love story that the director says will explore the relationship between black men and women. Filming starts in mid-September in New York. In the meantime, it means cooling out while he reads scripts and feeds his sports habit -- he skis, plays basketball, touch football and tennis, even Putt-Putt golf with his two kids. It means steering clear of those Hollywood hangers-on whose ostensible job is to keep the public at a distance. Why, he wonders, would he "pay for all these people to follow me around so they can tell me 'yes' every time I ask a question?" And it means trying not to think about earthquakes. Ask Washington about his fears, and before he mentions his concerns about raising kids in an increasingly crazy world, or every actor's paranoia about where the next part is coming from, he fastens onto quakes. "Oh, man, I tell you, something about the earth shaking," he says, faking a shiver. "But you know, it's not really the earth shaking, it's the sound before the earth shakes. See, I knew something was up the day before my first one (the Oct. 1, 1987, tremor that registered 6.1 on the Richter scale, Los Angeles' worst in a decade). "I could feel it." Washington's entire demeanor seems that of a man on the verge of something, a man who senses the imperceptible rumbles that precede the earth's rocking. The grip he keeps on his family, his obsession with staying humble -- four times during this interview, he outlines the folly of going on about oneself -- seem related to the uncertainty of the ground beneath his feet. Because in Hollywood, the folks who should know say he's going to be the one: the first black dramatic actor in more than 20 years -- the first since Poitier's heyday in the '60s -- who also is a bona-fide romantic lead. That's a big deal for Washington, and for a community whose dramatic screen idols (Billy Dee Williams, Danny Glover, Lou Gossett) invariably play second fiddle to white actors, regardless of their appeal. Breaking that mold, Washington knows, will trigger unpredictable shifts in the firmament. So he works. Focusing on his craft, he stretches in it, uses it to uncover unexplored fragments of himself. Early this year, while researching his role as a soldier in "Glory," based on the exploits of a much-decorated all-black Union regiment, he stumbled upon a new sense of belonging, a recognition of his right to be a part of this nation. Books like James Mellon's "Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember" and conversations with costar Morgan ("Lean on Me") Freeman "made me recognize, 'Hey, this is my territory, as much my space as anyone else's,' " says Washington. "I've earned it. And my father and grandfather, our great-grandfathers have earned it... . So I shouldn't feel like a visitor." He pauses, plucking at some more invisible lint. "That's new territory for me. Not ... that I was apologetic. But I know it now, for a fact. A lot of people don't realize that almost 200,000 black men fought in the Civil War." He shakes his head. "Most people do not realize that." It's ironic that this man whose race almost certainly has diminished his opportunities as an actor has used his career to explore his blackness. His trip to Zimbabwe and Tanzania to film "Freedom" was, he says, "like a homecoming. Comfortable. It answered a lot of questions, not even necessarily questions that you ask out loud. Things made sense, the way people, when they'd greet each other -- even men -- would hold hands and talk. Coming from the West, your mind goes to something sexual, but that's how we're screwed up." Washington is really loose now, alternately sitting, pacing, or standing, feet apart. He ruminates on how his family, wife Pauletta Pearson and their preschool-age daughter, Katia, and son, John David, "keep me regular." He theorizes about how whites -- whose limited view of what a leading man is may have slowed his attainment of that rank -- must never as a group be judged or dismissed. He wonders if he should publicly address young blacks about their particular challenges. "I'm not very good at it. Last time I spoke was to some foster kids and I was a mess, I started crying and carrying on, revealed some stuff I had never discussed publicly. ... But sometimes I think I should do more." As Washington talks, it becomes increasingly clear why he dodges the press the way other stars avoid wrinkle-inducing UV rays: the more assiduously you chip away at his cover, the more apparent his niceness becomes. This is a guy who feels compelled to admit his fears, his own inevitable bouts with ego, lest you be blinded by his apparent humility. Who appears to understand that perhaps his biggest challenge -- beyond the dearth of scripts for black actors who are both gifted and gorgeous, beyond defending himself from Hollywood's scandals and sycophants, its rampant cynicism -- could be staying, well, nice. How to do it? "A lot of things," he says slowly, "get in the way. "But you have to continually look for the good. You can have your blinders on so strong that somebody could be out there, tappin' on your shoulder, and you don't see them because you're determined to be angry. And the other person is going, 'No, I've got some love for you.' " In his own search for the good, the love, Washington says he seldom has to look further than his family, "the base that keeps me solid. "Acting is just a way of making a living. Family is life. When you experience a child, you know that's life... . Me and my 4-year-old son went to the Lakers game, we're walking by the bench, and I saw {Lakers guard} Michael Cooper. Michael put his hand out, like to {give Washington 'five'}, and my son said, 'Hey Mike, hi Coop!' He calls himself John David Michael Byron Scott Cooper. {Byron Scott is another Lakers guard.} And he walks around with my wristbands, he pulls his socks all the way up to his knees, and when they play the national anthem, he'll stand there, with his towel around his neck." Washington half-smiles. "Yeah, he's something." Washington and Pearson, a singer and concert pianist, have been married six years. Washington's best friend Pope was at the Greenwich Village loft party where the couple first met nine years ago. "First I walked up to her, this very pretty woman, and asked her to dance. Later, I spotted {Washington} talking to her. At the time they met, me and Denz and the crew were rampaging through New York, at every club, every Friday. But the next night, he said, 'Yo, fellas, I have to go out with the babe we met last night.' We went, 'Who-o-oa' ... There was something special about her, he sensed it right away ... Pauletta is super-super talented. And essentially, she's been putting her expertise in the background to raise a family, to do what she thinks is best for both of them." Nobody, says Washington, has taught him more than his wife has; nothing has been more rewarding than their union. And though he likes having what's widely regarded as a good marriage, there's a price. "I mean, it's very tough... . Most of the credit has to go to my wife. Our ability to hang in, to hold on, to be strong as a unit. ... But it's -- it's tricky. I don't want the weight of trying to be part of this couple that people dream about... . But at the same time, I'm from a broken home. So I kind of like the possibility of marriage being a thing that can work. And of our family being an example." He knows that he could do things differently. He could be more like some of his pals -- young, black celebs who "have the Porsche, the pad on the East Coast, the pad on the West Coast. I could chase the honeys like the rest of the fellas. But they all want what I got. I've heard it from every one of them. Eddie {Murphy} told me once, 'Man, I want to be like you. I want to be married, settled down.' " The laugh again erupts. " 'But not tonight. Tonight, I want something else.' " There's no judgment in Washington's tone; he understands the game while choosing not to play. Besides, other passions consume him. "My ultimate search," he explains, "is a search for self... . Everything I do now, work-wise, is spiritual." Ask why and he looks almost as incredulous as when asked if he's sexy. He points outside the six-story window, across the miraculously smog-free L.A. sky, toward an earth-brown stretch of mountain. "Look at the sky... . By faith, you have to have faith -- " He stops, frustrated. How to communicate this need to look within? Then he recalls a story. "The Hindus said the gods were walking around with the secret of life in their hands," he begins. "And they said, 'Where will we put it so mankind ... will really have to struggle to find it?' One of them said, 'We'll put it up in the Himalayas.' And the others said, 'Nah, they'll climb their way up there.' So they said, 'Well, we'll put it on the moon.' " He shakes his head. " 'Nah, they'll get up to the moon sooner or later.' " Then Washington snaps his fingers, exultant. " 'I know -- we'll put it inside 'em,' " he says. " 'They'll never find it.' "