Denzel Washington on movie revival of iconic play, "Fences"

Denzel Washington and his ability to be both versatile and familiar has made him one of Hollywood’s most sought-after stars.

For more than three decades, he’s been bringing iconic men to life, like civil rights leader Malcolm X and wrongfully convicted boxer Rubin Carter in “The Hurricane,” for which he won a Golden Globe. 

Washington earned his first Golden Globe and Oscar for his portrayal of Private Trip, a former slave turned union army soldier in the 1989 film, “Glory.” His many roles as “the good guy” have endeared him to audiences and critics. But Washington, who once said, “bad guys have all the fun,” has played his share of those too – as a corrupt cop in “Training Day,” which earned him his second Oscar, and American gangster Frank Lucas. 

His latest project, the film adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Fences,” is being lauded by critics and moviegoers. He also won a Tony Award for portraying the same role in the 2010 Broadway revival. 

“I love August Wilson and I loved the opportunity to do the play and to act with great actors,” said Washington, who described the play as Wilson’s “masterpiece.”

Washington said he wasn’t worried about the movie due to the play’s success, but admitted it was challenging.

“Every morning after about two and a half hours of sleep, I’d pop up, panicking about the shots I didn’t get. And then you immediately start working on it the next day,” Washington said.

Washington plays Troy Maxson, a 53-year-old black sanitation worker who once dreamed of being a professional baseball player. But he said his own life had few resemblances to the character.

“My father was nothing like Troy other than he was working class. He was a real gentleman -- my father wasn’t a yeller or screamer or anything like that. Not highly educated, made some of the same suggestions to me like you know, get a good trade,” Washington said. “He told me he worked for the Department of Water and Power or whatever they called it in New York and he talked to me about getting me a job there and 25 years I can be a supervisor if I stick with it.”

“Did he live to see you become the star you became?” co-host Charlie Rose asked.

“He passed away in Virginia -- I remember being down there and going into a store and he was saying to people, ‘You know who that is? You know who he is?’ And they didn’t,” Washington said, laughing. “‘You know who he is? That’s my son.’ I’m Denzel Washington Jr. So for him, that was a big deal.”

Washington, who also directed the film in addition to playing its lead role, said the job was “satisfying” because he loves “seeing other people do well.”

“I grew up in a boys and girls club, I grew up as a coach. So, directing is a natural for me because I’ve never been an outfront person,” Washington said. “It’s so interesting how my career and life has turned out because I’ve never been that person. I’m more of a ‘want-to-see-everybody-else-do-well.’ Now I have the opportunity.”

He raved in particular about his co-star, Viola Davis, who just won a Golden Globe for her portrayal as Troy’s wife. She also won a Tony for the same role on Broadway.

“She’s just one of the great actors of all time. Now happens to be her time. I’ve known it, but many of us has known it for years. And now the bigger audiences are getting to witness her brilliance,” Washington said.

Washington himself has been mentored by legendary actor Sidney Poitier, who told him that “the first four, five films you make will determine how you’re perceived in this business.”

But Washington said Davis did not need any advice. 

“I mean, what are you going to tell Viola Davis? Act better?” Washington said.

But he did lend some wise advice to his own children: “Do what you’ve got to do so that you can do what you want to do.”

“Because it’s not the other way around. I was just talking about homework that day. They wanted to go out and play, I said, ‘You what you’ve got to do, then you can do what you want to do. And then you’re free to do what you want to do – to a degree,’” Washington explained.

One of his sons, John David Washington, stars in a HBO series called “Ballers.” Washington said he did not see it coming, but wasn’t surprised that his son had followed his path, as his wife is also an actress and a “movie buff.”

“She watches everything, so the kids have grown up watching movies, so they’ve got it honest. They’re real movie fans,” Washington said.  

“Is he your favorite character?” co-host Gayle King joked.

“You know, he’s making a mark for himself as all of my children are. And we’re proud of him,” Washington said. 

“Fences” is playing in theaters now.