"Obama is in town … "
It would be hard to imagine any four words wreaking more havoc on Los Angeles's already-clogged thoroughfares. If POTUS only knew how many votes he was losing on his traffic-halting visits … Actually, he could probably count them all, one by one, fuming in their idling Priuses as his motorcade breezed past to some lavish Katzenbergian soirée.
So knowing I'd been given a very tight interview window, I left early. Three hours early. For a roughly seven-mile drive. This did nothing to alleviate my stress. As I drove, I imagined myself breathlessly explaining to Coach Boone that I'd actually left three hours earlier … "Son, we leave for camp at 7:29. If you report at 7:30, you will be watching — not playing … "
Of course, I arrived in less than 15 minutes.
A few leisurely hours later I walked into La Descarga, a handsomely appointed new Cuban restaurant where we were to meet. Milling around the unmanned bar were a small battalion of publicists, a photo crew, hair and makeup people, and, just as casually, some of the biggest movie stars in the world: Matt Damon, Richard Gere, Jamie Foxx, and Denzel Washington — all laughing and shooting the shit as they waited to shoot a Hollywood Reporter cover. Before we met, Alan Nierob — Denzel's publicist — told me: "Denzel's 'bored' talking about drinking … " ("Drinking" being the central, underlying theme of his new film, Flight); making sure to punctuate the end of the e-mail with: "So bored." The other thing he said was I'd have him for an hour — hour and a half at most.1 Oh — and Denzel wouldn't be having dinner with me. "Honestly, if he has an opportunity to have dinner in town? He's going to want to do that with his wife and kids." I really couldn't blame him.
Daniel: I really appreciate you doing this. I can only imagine where you spend the better part of a year making one of these artful, well-crafted movies … and then, like, your immediate reward is being asked the same inane questions over and over again. Must be like Dante's nine circles of hell.
Denzel: [Smiling coolly.2] I'm not worried about it. I know you're not going to do that …
Daniel: Well, anyway, if I ask a shitty question … just tell me and we'll get rid of it.
Denzel: You don't have to worry about it. You'll know. [Laughs.]
Daniel: Do you know Grantland, the site that you're doing this for?
Denzel: No. Tell me.
Daniel: Uh … OK … It's a sort of pop culture [and] sports site … part of ESPN … started by, uh, this guy Bill Simmons … ?
Denzel: OK. [Polite nodding.]
Daniel: … He writes a lot of basketball stuff? There's also, uh, a bunch of other interesting writers on there — Chuck Klosterman … It's sort of a smart site. With a slight intellectual slant to it …
Denzel: Why you interviewing me then?
Daniel: Are you at all interested in digital media? Or does that just pass you by?
Denzel: I don't even have a phone.
Daniel: Really? [Laughing.] You don't have a cell phone?
Denzel: Mm-mm. Not right now.
Daniel: So when people need to get in touch with you, what happens?
Denzel: They call the house, and I check the messages when I get home.
Daniel: [Laughing.] Wow. I like that. Old-school.
Daniel: But I did see you have a Facebook page — and it did seem like maybe that might have been you on there?
[Denzel looking at me skeptically .]
Daniel: There was a message last week: "Happy Friday, everyone, stay blessed and prosper well"?
Denzel: Nah, I don't have a Facebook. What is it? Just people do that? Pretend to be you?
Daniel: Yeah, there was a Twitter thing, too — but just two posts — Same thing: "Hello Twitter world — Denzel"
Denzel: [Laughs.] Really?
Daniel: Yeah. But it's not you.
Denzel: Not me!
Daniel: Yeah, I kind of had a sinking suspicion … OK, but speaking of Twitter, there is somebody on there I do love, and I was reading he's also one of your great friends — though maybe I'm wrong about this too? George Wallace?
Denzel: [Pauses.] No.
Daniel: The comedian?
Denzel: I mean, I know him, but he's not —
Daniel: — not one of your great friends.
Denzel: I haven't seen George in years —
Daniel: [Laughs.] Oh, that's too bad. I liked the idea that maybe that was true.3
Denzel: Yeah, I haven't seen George in years.4
Daniel: How about Seinfeld? I read you guys are also great friends? Or do I have that wrong too?
Denzel: I don't know Seinfeld. I mean, I know who he is, but —
Daniel: I'm starting with a thud here —
Denzel: Where has he been?5 Seems like he went back to New York and disappeared …
Daniel: Uh, yeah, I think — he's sort of retired from TV and now he's doing a web series —
Denzel: Oh, really?
Daniel: Comedians and cars.
Denzel: Oh yeah — because he's a big Porsche guy, right?
Daniel: He's a huge car guy, yeah.6
Denzel: Somebody else said that in another interview I did. They asked if I was good friends with George Wallace. They make all sorts of stuff up. I also heard I died in a snowboarding accident …
Daniel: I must have missed that one. So you had to deal with the repercussions of that too?
Denzel: You know a couple of people called me in a panic. Like, "Denzel!!" and I'm like "Yes?"
Daniel: Called the house?
Daniel: Do you even snowboard?
Denzel: [Laughs.] No!
Daniel: OK, so forget George Wallace … and Seinfeld … Are there people you haven't met that you want to meet? Though I'd kind of imagine at this point you probably have met everybody that you'd ever want to.
Denzel: [Pauses.] Ah, I'm trying to think.
Daniel: World leaders … or maybe other actors you admire?
Denzel: I'm sure, yeah, yeah …
Daniel: How about I throw some names to you.
Denzel: All right.
Daniel: Have you met Robert Redford?
Denzel: Yes. Yeah, I used to be on the board of Sundance.
Daniel: How about … Michael Jackson?
Denzel: Michael had fried chicken at my house.
Daniel: What was that like?
Denzel: That was cool.
Daniel: So you invited him to your house?
Denzel: He came over, I forget why, I think my wife had invited him, and he came over, and I was like, "He can eat!" He was going to town, man.
Daniel: What year of Michael was this? This was Bubbles-era Michael, or …
Denzel: We were in our old house, so it had to have been before '99. We moved in '99.
Daniel: Right, and anything that you remember other than he ate a lot?
Denzel: I just remember my kids coming downstairs and just staring at him. They were just standing there like [imitates shocked face]. I said, "Say hello," and they go, "Hello Mr. Jackson … OK, good-bye."
Denzel: They were just like, "Michael Jackson's in the house."
Daniel: That must've been great, because as your kids — well, I find my daughter — I work in TV, largely — but my daughter's pretty jaded. She doesn't really care about any of it. Did your kids get excited about that stuff?
Denzel: They didn't jump up and down, but they're very kind of low-key. I don't know if they get excited. Though I tell you what. My youngest son, Malcolm, he was like, "Dad, Jay-Z is doing seven shows across the country in one night. You gotta get tickets. He plays L.A. at like ten o'clock." So I'm like [dialing sounds] "Claudine, give me some Ts." "Yeah, yeah, they'll be here, just come backstage, you'll do the whole thing." And Malcolm was like [shocked face]. And I'm like, "Say hello, Malcolm." But it was so interesting, just the power of these young artists, because he got onstage, and all he had to do was start the song, and they all would take over — and do every line — and Malcolm was like right there with him like [pretend singing/rapping]. And I'm standing there, because we're in the wings, standing behind my son, and I'm watching all these people with their fists. And Jay's like, "Hovaaaaa!!!" and my son's like, "Hovaaaaa!" And I said, "Wow, he's got 'em." All he had to do was the first couple of notes of the song, and he'd say a line, and he'd [making the motion of putting the mic out] and they'd do it," and I said, "That's power."
Daniel: That's the cult of personality.
Denzel: Yeah. Hovaaaa!
Daniel: Yeah, that's cool. How about royalty? Ever go to those royal premieres where you meet the Queen or Prince Charles or anything like that?
Denzel: Nah, I haven't been invited to any of those.
Daniel: Really? All your movies?!
Denzel: I mean, I guess that's a different world. Unfortunately, I haven't been. But if you speak to the Queen, you can tell her I'd like to come by.
Daniel: OK [laughs]. I'll put in a good word for you, see what she thinks.
Denzel: Yeah, go hang out with Harry. No, wait, which one is the crazy one?
Denzel: Yeah, go hang out with Harry.
Daniel: William's the mild-mannered one. Harry's —
Denzel: I bet William's the nut. I bet you behind closed doors, William's the crazy one.
Daniel: Yeah, but Harry was the one who went to Vegas, had some girls over, got naked … took a couple pictures …
Denzel: What was he thinking?
Daniel: Who knows …
Denzel: Yeah, he wasn't. How old is he about? Mid-20s?
Daniel: Yeah, I think he's in the Royal Air Force too. But he seems like he's a good time, Harry.
Denzel: Good Time Harry.
Daniel: And probably another good argument for not having a phone. You're also a pretty big Yankees fan.
Denzel: Yeah, yeah …
Daniel: You know any of those guys?
Denzel: No, I don't know them personally, but I met [Robinson] Cano, and I met Derek [Jeter] over the years.
Daniel: I assume you watched the playoffs?
Denzel: Yeah, yeah, I was keeping up as much as I could.
Daniel: Do you get mad, do you yell at the TV?
Denzel: Yeah, nah — well, yeah, I do get upset about it.
Daniel: Or are you jaded because you've got so many rings already?
Denzel: What is it, like 26, 27?
Daniel: I think you're at 29.7
Denzel: Is it 29?
Daniel: I think it's 29. I might be wrong. I'm a Red Sox fan.
Denzel: Oh, really? WHOAAAAAA.
Denzel: Interview is over, I gotta go! [Pounds the table.] I gotta go!
Daniel: I was actually trying to save that for the end.
Denzel: Oh, man, the Red Sox? Ohhh my God.
Daniel: I grew up in Vermont, what can I say?
Denzel: No, no, I like, I like … uh, man, I can't even get it out. I couldn't even say it. I like, I like, I like, I like — I like Fenway Park.
Daniel: There's got to be one Red Sox you like?
Denzel: [Long pause.]
Daniel: I mean, I hate the Yankees. But I can admit I like Jeter … or I admire Jeter.
Denzel: [Long pause.] Rice — ?
Daniel: Jim Rice?
Denzel: [Backpedaling.] See, growing up in New York as a Yankee fan, you're not allowed to like Boston —
Daniel: No, I get that. I get mad when I see Ortiz talking to A-Rod. It makes me angry. I have to agree with you. I think they shouldn't be friends.
Denzel: Well, that's for the fans. You know, the players —
Daniel: Or at least pretend not to like each other, like with Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk back in the day — I like that, when they truly hated each other's guts. But you've been a Yankee fan forever, right?
Denzel: Oh yeah … back in the day … I go back to like Tommy Tresh, Whitey Ford, what was that team, Clete Boyer?
Daniel: Yeah, that's '60s.
Denzel: Who else was on that … Phil Linz, Bobby Richardson, Joe Pepitone, the Mick and Roger, Elston Howard, and Yogi, they'd platoon as catcher.
Daniel: Yeah, I can do that, too. Like '75 Red Sox, I can probably name 20 of them I bet. —
Denzel: '75 was the famous jumping up in the air —
Daniel: Yep, Fisk, waving it fair.
Denzel: Yeah, was it Carlton Fisk? And Yaz [Carl Yastrzemski]? You gotta respect those guys. Whatever I have to say about the Red Sox, I have the utmost respect for those teams. Those were some serious …
Daniel: Me too. But they never won.
Denzel: Yep, never won.
Daniel: But yeah, those were my idols. I remember going to Fenway as a kid and seeing Yaz smoking in the dugout.
Daniel: Yeah, just having a butt between innings.
Denzel: You know what blew my mind as a kid? They took us to see the Harlem Globetrotters. I was in the cub scouts, and our den mother took us to see the Harlem Globetrotters, and we'd go backstage — backstage? [laughs] — locker room at halftime, and they're smoking and playing cards.
Daniel: That's great.
Denzel: [Laughs.] I was like, "Nooo!" Because as kids, we all thought, you know, "Oh, they can beat any NBA team. We thought the Globetrotters — There was always that argument, you know? And these guys were smoking cigarettes and playing cards.
Daniel: Meadowlark Lemon actually lived in my hometown — Brattleboro, Vermont.
Denzel: He was there. Meadowlark Lemon. I met Meadowlark Lemon. I don't know if Goose Tatum was on that team, but —
Daniel: Curly —
Denzel: Yeah, Curly, Meadowlark.
Daniel: Yeah, it's funny. We remember those guys. Can people name the Globetrotters today? I don't think people know them in that same way, but I remember.
Denzel: Where are they now?
Daniel: I'm pretty sure they still do it.
Denzel: The old pail-of-water-paper-trick, you know the same ol' —
Daniel: Yeah, exactly, the paper confetti, yeah, yeah.
Denzel: Oh, here's something funny, talking about Jeter — I remember we were at Anaheim, at an Angels-Yankees game, and we had some great seats. So we were right near the on-deck circle, and Jeter was warming up, and so I said, "Jeter, this is my son — last week, he was the no. 2 running back in the country … " And he looked up and said, "Oh, he must get that from his mother's side."
Denzel: Then he got up, clicked his heels, and hit a home run.
Daniel: Wow, that's funny.
Denzel: And I was, like, for the next half-hour, I was the butt of all jokes. I'm figuring in this sea of Angels, I'm the only Yankee fan there, and I'm going to show everybody that I know Derek, and he throws me under the bus.
Daniel: It's funny, like Derek seems so mild-mannered, like it's funny that he would go at you.
Denzel: No, but he did it so smooth. Just clicking his heels, cleaning his cleats, must've had that home run on his mind …
Daniel: Let's talk about your son. Played two years with the St. Louis Rams, right?
Denzel: Yeah. What was trippy is that it was my dream to be a running back in the NFL, and then my son became a running back in the NFL.
Daniel: I know, it's amazing. I was watching, actually, the videotape you showed, when you were on Letterman?
Denzel: Yeah, that was in the UFL.
Daniel: Right, Daunte Culpepper was the quarterback.
Denzel: And he ran that touchdown —
Daniel: [Laughs] Yeah, and your wife is running down the sideline with him, and the defender on the other team just tramples her …
Denzel: That's right, that's right.
Daniel: But what struck me was — and I'm not judging — if it happened to my wife I definitely would have laughed too — but you seemed particularly amused by that. Did your wife mind how much you seemed to enjoy that story?
Denzel: Well, she was all right, so it was fine. As I said, she bounced right up.
Daniel: That was an amazing piece of videotape. But that must've been really something for you as a dad when your son gets all these colleges recruiting him to play ball …
Denzel: Yeah, he had a four-year scholarship at a small school, Morehouse, and became the all-time leading rusher in the history of the school.
Daniel: Spike Lee went to Morehouse too, right? Did he try to talk up the school to you and your son?
Denzel: Yeah, he probably did, I think so. Yeah, I think he did. But I also liked what they said. He had about half a dozen scholarship offers, and Morehouse, the athletic director called and said, "You know we want to give your son a scholarship to Morehouse." And I said, "Well, you know, I mean I love Morehouse, and you know, I've got a couple of dollars, so I'll pay for it, and why don't you give the scholarship to somebody who really needs it?"
Denzel: And he said, "We're not giving you the scholarship. We're giving him the scholarship. He earned it."
Daniel: Right, right.
Denzel: And I liked that, that's when I said, "Oh, OK." I liked that. I dug that; I dug that.
Daniel: Yeah, and that makes your son obviously feel great also, that he earned that himself going in.
Denzel: Yeah, and he's, you know, I think when he got there, the guys are going, "Oh, what's he doing here, he's just here because of his dad" and all that. Then he broke all the records in the history of the school.
Daniel: And then they knew why he was there.
Denzel: And then they knew why he was there.8
Daniel: I have a question about your wife … you've been married nearly 30 years …
Daniel: I should say indirectly about your wife … Because earlier this week, Michelle Obama — who, by the way, is already married to the charismatic, handsome leader of the free world — she says she has a crush on you.
Denzel: [Surprised.] She said that?
Denzel: [Pause.] Cool.
Daniel: You didn't hear that?
Denzel: No. But it's nice to be loved by the First Lady … that's, I mean, that's nothing to be pissed off about.
Daniel: Yeah, I was wondering about that. I mean how about your wife? Does she hear that and just roll her eyes, or does she go —
Denzel: I don't know if she's heard that one.
Daniel: Well, 'cause, like, my wife is from Texas. She gets super jealous. She would not like Michelle Obama one bit after that. I mean, that's my wife, but your wife, is she —
Denzel: I mean, did you see it when she said it? I mean, in what —
Daniel: Yeah, they asked her on a talk show, like Kelly and Michael or one of those shows, and she said her crush was you.
Denzel: Wow. That's cool.
Daniel: Yeah, I thought that was pretty cool, too.
Denzel: Sorry, Mr. President.
Daniel: Meanwhile — so, your wife doesn't care about that stuff.
Denzel: I wouldn't say she doesn't care, but maybe she just doesn't know.
Daniel: Well —
Denzel: I mean she knows now.
Daniel: Well I'm guessing she probably doesn't read Grantland either …
Denzel: Right, right.
Daniel: And at the same time, a while back, President Obama said he'd want you to play him in the movie of his life.
Denzel: Oh, yeah? I heard about that. He mentioned like me and Will Smith or something like that.
Daniel: What do you think about the election? How do you think Obama's chances are?
Denzel: I think he's going to win.
Daniel: You think so?
Denzel: Yeah, I think he's going to win. Close, but I think he's going to win.
Daniel: Did you watch the debates?
Denzel: Yeah, I watched a little bit of number … I don't remember which one it was.
Daniel: The bad one? The first one?
Denzel: No, I think it was the second one.
Daniel: Oh, that was a good one. I mean for Obama.
Denzel: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was the second one. The "bad" one? [Laughs.] Was it so bad?
Daniel: Yeah, that one was bad.
Denzel: Oh, that was the one where he didn't do so well.
Daniel: No, it looked like he had the flu, or I don't know what was going on. I think if you're the president, you can't say, "I don't feel well," because people will be like —
Denzel: "Too bad."
Daniel: Yeah, "Suck it up."
Daniel: But yeah, yeah, so do you have a relationship with the Obamas? Do you know them at all?
Denzel: Nah, nah — I mean, I met them. And I've been to the White House, but it's not like I talk to them on Saturdays.
Daniel: Right, right. So you weren't like all charming with Michelle at some point? To where maybe she got it in her head …
Denzel: No. Don't get me in trouble, man!
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