Daniel: Let's shift gears to the movies a little bit here. I was watching Flight, and yet in the movie — do you ever do this? Where you watch a movie and there's, like, a "money" phrase — which is invariably always the title of the movie? And the phrase they kept saying again and again in this movie was "Act of God." And I was wondering — was that maybe the original title?
Denzel: No, it was always Flight. Hmm, though, yeah — I think a couple of extra "Act of God"s got into the script, but that's the nature of the accident and all —
Daniel: But there's also this sort of religious underscore to it, too — where your co-pilot in it, he's a bit of a religious zealot —
Denzel: Right, right.9
Daniel: There was a scene also where he kind of goes on a little bit of a super-religious tangent, and his wife also goes on a little bit of a tangent —
Denzel: When he asks me to pray?
Daniel: Yeah, and you kind of give a little bit of an eye roll — and I think the audience does a little bit of an eye roll, too. And then I thought, and again, thinking about it, I know you're a guy who's pretty religious himself, right?
Daniel: And so, I mean, is that — is that tough, where if you're personally religious to then pretend to be incredulous about religion?
Denzel: Well, yeah, and actually, in that scene, we actually, when we shot it, she kept saying "Praise Jesus," then something-something-something, then he said, "Praise Jesus," and [the other characters] kind of look at me, and I said, "Praise Jesus." I mean he's, I'm doing, you know, whatever I can do to win in that scene. I'm walking around trying to manipulate people.
Denzel: It's terrible. I mean, people probably didn't pick up on this, but when I see the co-pilot on television, I don't have a brace or the cane. But when I come into the hospital, I got the brace and the cane. I'm working it, looking for my own sympathy.
Daniel: Yeah … no, I did notice that — because I also noticed when you had that scene before with the Cessna, you're walking around a little better, like jumping off the ladder, all spry — and then like the next scene, like the moment after, you've got your cane again …
Denzel: Yeah, and I'm fine.
Denzel: Yeah, some people probably go, "Oh, man, they messed that up."
Daniel: Yeah, that's a really good movie. You do seem to have a knack for picking good ones. A better batting average than most, for sure …
Denzel: Great, thank you.
Daniel: And then let me ask you this. And this may be sort of a na´ve question, but do you do that thing where you stay in character while you're making a movie, even after the cameras stop rolling?
Denzel: You do stay — I mean, you stay, you know — you take the clothes off and go home. I'm working on it, but I don't —
Daniel: So off-camera, when you talk to your co-stars, you're not that character, you're Denzel.
Denzel: It's not that cut-and-dry. It's not that cut-and-dry.
Daniel: Have you worked with actors who insist on staying in character?
Denzel: Well, they — you know, they have a right to. I mean, sure.
Daniel: Yeah, I'm just curious because I've never been around it. But do some actors insist on being in character even after you stop rolling?
Denzel: Yeah, some do, yeah.
Daniel: … it just seems it could be, I don't know, a little annoying? [No response. He doesn't bite … .] OK: Here's another thing I was wondering: You smoke throughout this movie. But you don't smoke in real life, right?
Daniel: So is that hard to do?
Denzel: Well they usually use the fake, you know, what do you call that, that stuff? Green leaf something? It's herbal. Because you know, we're doing take after take after take.
Daniel: So those aren't addictive, then?
Denzel: No, they're not — they're not tar and nicotine.
Daniel: Right. OK, we talked about your son and his athletic accomplishments. Let's talk about yours. You played college ball under P.J. Carlesimo at Fordham [University], right? What do you remember about him?
Denzel: He was tough. He was crazy. He was real hard on us.
Daniel: When you say crazy, what do you mean?
Denzel: He just made us run and run and run and run and run and run and run. But we were 19-1, our freshman team, so he was a good coach.
Daniel: And did you go beyond the freshman team, or was that it?
Denzel: No, that was it. I didn't have a scholarship. I was just a walk-on.
Daniel: Right, right. And when you say crazy —
Denzel: I mean, he was just hard. But it paid off, you know. Always talking about in the fourth quarter, and how you gotta be ready —
Daniel: Your son actually talked about that a little bit, too. He said in that Sports Illustrated article, he was talking about how you were super tough on him in that same kind of hard-coaching way.
Denzel: Yeah, probably some, yeah. In that P.J. Carlesimo mode, making him tough.
Daniel: Yeah, but honestly — nothing wrong with it — in hindsight, you always remember it, I think, in a good way.
Denzel: In a good way.
Daniel: I mean, in the moment you might not be happy, but in the end … . Are you sort of that way when you approach a film, are you no-nonsense, or do you feel like — ?
Denzel: I mean, yeah, I'm there to work. I'm not there to socialize. So I like to, as you said, stay in character, concentrate on what I'm doing, not chitchatting with everybody. Nobody goes to the movie and goes, "Man, that movie sucked, but he really was nice to everybody."
Daniel: Right. So you're there to do your job —
Denzel: To do my job, that's right.
Daniel: Even though I did read that Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, you did give him a hard time.
Denzel: Yeah, I gave him a hard time — but yeah, he laughed all the way to the Oscars.
Daniel: I read that.
Denzel: Yeah, he couldn't eat; I was always trying to give him Almond Joys and Snickers and stuff. He couldn't eat. He was eating like 800 calories a day when he was supposed to be the skinniest — but he got the last laugh when he won. "And I want to thank Denzel … and his Snickers bars. He had to eat. Here's your award … ."
Daniel: Yeah, that's funny. Oh — you know what I want to ask you about? I remember years ago seeing a picture of you a couple of years ago — I think at a Knicks game — and you having this crazy, messed-up pinky.
Daniel: I never forgot it. It was pretty extreme … . You still have it?
Denzel: No, I got it fixed.
Daniel: It was like —
Denzel: It was flopped all the way over to the side. Yeah, from football. I went up for a pass, and the ball hit it, and then I just kept dislocating it, dislocating it, and it finally got so worn out when they showed me the X-ray, the bone was just — the whole thing was just worn out.
Denzel: So I mean, if I did that [bends finger back], it would pop right over there.
Daniel: Did your kids used to freak out over that?
Denzel: Well, they were like bringing their friends over, like, "Dad, show them the magic finger."
Daniel: The magic finger …
Denzel: Yeah, I'd do something special, like [makes sound — aughhhh ahhhhh], and their friends would be like [AAAAAAhhhhhh!!!!], and they'd run. My kids would be like, "I told you!" And they'd be like, "That's so gross — put it back!" And I'd make it seem like [ugh, ah — makes motion of snapping finger back in place]. "There you go."
Daniel: The magic pinky. You've clearly got a good sense of humor. How about comedies — you ever think about doing comedies?
Denzel: I just did a picture with Mark Wahlberg. We'll see if it's a comedy, but there are some jokes in there. I'd like to do some comedies.
Daniel: Well, your first movie was a comedy.
Denzel: Oh yeah, Carbon Copy. Well, in theory it was a comedy.
Daniel: Yeah, when it came out, it had one of the greatest taglines ever: "Any resemblance between father and son is purely hysterical."
Denzel: Oh boy, well, there you go …
Daniel: It's funny. This is the horrible thing about the Internet, of course; you can go on YouTube and watch anything from any time, it's like it's all there, you know.
Denzel: It's all there. Carbon Copy's on there?
Daniel: Oh, Carbon Copy's on there in 15-minute chunks, so you can watch it. I watched the first 15 minutes —
Denzel: That's about enough. That's all you need — that's all you need.
Daniel: I read you also went up for the Tubbs part on Miami Vice?
Denzel: [Shakes head.]
Daniel: Yeah, looks like we're going full circle on the Internet research here …
Denzel: I don't even think I was acting then! When was that?
Daniel: '84?10 Early '80s?
Denzel: '84? No, maybe. I was acting then, so maybe — not sure on that.
Daniel: Yeah, maybe even doing St. Elsewhere back then … ?
Denzel: Yeah, I was doing St. Elsewhere then, that's right.
Daniel: So at the end of these interviews I like to ask 10 totally random questions, you know, if you're OK with that.
Daniel: Any music or a record album that changed your life?
Denzel: Oh, wow. Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. I just loved it.
Daniel: How did it change you?
Denzel: I mean, it didn't change my life, but I just remember it, when it came out and Marvin had that cool Nehru jacket on, and it was raining, and he had that [collar] thing up.
Daniel: Right, and what music do you listen to now?
Denzel: I'm listening, I got in the car right now, I'm listening to Zap Mama. You heard of Zap Mama?
Daniel: I don't know Zap Mama.
Denzel: Oh, well, check 'em out.
Daniel: All right. Do you ever get nervous?
Denzel: Yeah, sure.
Daniel: When do you get nervous?
Denzel: Sometimes like, especially doing theater, you know, like first preview, first performance.
Daniel: Right, so you never get over it as an actor, like you don't feel —
Denzel: I don't think you ever get over it. Even your first day of shooting, your first shot — you feel, you know, a little edge.
Daniel: What's the most hot dogs you've ever eaten at a sporting event?
Denzel: I actually got sick one time from eating hot dogs — at a Yankees game — but it had nothing to do with the Yankees. But one time I ate some hot dogs — but then we had some wine with the hot dogs.
Daniel: Wine? Not beer?
Denzel: Wine. Then we went downtown to a sushi restaurant, ate sushi with some kind of, some drink, and then we went out to a club, and had vodka and cranberry juice. And you know when you get that "it's too hot in here" and all of a sudden you break out in that sweat? And you can feel it coming? And I'm fighting my way to the front door. Oh, you've been there, right?
Daniel: [Laughs.] Yeah, I think everybody's been there.
Denzel: Well, I think that food, all that mixture of stuff, the club had no air conditioning. It was like this [motions] big, no air. Packed, people on the tables, and I'm sitting there, and I'm starting to like get that [motions that he feels sick], and then sweat broke out, and I'm fighting to get out because I didn't want to throw up on anybody. I made it outside, but —
Daniel: That's a good one.
Daniel: When you made [The Taking of] Pelham 1 2 3, did you ever fly with John Travolta?
Denzel: No, no. I would, but I mean — He's got a big Qantas plane or something, a 767?
Daniel: Yeah …
Denzel: He's got two or three planes.
Daniel: Yeah, I was just wondering, if you would —
Denzel: Yeah, he's an expert pilot. I think he did like a solo around the world or something like that.
Daniel: Yeah, no, I was wondering. That would just make me anxious, probably.
Daniel: Have you ever been fired from a job?
Denzel: Uh, yeah, must've been. Yeah, I was. I think. I remember quitting a job. It was funny. I was at the American Conservatory Theater. I was studying in San Francisco, and my first television role was coming up, so I'm getting excited about it — my name's in the TV Guide. And I actually bought a TV Guide, and I was showing it to the people in this restaurant where I worked, showing it to the manager, and it was coming on let's say Monday, or whatever day it was coming on, and I never worked that day — and he changed the schedule. He says, "You've gotta work Monday."
Daniel: Aw …
Denzel: Yeah, he changed the schedule, I said … "But — " He said, "I don't care — you've gotta work Monday." So I went in Monday, and they would allow you to go in before work and eat for free. I came in, got my tray, it was like a slide down the thing. I got my soup, had a glass of wine, I had some dessert. I brought a couple of my buddies, we ate. And he's like, "Denzel," and I say, "Yeah? I'll be right back, I'll be back." Never came back.
Denzel: Went home, watched the show. But that was low, man.
Daniel: Yeah, but he had that one coming.
Denzel: Yeah, yeah, but I could just see the look, like, because I was trying to play it, too, like I was pissed when I was there, like I was gonna eat, and he was like, "It's almost time for your shift." And I was like, "All right, I'll be right back." Haven't seen him since.
Daniel: How about your weirdest job outside of acting?
Denzel: I've worked … let's see where else I've worked. I was a garbageman.
Daniel: In New York?
Denzel: Yeah, Mount Vernon.
Daniel: Union or not union?
Denzel: Nah, summer.
Daniel: You ever get any good stuff? See any weird stuff?
Denzel: Well, there's garbage, and then there's haulage. Now haulage is great, because haulage you'd see, haulage was like somebody would call in, and you would go pick up some mattresses or a couch or old TVs and stuff like that. But your driver used to get side jobs, like we'd go up into Westchester, and they might've chopped down a bunch of trees, and they want us to clear all the wood, so you were always like, hurry up and get our regular work done, and he'd always have some side jobs for us, and you might get an extra 10 bucks a pop or something like that.
Daniel: But you weren't furnishing your house with the haulage stuff then?
Denzel: [Laughs.] No, no, no.
Daniel: Do you believe in fate?
Denzel: In fate? Um, that's a good question. I don't know. That things happen for a reason?
Denzel: Yeah, I'd say yes.
Daniel: What made me think about the question was there was something about how when you were a kid there was a woman who came to your mom's hair salon —
Denzel: Oh, yeah, that said I would travel the world and speak to millions of people?
Denzel: Yeah, and then I started acting five months later.
Daniel: You think that prompted you? Do you feel like in your head that was some sort of an impetus that got you going, or —
Denzel: Well, when she left, I asked my mother, "Who was that?" And she said, "Well, she's one of the oldest church members in town, and she's known to have the gift of prophecy, like she's known to prophesize," and she was clear as day. She said, "Young man," and mind you, I was flunking out of school, I wasn't even in school, and she said, "You're going to travel the world. You're going to travel all over the world, and you're going to speak to millions of people," or she said, "You're going to preach to millions of people or speak to millions of people." So I don't know if I preach to them, through the movies —
Daniel: You could make that argument — there are certainly messages in the characters you portray.
Daniel: Have you ever been in a physical fight?
Daniel: When's the last one?
Denzel: It was a while, yeah. I mean, I box, but like —
Daniel: No, I mean like —
Denzel: A street fight, yeah.
Daniel: Well, just like someone pissing you off —
Denzel: Maybe in my early 20s or something. It's been a long time.
Daniel: But nothing, uh —
Denzel: Make love, not war.
Daniel: You heard "What's Going On," and you changed —
Denzel: Yeah, that changed everything, that's right.
Daniel: Have you ever done a movie for money?
Denzel: We do every movie for money. You mean just for money?
Daniel: Just like, "Eh, I can live with this one — and then maybe I'll do something else down the road … ."
Denzel: Sometimes that's the case anyway. You might do a film like Flight where you know there's not a lot of money, necessarily.
Daniel: Yeah, that's what I mean. That's done for —
Denzel: For the love, yeah. Yeah, and you sacrifice, yeah.
Daniel: And there are other times where you go, "Eh, I can live with this"?
Denzel: Yeah, absolutely. I think so.
Daniel: I'm guessing you're not going to say which one.
Denzel: [Laughs.] I'm not going to tell you …
Daniel: Another one, I don't know if you'd answer this or not, but have you ever tried a psychedelic drug?
Denzel: [Laughs.] I'm not going to answer that.
Daniel: OK. Uh —
Denzel: I'm still tripping.
Denzel: Do they still make psychedelic drugs? Like acid and stuff?
Daniel: I think they do, but I don't know. I haven't taken one in a while.
Denzel: I don't know. I don't hear about it. You hear about college kids tripping.
Daniel: Yeah, mind-altering drugs.
Denzel: LSD, I mean, I grew up in the '60s. Went to high school from '68 to '72, so I did what they were doing between '68 and '72. In fact, I was in high school in upstate New York during Woodstock. I remember that Woodstock weekend.
Daniel: Did you think about going?
Denzel: Oh, we couldn't go. We were, like, going to private school, we had no — we were trying to figure out a way to sneak out.
Daniel: Actually, that's how I ended up with my first serious TV job, working with David Letterman.
Denzel: What, tripping?
Daniel: Yeah, in college. I took acid one night, and I suddenly had this epiphany — this one moment of crystal-clear, cogent thought where I was like, "I'm wasting my life. I better figure out what I'm going to do," and the next day, I called up the Letterman show. Letterman was my hero, and I got an internship and worked there for eight years.
Denzel: Is that right?
Daniel: Yeah, born out of an acid trip.
Denzel: That's trippy.
Daniel: Do you watch TV?
Daniel: Any shows you like? What shows do you like?
Denzel: ESPN, ESPN2, FOXSportsWest.
Daniel: How about any scripted TV?
Denzel: Nah, I don't really watch scripted TV.
Daniel: Anything you do that drives your wife nuts?
Denzel: I don't think we have that much time.
Denzel: Oh, I know what pisses her off. If I wash my hands in the sink where she washes the vegetables. She washes the dishes in that sink, but I can't wash my hands. Have you heard that before?
Denzel: She washes the dishes, the dishes have dirt and old food on them, but I can't wash my hands in 'em. I've got to watch my hands in the other sink.
Daniel: Wow. That doesn't seem right.
Denzel: No. I mean you're right there, you're right there, you think. I come in, and she's like, "Don't wash them! Wash your hands over there!" and I go.
Daniel: Runs a tight ship, yeah?
Denzel: Yeah, but she's been out of town for a week, so I've been washing my hands in there. Every day.
Denzel Washington's new film, Flight opened to unanimous critical acclaim this past weekend. You should see it. It's excellent.
Daniel Kellison (@Danielkellison) is a TV producer/writer and co-founder of Jackhole Industries with partners Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla. Among their many shows, he co-created Crank Yankers and The Man Show, and was the original executive producer of Jimmy Kimmel Live. Before that, he spent eight years as a producer for both Late Night with David Letterman and Late Show with David Letterman. Most recently he has been serving on President Obama's Entertainment Advisory Council. Last month he announced his deal with Google/YouTube for two new comedy channels launching in January: Jash, featuring partners Sarah Silverman, Tim & Eric, Michael Cera, and Reggie Watts; and the Video Podcast Network featuring Carolla and (he really, really hopes) Earwolf.