About Features Reviews Community Screenings Archives Home
July 2004
The Manchurian Candidate: An Interview with Denzel Washington

By Wilson Morales

The Manchurian Candidate: An Interview with Denzel Washington

Can he doing anything wrong at this point? Probably not. Denzel Washington has been "The Man" for so long that when his films come out, there a level of substance that can't be touch. Even when it's the summer and Hollywood brings out enough popcorn films for you to put your brain to sleep, Denzel has a way of keeping you awake. His latest film, "The Manchurian Candidate" is a remake of the Frank Sinatra film of yesteryear and Denzel is playing Sinatra's role, Major Bennett Marko, a man obsessed with figuring out what wrong with him and his old Army buddy, Sergeant Raymond Shaw, play by Liev Schreiber. It's another amazing performance Washington gives, and he spoke to blackfilm.com about his playing Sinatra's part, working with Jonathan Demme again, and his upcoming projects.

At the Man on Fire junket you mentioned you hadn't seen the original Manchurian Candidate film [from 1962]. Have you seen it yet?

Denzel Washington: Naw I haven't yet. But I guess I should now [laughs].

How is it possible you missed seeing The Manchurian Candidate in your entire life?

DW: Cause growing up I didn't watch movies. When it came out in 1962 I was eight. I saw King of Kings. To be honest I never heard of it until I read the screenplay but there are probably a lot of movies I never heard of.

Did you read the novel?

DW: Nope. I kind of wanted to work with the screenplay. I didn't want to go back. Although it probably wouldn't have been a bad idea to read the novel but what we were doing was so different. Not so much what we're doing but the times are so different.

Frank Sinatra was in the original Manchurian Candidate. What did you think of the Rat Pack?

DW: I didn't follow them. I was eight. I didn't grow up watching the Rat Pack. I'm interested in Sammy Davis, Jr., and the story of Wil Mastin (of the vaudeville Wil Mastin trio) who was his mentor and teacher and not all the ninety thousand people that Sammy met in his life. I guess because it was in the paper everybody thinks I'm directing it (the project). I bought the rights with Brian Grazer (Imagine Films) of a great book that I read In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr. written by Wil Haygood and we're developing the material. It's a different take. It's really the relationship with him and Wil Mastin and his father. I just thought it was a great book and I wanted to try and shape a screenplay out of it.

Even though you never saw the film did you ever think about how you are playing a Frank Sinatra role?

DW: Maybe if I had to sing there would have been pressure. To me any good piece of material like Shakespeare ought to be open to reinterpretation. I played Othello but I didn't sit around thinking how Laurence Olivier did it when he played it. That wouldn't do me any good.

Tina Sinatra said you reminded her of her Dad because you're a tough guy on the outside but mushy on the inside. What do you think of that?

DW: I think that's beautiful.

Your character is haunted by recurring dreams. Have you ever had a recurring dream?

DW: Yeah the one we all have as young men but it's not the one you think. But guys they'll know what I'm talking about. You get up, you're dreaming. You think you've gotten up and you've gone to the bathroom but you really haven't. You think you're on your way to the bathroom and you're dreaming you're in the bathroom. So what do you do? You go to the bathroom, but you're still in the bed! Now it's warm in the bathroom so you wake up! Only boys would know that.

You were on this movie before Jonathan Demme. Did you get him involved?

DW: I sat down with [producer] Scott Rudin to talk about directors. He had a short list and I had a very short list of one. The first name he said was Jonathan, I said I love Jonathan and I wanted to work with him again. That was it.

What made you think this was good for Jonathan?

DW: I just wanted to work with him again. As names got tossed around that was the one I liked.

How was this experience of working with Jonathan different from when you together on Philadelphia [in 1994]?

DW: I'm older [laughs]. That was obviously a much more serious subject matter especially 11 years ago when we shot it. I'm more experienced having directed one film and acted in many more. Maybe more of a collaboration and a good vibe.

Was his directing style different?

DW: No I guess it was the same. I'm worried about what I'm doing and not what style they're shooting in. I don't want to people to say 'He had a great style but you sucked' [laughs]

How was it shooting in New York City?

DW: It was great. I'm from here so to be out on 42nd Street shooting where I remember standing 30 years ago and watching a guy burn himself up protesting the war. Right below my feet was the train station I used to sneak into because I didn't have any money. It's always great to come home and shoot.

Does being in the public eye give you a greater edge to play someone who is paranoid?

DW: You have a greater understanding of what it is to be watched or even to think you're being watched because you don't know when you're being watched. That's one of the weird things about celebrity is that you don't know who's watching. Or somebody will come up, 'yeah that was nice what you did. I saw you.' So it's strange. It's my least favorite part of acting, is celebrity.

How do you live normally when everyone is watching you?

DW: You pray for rain, you gotta deal with the mud too. That's a part of it. It's too late now. There's a struggle to do regular things because it's not a normal situation. I just do it anyway, I don't care. It's easier to do it in Los Angeles because everyone is a star.

Did you talk to veterans of the Gulf War or anything like that?

DW: I've done so many war movies because of Courage Under Fire so I had done a lot of talking to psychiatrists. The kind of research I did for Manchurian Candidate had to do with mood disorders and things of that sort because for me the question of this character is, What's wrong with me? Doctors have him on medication and they say Gulf War Syndrome but it doesn't seem jibe with that particular illness.

What attracts you to play the role of a soldier which you've done before in Glory and Courage Under Fire?

DW: I'm not attracted to playing the role of a soldier. I guess there's more soldier and cop films made for guys. War is the most extreme circumstances and it makes for heightened drama and that may have something to do with it. This script isn't an army movie. It's a movie about brainwashing. If it makes people think that's the point. Make up your own mind, don't be brainwashed.

What was it like working with Meryl Streep?

DW: I don't get to do anything with her. I'm an extra in her scenes. The most exciting day, because I didn't have scenes with her, was the read through. I'm sitting next to Meryl Streep 'The dingo ate my baby' I just start thinking about all those accents.

You still get enthused!

DW: Yeah I was watching her in my extra scenes. Her and Katharine Hepburn are probably the two greatest actresses of this and the last century.

The first Manchurian Candidate had the infamy of almost anticipating the Kennedy assassination. Do you worry about things like that in this time? People might think Manchurian Global is Halliburton.

DW: It could be. That's not a worry, that's a fact. There are a lot of huge corporations. Manchurian Global is like a Halliburton or a Enron or McDonalds [laughs]. That's nothing new.

The first movie was pulled for 25 years.

DW: I don't have that kind of power. I don't think anyone is going to anybody because of this movie. If somebody is making the decision to do that then they were close to that already. I don't think some college student is going to change his mind from graduating to killing someone because of this movie. I don't give a movie that much credit but I hope not.

What do you have coming up for you as a director?

DW: Three projects I am developing now. One about Sammy Davis Jr., one about soldiers in World War Two Tank Corp 762 from a book Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote called Brothers In Arms and one about a small school in Texas that had one of the best debating teams in 1935. It was about debating and smart people. Imagine that a movie about smart people.

Do you have a philosophy about what films you choose to make?

DW: I always say the time to worrying about flying is when you're on the ground. So not when you're up in the air, it's too late. No point in worrying about it then so if you don't trust the pilot don't go. Jonathan (Demme, the director) is the pilot. I trust the pilot, I got on the plane.

There is a heightened discussion going on now about Farenheit 911. What do you think of the strong reaction by people who haven't seen it?

DW: If nothing else this year has taught us that when people protest and are upset with a movie it becomes a big hit. They hated Passion of The Christ, it worked out pretty well for the box office. So let's get that going.

You recently won the Boys and Girls Club of America's highest award. What did it mean to you?

DW: My mother used to tell me man gives the award, God gives the reward. Awards are fine but the reason why we were there was to raise money for the clubs. I don't need another plaque. I'm glad that they gave me one, it's nice, but the point was six hundred thousand dollars went to the club I grew up in. We've now raised close to two million dollars and we're rebuilding the club so I agreed to accept an award as an excuse to raise money for the clubs.

When you first became an actor how did you continue to believe in yourself when there was no way to know that you would succeed?

DW: It wasn't like that because I had a lot of success from the start. I never really was tested for long periods of time. I got my first professional job while I was a senior in college. I signed with the William Morris Agency before I graduated. I went to study for a year and had TV jobs and plays so I never really had the classic struggle. I had faith.

Terms of Use | Privacy Policy