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Judith Freeman's 'The Long Embrace'

Fresh Air's book critic reviews Judith Freeman's new biography The Long Embrace, the story of Philip Marlowe creator Raymond Chandler and his marriage to a woman 18 years older than him.

05:51

Other segments from the episode on January 2, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 2, 2008: Interview with Denzel Washington; Review of Judith Freeman's new book, “The long embrace: Raymond Chandler and the woman he loved.”

Transcript

DATE January 2, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Denzel Washington talks about his life and career
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Denzel Washington, directed and stars in the new film "The Great
Debaters." It's nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Dramatic Film. It's
competing in that category with "American Gangster," which Washington also
stars in. He's nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as a drug
kingpin in that film. "The Great Debaters" is the second film that Washington
has directed.

Like several of the films he starred in, such as "Cry Freedom," "Malcolm X,"
"The Hurricane" and "American Gangster," "The Great Debaters" is based on a
true story. Set in the early 1930s, it's about the debating team at Wiley
College, a black school in the segregated South. The youngest student on the
team is James Farmer Jr., who went on to co-found CORE, the Congress of Racial
Equality and to help organize the Freedom Riders. Washington plays Professor
Melvin B. Tolson, the coach of the debating team whose goal is to convince a
top white university to allow his team to debate theirs. In this scene,
Professor Tolson is in the classroom addressing the students on his debating
team.

(Soundbite from "The Great Debaters")

Mr. DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Professor Melvin B. Tolson) Anybody know who
Willie Lynch was? Anybody? Raise your hand. He was a vicious slave owner in
the West Indies. The slave masters in the colony of Virginia were having
trouble controlling their slaves, so they sent for Mr. Lynch to teach them
his methods. `Keep the slave physically strong but psychologically weak and
dependent on the slave master. Keep the body, take the mind.' I and every
other professor on this campus are here to help you to find, take back and
keep your righteous mind.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Denzel Washington, welcome to FRESH AIR. What interested you in
making "The Great Debaters"?

Mr. WASHINGTON: I just thought that it was a very interesting story, one I
hadn't heard about. I'd never heard of Wiley College. I knew very little
about Mel Tolson and his poetry. I knew somewhat about James Farmer Jr. as a
civil rights leader, but that was all. So it was just a very good story, sort
of a, you know, David against Goliath story, the underdog kind of story, a
little train that could. And ultimately a very uplifting story.

GROSS: What have you learned as an actor about what makes a good director?
You've worked with many of them. Are there things that you did or did not
want to do based on your experiences with directors?

Mr. WASHINGTON: You know, you don't even realize everything you've learn
until you have a chance to apply it, you know, or you don't realize what
you've retained, you know, until you have a chance to apply it. Certain
things click in. You know, for example, Ed Zwick was always good at
creating--you know, when we did "Glory," we had a whole like Civil War
training camp. You know, I applied that to this film. I met a gentleman by
the name of Dr. Freeman, who was the head debating coach at Texas Southern,
which is one of the top debating schools in the country. And we set up a mini
camp for them, and they were there. They went to Texas Southern and studied,
and in fact got a chance to debate against the freshman and sophomore team.

GROSS: You know, one thing you can't do is send your actors into the past so
that they can study the past. Because the film's set in, what, 1935?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So what do you do to orient young actors about what the past was like,
a past that precedes you, too?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Well, you collect information, you share what you have with
them, and they go do their homework. First is you hire the right actors. So
you hire the ones that are going to go and do the homework and find out about
their characters and find out about the way times were. You know, you
surround them with music and books and photographs, and in this case, we had
Mel Tolson's two sons, who are still alive. Henrietta Wells, who Samantha
Booke is based upon, is still alive. So Jurnee, being the smart and talented
actress she is, spent a ton of time with Henrietta, and, you know, she's 96
years old. But she went and hung out with her in Houston and just, you know,
got it from the horse's mouth.

And first thing that I did was to visit Wiley College and their archives, and
also meet a good half a dozen people in their 90s who were there then. I
taped them, and in fact filmed them and thought about using them in the film
at one point. But we're definitely going to use them in the DVD.

GROSS: You know, there's a scene in "The Great Debaters" where you as the
coach are drilling the debaters in a voice elocution and projection exercise.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And so you're in a rowboat in the middle of a lake, they're standing
at the shore of the lake, you know, on the edge of the lake. And they each
have like a cork in their mouth.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Mm-hmm. Right.

GROSS: And they have to recite things clearly and loudly enough so that you
can hear them in the middle of the lake in your boat.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Right. Right.

GROSS: And I thought that is a really interesting vocal exercise.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Yeah, I know. Right?

GROSS: Did you ever have to do anything like that as an actor?

Mr. WASHINGTON: No, I didn't have to do that one, but in fact, Todd Black,
my producing partner, mentioned it one day that he had to do it in speech
class, and I just remembered it, and I said, `We're going to do that.' You
know, because we knew we needed a couple scenes where he's training the
students, and there were some written. And I had gone back and forth as, you
know, as to what we would do. At one point we had a scene where they were out
on the football field and enunciating, and then we turned and find out that
they were actually walking through the band while the band is blasting music.
So we didn't go with that idea, we went with this idea. And it's sort of
light and a little bit funny and refreshing coming off that sort of intense
scene with the pig farmers right before it.

GROSS: I think at about the same time you were, you know, shooting "The Great
Debaters" and playing a professor in it, you were making "American Gangster,"
and playing a gangster who was very powerful in Harlem and smuggled in heroin
directly from Vietnam. Does it...

Mr. WASHINGTON: Mm-hmm. Not at the same time. We actually finished
"American Gangster."

GROSS: Just in sequence? Uh-huh.

Mr. WASHINGTON: No, we finished "American Gangster" like November of 2006,
and then I started shooting--well, I was preparing for "The Great Debaters"
for three years, but we didn't start shooting it until April of this year.

GROSS: I see. OK. Does it affect you differently when you're off the set if
you're playing, you know, a drug kingpin who will willingly kill somebody if
he thinks it's necessary vs., you know, a professor who's like mission is
training his students to be winning debaters? I mean, that's such two
different kinds of personalities. Does it change what you take home with you
at night?

Mr. WASHINGTON: You know, I read a book years ago, "Cagney by Cagney,"
written by James Cagney. And he talked about, you know, it's his job. He's
at the studio. You do your job, you know, you shut your door and you go get
in your car and go home. I guess it does. I couldn't tell you what it is
because I'm not thinking about it, but basically, well, it's different in the
case of directing because you don't even turn off. You're working all the
time. But when I finished "American Gangster," I was done with it. I didn't,
you know, think about going into the drug business. I don't know. You know,
it's a job, and I've been at it a long time, and I know how to do my job, I
think. But, nah, I don't think I carry it around too much.

You know, when you're preparing, you do purposely. You wear the clothes,
you're getting ready so you're preparing and you're trying to literally walk
in someone's shoes or walk in the character's shoes. But once you feel
comfortable with that, then you start to leave all of that behind, I think. I
hope.

GROSS: Well, we should hear a clip from "American Gangster." This is a movie
that you're nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama. And you
play a drug kingpin in Harlem in this, and you've brought up your family from
the South, and you've basically made your brothers into foot soldiers for your
operation. And one of your brothers, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is kind of
so kind of kind of taken by like the money and what he could do with it. So
he's wearing this outfit with like a, you know, it's the early-'70s, the big
collar and a big hat. And you think it's like much too flashy.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And in this scene you're explaining why that's a problem.

(Soundbite from "American Gangster")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) What is that you got?

Mr. CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) What's what, man? What?

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) Yeah, that. What you got on?

Mr. EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) This is a very, very, very nice suit.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) That's a very, very, very nice suit, huh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) That's a clown suit. That's a costume.

Mr. EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) Come on, man.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) With a big sign on it that says "arrest
me." You understand? You're too loud. You're making too much noise. Look at
me. The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room. I telled you
that. All right? What, you trying to be like Nicky Bonds and them?

Mr. EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) What's your problem with Nicky? Man, I like
Nicky.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) I ain't got no problem with Nicky. Oh, you
like Nicky?

Mr. EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) Yeah.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) You want to be like Nicky? You want to be
superfly, huh?

Mr. EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) I'm just saying.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) I want--you want to work for him? Huh?
Share a jail cell with him, maybe cook for him?

Mr. EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) He wants to talk to you.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) Oh, so now you talking to him about me?

Mr. EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) No, man.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) What you--what? About what?

Mr. EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) It ain't like that.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) What it is about.

Mr. EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) It ain't like that.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) Then what is it like?

Mr. EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) We were talking, your name came up.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) About what?

Mr. EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) I'll tell you. I don't know, man. I told him
I'd tell you.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) You know, boy, you...

(Soundbite of kiss)

Mr. EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) Oh, man!

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) You know, if you wasn't my brother, I'd
kill you. You know that, don't you? I'm taking you shopping this week.

Mr. EJIOFOR: (As Huey Lucas) Going shopping, going shopping.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's my guest Denzel Washington with Chiwetel Ejiofor in a scene
from "American Gangster."

I remember when I interviewed Michael Caine, he talked about how when you're
playing somebody who's very powerful, you shouldn't like move around and
fidget a lot, gesture a lot, because powerful people don't have to do all that
because the people underneath them are hanging on the powerful person's every
word and looking for every clue that they can about what his mood is and
what's he going to do next and how he's reacting to things. And it seems to
me like you're that kind of person in "American Gangster," you don't move
around a lot, you don't gesture a lot. You've got a lot of power and you know
you do. You met Frank Lucas, the person who your role is based on. Was he
like that when you met him?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Well, I mean, you know, Gotti moved around a lot. He had a
lot of power. I don't know. I personally hold any hard, fast rule about who
moves around a lot or who doesn't.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. WASHINGTON: I never thought of it that way. The perception of power is
power. I think that the perception is established by his violence right at
the top of the movie.

GROSS: Yeah. Uh-huh.

Mr. WASHINGTON: So you see a guy who's this violent, who can walk down the
street, shoot somebody in the head, come back inside and forget. His only
question was `what was I talking about before I was interrupted?' You know,
that's a sociopath. I think, you know, his movement or lack of movement, I
never thought about that at all.

GROSS: I really like "American Gangster" and your performance in it.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Thank you.

GROSS: Does it ever bother you to play people who aren't role models? Like
in life, so many people see you as a role model. Does it bother you? Like in
"The Great Debaters," you are very role model. You know, you're very ethical.

Mr. WASHINGTON: No, it doesn't bother me. I mean, I'm selfish, I think. I
think an artist has to be. I'm not worried about what people think. I'm
going to play the parts that I find interesting.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WASHINGTON: It bothered me more to be just pigeonholed into doing what
people think is ethical or, you know, that's boring to me. I don't pick parts
with that in mind, and I just find interesting stories. If it's interesting
to me, then I do it.

GROSS: My guest is Denzel Washington. He directed and stars in the new film
"The Great Debaters." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Denzel Washington. He directed and stars in the new film
"The Great Debaters," which is nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Movie
Drama.

One of your most non-role model performances is in "Training Day," for which
you won an Oscar.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I'd like to play a short scene from that, and in this scene,
you're a cop who is really brutal when he wants to be and really nasty, and
you're initiating this new rookie cop, who's your partner, played by Ethan
Hawke. And in this scene, Ethan Hawke has been trying to apprehend two
suspects, probably like crack addicts, and they've beaten him up. He's
finally gotten them handcuffed. You haven't helped him at all. You've
basically just been watching. And then after he gets in handcuffs, you kind
of move in, insult them, take $60 out of one of their pockets, and you decide
not to arrest them. You just--you just leave them there. And Ethan Hawk is
mystified. And here's the conversation in the car afterwards.

(Soundbite from "Training Day")

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo) Want to book that 60 bucks, huh? Here, go
ahead. Book it into evidence, man. Where the suspects? Don't we need to go
back and get the suspects?

Mr. ETHAN HAWKE: (As Jake) I don't know where they are. You let them go.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo) Oh, I let them go.

Mr. HAWKE: (As Jake) Yeah, you let them go.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo) Dang, man. You want to run a gun, man? Stay in
patrol, OK? This is investigations, all right? Let the garbage men handle
the garbage. We're professional anglers, OK? We go after the big fish.
Chasing that monkey strong crackhead mother...(word censored by
station)...anyway. You know they'd have killed you without hesitating.

Mr. HAWKE: (As Jake) That's why they belong in prison.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo) For what? They got beat down, they lost their
rock, they lost their money. Them eses from Hillside probably going to smoke
them. I mean, Jesus, what more you want?

Mr. HAWKE: (As Jake) I want justice. All right?

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo) Is that not justice?

Mr. HAWKE: (As Jake) That's street justice.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo) What's wrong with street justice?

Mr. HAWKE: (As Jake) Oh, what, just let the animals wipe themselves out,
right?

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo) God willing. (Word censored by
station)...everybody who looks like them.

Mr. HAWKE: (As Jake) Come on.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo) Unfortunately it doesn't work that way. The
good guys, they die first, right? The school kids and moms, family men. They
the one that catch the stray bullets in their noodle. To protect the sheep,
you got to catch the wolf. And it takes a wolf to catch a wolf, you
understand?

Mr. HAWKE: (As Jake) What?

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo) I said you protect the sheep...

Mr. HAWKE: (As Jake) Yeah, I heard you.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo) ...by killing the mother...(word censored by
station)...wolves. No, you didn't hear me. You listening, but you didn't
hear me.

Mr. HAWKE: (As Jake) Yeah, all right. Whatever.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo) Yeah, whatever. Whatever the...(word censored
by station)...ever.

(Soundbite of tires squealing)

Mr. HAWKE: (As Jake) Let me ask you this. When do you lock anybody up? I
mean, it seems like you're pretty busy keeping people out.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Alonzo) What the...(word censored by station)...you
talking about? You don't know what you're talking about, Bitty Boop. That
nothing but...(word censored by station)...between your ears. They build
jails because of me. Judges have handed out over 15,000 man years of
incarceration time based on my investigations, OK? My record speaks for
itself. How many felons have you collared? Huh? Yeah, I rest my case.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's my guest, Denzel Washington, with Ethan Hawke in a scene from
"Training Day," and Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his performance in this
film.

Now, of course, after what we just heard, since you've said it takes a wolf to
catch a wolf, you teach Ethan Hawke how to howl like a woof. You make him
howl.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (Howls) Right.

GROSS: Now I read that you wanted to make sure that this cop, you know, the
character you played was killed at the end, or there were real consequences
for his behavior.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Mm-hmm. Exactly.

GROSS: Was that not the case when you first saw the script?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Nah, not to the degree that was satisfying to me. Like I
told the director, I couldn't justify him living in the worst way unless he
died in the worst way, that the community turns their back on him, he's
slapped around, crawling around on the ground like a snake, and basically gets
filled full of lead. So we just made it a violent, awful ending for him.

GROSS: And why did you insist on that?

Mr. WASHINGTON: I just thought that's what he deserved. I thought it was a
bit of a cop out, the way the script was, and, you know, it smelled like they
were looking to do a part two or something.

GROSS: Uh-huh. There's a scene in this where you're holding two guns on
someone, and you kind of scrape the guns against each other as if they're two
knives that you're sharpening.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Uh-huh.

GROSS: Was that a bit of business that you came up with when you were holding
the guns?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Of course. I mean, you know, it's just rhythm. You know,
acting is like music, you know, and you improvise, and it's like jazz, you
know. There's no rhyme or reason to it. It's not a plan. I just did it.
You know, it's just a rhythm. To me, it's just a rhythm. Stanislavski said,
you know, you cut 90 percent. You do all your research and you compare, and
then you let it rip. You know, and that's how it is. You know, you practice
the music and then you just play it.

GROSS: Well, let's talk about another film that's very important in your
career, and that's "Malcolm X," which was directed by Spike Lee.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Let's hear a scene from it, and this is a scene in which you're making
a speech.

(Soundbite from "Malcolm X")

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) I must emphasis at the outstart that the
honorable Elijah Muhammad is not a politician.

Unidentified Actor #1: (In character) That's right.

Unidentified Actor #2: (In character) That's right.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) So I'm not here this afternoon as a
Republican, nor as a Democrat.

Unidentified Actor #3: (In character) Tell us, brother.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) Not as a Mason nor as an Elk.

Unidentified Actor #4: (In character) Tell us what you're here for.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (In character) Not as a Protestant nor a Catholic.

Actor #3: (In character) Tell us.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) Not as a Christian...

Unidentified Actor #5: (In character) Come on.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (In character) Nor a Jew.

Actor #5: (In character) All right now.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) Not as a Baptist nor a Methodist.

Unidentified Actor #6: (In character) Come on, brother. Come on.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) In fact, not even as an American.

Unidentified Actor #7: (In character) Yes, sir.

Unidentified Actor #8: (In character) That's right.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) Because if I was an American, the problem
that confronts our people today wouldn't even exist.

Unidentified Actor #8: (In character) That's right.

Unidentified Actor #9: (In character) Now we ain't Americans, huh?

Unidentified Actor #10: (In character) What are you trying to say, brother?

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) So I have to stand here today as what I was
when I was born, a black man.

Unidentified Actor #11: (In character) That's right.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) Before there was any such thing as a
Republican or a Democrat, we were black.

Unidentified Actor #12: (In character) That's right.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) Before there was any such thing as a Mason or
an Elk, we were black.

Unidentified Actor #13: (In character) Yes.

Unidentified Actor #14: (In character) That's right.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) Before there was any such thing as a Jew or a
Christian, we were black people.

Unidentified Actor #15: (In character) That's right.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) In fact, before there was any such place as
America, we were black.

Unidentified Actor #15: (In character) Right.

Actor #15: (In character) (Unintelligible).

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) And after America has long passed from the
scene, there will still be black people.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) I'm going to tell you like it really is.
Every election year, these politicians are sent up here to pacify us. They're
sitting here and sent up here by the white man. This is what they do. They
send drugs in Harlem down here to pacify us. They send alcohol down here to
pacify us. They send prostitution down here to pacify us. Why, you can't
even get drugs in Harlem without the white man's permission.

Unidentified Actor #16: (In character) That's right.

(Soundbite of clapping, cheering)

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) You can't get prostitution in Harlem without
the white man's permission. You can't get gambling in Harlem without the
white man's permission.

Unidentified Actor #17: (In character) Tell the truth, tell the truth.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) Every time you break the seal on that liquor
bottle, that's a government seal you're breaking. Oh, I say and I say it
again, you've been had. You've been duped.

Actor #15: (In character) That's right.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) You've been hoodwinked, bamboozled...

Unidentified Actors: (In unison, in character) Yes.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) ...led astray...

Unidentified Actors: (In unison, in character) Yes!

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) ...run amok.

Unidentified Actors: (In unison, in character) Yes!

Unidentified Actor #17: (In character) All right, brother.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Malcolm X) This is what he does.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Denzel Washington in a scene from "Malcolm X," for which he was
nominated for an Academy Award.

When did Malcolm X first enter your consciousness?

Mr. WASHINGTON: I hadn't heard that in about 15 years.

GROSS: Yeah? What'd you think listening back.

Mr. WASHINGTON: That was interesting. I hadn't heard it in a long time. I
hadn't heard it since I'd seen the movie, I guess, whenever it came out 15
years ago.

GROSS: You did good.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Heck, yeah. It turned out all right. Sounded pretty good.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. WASHINGTON: I believed him.

GROSS: Since...

Mr. WASHINGTON: When did I what now, you said?

GROSS: When did Malcolm X enter your consciousness.

Mr. WASHINGTON: I did a play about Malcolm X actually about 10, 11 years
before that down at the New Federal Theatre in New York City, Henry Street
settlement, a fictional meeting between the honorable Elijah Muhammad and
Malcolm X. So that's when I really began to dig deep and listen to all his
speeches and read his books and study the man. I mean, I knew who he was, but
I didn't know who he was until about 1981.

GROSS: Denzel Washington will be back in the second half of the show. He
directed and stars in the new film "The Great Debaters." I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.

Here's music from the soundtrack of "The Great Debaters" featuring singer
Sharon Jones.

(Soundbite of "That's What My Baby Likes")

Ms. SHARON JONES: (Singing) I'm a long, tall mama
They call me a chocolate brown
Give me two drinks of whiskey and you'll see me clown
That's what my baby like
Mm, that's what my baby like
Well, he's crazy about me, and he do let me have my fun

I'm five feet standing, six feet laying down
I'm a big meaty woman from my head on down
That's what my baby likes
Oh, mm, that's what my baby like
Well, oh, he's crazy about me, and he do let me have my fun

Now listen here
Sometimes I think
I will quit my man
Then again, I'm scared he'll raise some sin
I got what my baby likes
Yeah, I got what my baby like
Ooh, well, he's crazy about me, and he...

(End of soundbite)

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Denzel Washington. He's
nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as a drug kingpin in the film
"American Gangster." He directed and stars in the new film "The Great
Debaters," which is nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Movie Drama. When
we left off we were talking about starring in the movie "Malcolm X." He told
me he first started studying Malcolm's writings a few years before the film
when he starred in a play about a fictional meeting between Malcolm X and
Elijah Muhammad. I asked him if he was influenced by Malcolm's writings.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Oh, yeah. I would say absolutely. I mean, just a lot of
things he said made sense. You know, for example, there's nowhere you can
know where you're going unless you knew where you came from. So, you know,
it's says, hey, then study your history, know what your history is.
Absolutely, it's one of the greatest books I ever read is "The Autobiography
of Malcolm X." I would suggest it to anyone. It is a great book.

GROSS: So was there any like particular footage like, you know, archival
footage of Malcolm X that had the biggest impact on how you played him?

Mr. WASHINGTON: No. I don't know. I mean, I couldn't say there's one thing
that had the biggest impact. But, you know, I looked at all the footage that
there was. I will say that the Schaumburg Library, when I first started
working on the part, was just the best place. It became my home away from
home, and it's a great resource library up in Harlem, on 135th Street. And I
can't say enough about the work that I did, not just on "Malcolm X" but other
parts over the years. I would always visit the Schaumburg.

GROSS: Let's go to the very early Denzel era and let's see if our listeners
recognize you in this scene and, hint, it's the pilot for a series, a TV
series that ran a long time and you co-starred throughout the run and it
helped make you a star. So here we go, the very early Denzel.

(Soundbite from "St. Elsewhere")

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Dr. Phillip Chandler) Forty-two-year-old white obese
female. Four day history of right upper quadrant pain. No history of
colithiasis or peptic ulcer disease.

Unidentified Actor #18: (As character) Mm-hmm. Has the pain changed with
time or position?

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Dr. Phillip Chandler) No. Physical examination
temperature was 39.5 degrees centigrade. Blood pressure 130/80, no jaundice
present.

Actor #18: (As character) Is the abdomen distended?

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Dr. Phillip Chandler) No, there's a plus two over four
tenderness in the right upper quadrant. The liver is 10 centimeters in
breadth, two centimeters below the right coastal margin. There is a probable
mass just below the liver edge with a positive mercury sign.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WASHINGTON: There you go.

GROSS: That's your first scene.

Mr. WASHINGTON: I think I mispronounced that. I think it's cololithia--I
think it's colithiasis. And it sounds like I said "collitheisis." I believe.
Any doctors out there, if they call in, let me know. I believe it's
colithiasis.

GROSS: Well, that's you in your first scene in the pilot of "St. Elsewhere."

Mr. WASHINGTON: Twenty-five years ago.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. WASHINGTON: But I remember that colithiasis. That's interesting.

GROSS: That is. I hope you never had it, whatever the heck it is.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Yeah. I couldn't tell you what it is.

GROSS: How did you get the part on "St. Elsewhere?"

Mr. WASHINGTON: I was doing a great play, and I say that because it was,
called "A Soldier's Play," which went on to become "A Soldier's Story." You
know, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982.

GROSS: Right, the movie version was "A Soldier's Story?"

Mr. WASHINGTON: Yeah, movie version was "A Soldier's Story." The play was an
off Broadway play in New York. And they came to New York reading actors for
this TV series "St. Elsewhere." I never really wanted to do television
because I wanted to do plays and movies. And I didn't want to become well
known for television. But this was an interesting script with many
characters. So my agent thought, well, you know, you could get lost amongst
the other characters. And so to make a long story long, they chose two
actors, I believe, from New York, myself and David Morse.

GROSS: Was it color blind casting or did they know that Dr. Chandler was
going to be African-American?

Mr. WASHINGTON: You'd have to ask them that. I don't know, to be honest
about it. I didn't ask. I wasn't dare going to ask at that point. You know,
it's like, `Oh, I can only do this if this is color blind casting.' No, I have
no idea. I just auditioned for the part and...

GROSS: What was the audition like?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Oh, shoot. That was 25 years ago. I don't remember. I
guess it was good. I got the part. I guess it was good.

GROSS: You don't remember what you had to do?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Oh, no. Actually I don't. I imagine I--maybe I read that
scene. Maybe that's what I had to do, you know. Did you say that was from
the pilot?

GROSS: It's from the pilot.

Mr. WASHINGTON: That was from--so maybe that's probably what I had to read.
That's a perfect example of where your speech training and training in the
classics, you know, Shakespearean training comes in, to be able to say those
lines.

GROSS: And to rattle off all those words.

Mr. WASHINGTON: To rattle off all--yeah, all of that...

GROSS: All of those medical conditions most people don't know.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Techno speak. Yeah. Exactly. I don't know. Colithiasis,
I do remember that, though.

GROSS: So straighten me out on something. When I say your name should it be
Denzel, equal beats on both syllables, or Denzel, more emphasis on the second
syllable?

Mr. WASHINGTON: The doctor who delivered my father was named Dr. Denzel.
And he had 11 or 12 brothers and sisters so maybe they were running out of
names and they just named him after the doctor. So his name was pronounced
Denzel Hayes Washington Sr. I'm Denzel Hayes Washington Jr. My mother would
say "Denzel" and both of us would show up. She said, all right, from now
on--she says this is not true but this is the way I remember it, but she said
from now on you're "Den-zel." So I was called Den-zel so we would know who she
was screaming at.

GROSS: I get it. So I could see room for a lot of confusion.

Mr. WASHINGTON: And doctor was doctor--yeah. Dr. Bob Denzel. I don't know
what his first name was, but it was actually his last name.

GROSS: OK.

Mr. WASHINGTON: The doctor.

GROSS: Now, when you were growing up, your mother owned a hair salon?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Yeah.

GROSS: And your father was a Pentecostal minister who also worked for the
water department?

Mr. WASHINGTON: And S. Klein's on the Square.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. WASHINGTON: He was a night watchman for Klein's up in Yonkers.

GROSS: Klein's department store? Oh, I see. It's different.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Central Avenue in Yonkers--yeah, the original one was on the
square, 14th Street.

GROSS: On Union Square.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Because it used to be called S. Klein's on the Square.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. WASHINGTON: And so they had one up in Yonkers on Central Avenue and he
was the night man there and he was a minister.

GROSS: Did you go to his church?

Mr. WASHINGTON: No, of course not. Yeah. You kidding me? All the time.
More than I wanted to. Trust me. I used to try to sneak out. Had to go to
church.

GROSS: How often? Once a week or more?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Once. Shoot. All day Sunday. And then we'd be--because he
worked so much, you know, we didn't have so many services during the week.
But I was there all day on Sunday in Mamaroneck.

GROSS: Were there certain like Bible passages that you were brought up with
that were kind of favorites in the house?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Not that I remember. I couldn't give you one quote right
off the bat. You know, what I learned and what I gleaned from my father was
by example, you know, not by any particular saying or any, as you said, line
to God or whatever, direct line. It's just the way he carried himself as a
man of God, as a gentleman and as a man totally committed to his beliefs. And
it was a lot more subtle in his work ethic and things like that, not anything
clever that he said or didn't say.

GROSS: Now, I think he was a minister in the Pentecostal Church? Is that...

Mr. WASHINGTON: Church of God and Christ, yes.

GROSS: Is that still the church that you belong to?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Yes. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And does it--I guess I'm wondering if it has even more meaning because
you were so brought up in it, you know, that your father was such...

Mr. WASHINGTON: No, it has meaning because it has meaning because I believe
in the scriptures. I'm a God-fearing man who believes what he reads in the
Bible. And that has meaning. The meaning that it has is--the effect that it
has on me, it had on him and thousands if not millions of other followers.
And it's our faith in God and our belief in these commandments. And then in
the story of the Bible, you know, I've read the Bible a couple of times.
Working my way again through it. I'm now in the Book of Romans and listening
to the great examples and teachings of Paul, and the perseverance and the
faith that he had in spite of what he was up against. And I'm inspired by
those teachings of Paul, of Luke, of all the apostles and the great leaders of
the Old Testament, as well, obviously Abraham and Moses.

GROSS: My guest is Denzel Washington. He directed and stars in the new film
"The Great Debaters." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Denzel Washington. He directed and stars in the new film
"The Great Debaters," which is nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Movie
Drama.

You were talking earlier about the acting lessons that you took and how you
learned the kind of diction you need to really have at your command as an
actor. But I'm thinking like with your father as a minister, he probably had
a pretty commanding presence.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Mm, he did. Very commanding. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Yes.

GROSS: And a pretty powerful voice probably?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Very big voice, scary. My kids say I have the same thing.
I scare them sometimes my too big--sneak up on them. But yeah very powerful
presence, you know. And it wasn't the physical. It was really the spiritual.
See, you have to understand that everything I've done in my career and
hopefully in my life is a reflection of my spiritual upbringing and
cultivation. I'm not saying that like, oh, I've been an angel all my life.
Heaven knows I haven't, you know, but you learn, you know. In fact, you know,
because I had to go to church I rebelled against the church. And there's
probably many people out there who have gone through that based on whatever
negative experiences they may have had.

But I can say this to you: Whatever success I have is a direct result of my
faith and the grace of God in my life, period. It's not hanging out with the
right people and it's not studying or training at some school or acting
school. It's a gift from God. I recognize that. We all have it. So the
question is not what you have but what are you going to do with what you have?
But recognize that we all have that gift. It is the grace of God and a gift
of God. Some, it's acting; some, it's radio. Whatever your ministry, as they
say, is. Understand where it comes from and don't be ashamed of it.

And if you've had negative experiences in church--because I'm talking about
spirituality and not religion. You know, religion is where man gets ahold of
it, and Lord knows, you know, that's where the problems begin. But if there's
something still tugging at your heart, if you're not satisfied and you feel
that there is something there, there is something there. And don't be ashamed
or afraid to continue that search. You know, it led me through all kinds of
religions, Eastern philosophies and Buddha and this and that and...

GROSS: Practicing or just reading about it?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Practicing, reading, you know, poor practicing, you know, my
own version of practicing. All of the above, you know. One of my favorite
books is "Siddartha," you know, Herman Hesse's "Siddartha," because it is the
journey. And the journey has led me back to the Bible.

GROSS: During your period of rebellion, like, how far did you go in the other
direction?

Mr. WASHINGTON: You go right back to that, huh? You know, that's what life
is. That's why they call it experience. You have to sometimes go through
life. You know, people tell you things and say `this is what you should do'
but you need to find out for yourself. The reason that you pull your hand out
of the fire is that it's hot. And somebody can tell you but you still want to
try it. And some people don't make it. Some people never pull their hand
out. Some people fall in. And that's a part of life.

But I was blessed to be able to get my hand out, to recognize the difference.
And I think I am charged to share what I've learned with those around me.
What you're seeing is an example of that. You talked about "Training Day."
The first thing that I wrote on my script in "Training Day" was that the wages
of sin is death. I don't know the exact verse in the Bible that that comes
from, but that's what I wrote down, which is why it was important for me for
the character to die in the worst way because he lived in the worst way. The
wages of sin is death and that's what he got. That's the message I was
sending.

In "Malcolm X" the message I was interested in sending is that a man who
experienced so much hatred, racial hatred in his own life as a child began to
spew that same racial hatred toward others as an adult until he came to a
place in his life where in his religion, in this case Islam, he realized that
there are Muslims of all colors, that this hatred of white people was wrong.
So for me the story in the movie "Malcolm X" for my character, Malcolm X, what
I tried to portray was the spiritual evolution of Malcolm X. So I try to
infuse that into everything I do.

GROSS: We talked a little bit about your father and him being a, you know,
minister, and your mother ran this beauty shop. What did you take away from
that? I mean, you know, one of the things you need to do as an actor is look
right for the part, change your hair, change your clothes. Are there things
you picked up about that from your mother in her shop?

Mr. WASHINGTON: No. In fact, I work just the opposite. I work from the
inside out, not from the outside in. I actually worked in a barber shop which
her partner owned. What I got from that had a lot to do with acting because
the greatest liars and storytellers in the history of America usually hang out
in the barber shop. So there was a great laboratory of theatrical
performances going on in the barber shop.

But sometimes, yeah. Sometimes there is an outside handle, you know, to a
character. "Mo' Better Blues," you pick up a trumpet. "Hurricane," you learn
to box. And a lot of actors, and great ones like Laurence Olivier talk about
sometimes just putting the right wig on, maybe it is. Even in "Malcolm X"
maybe it was some of the physical things, the pointing of his finger or
putting the glasses on, or things like that that give you a handle. But for
the most part I work from the inside out.

GROSS: And my last question, is there a particular movie that meant a lot to
you when you were growing up that you watched many times?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Yep.

GROSS: What would that be?

Mr. WASHINGTON: "Wizard of Oz."

GROSS: Really?

Mr. WASHINGTON: I loved that movie. That was the big--that was the event of
the year, to watch--are you kidding me? "The Wizard?" I was like, `turn
"Bonanza" off, "The Wizard of Oz" is coming on.' You know? "Bonanza" was
huge. I mean, you know, when I was a kid "Bonanza" was huge.

GROSS: Yes. Yeah.

Mr. WASHINGTON: That was it. That's what we got to watch Sunday night.
"Bonanza," "The Ed Sullivan Show," then "Bonanza." You know, when I sign an
autograph now I always write "God Bless" and I put my name. And I got that
from Red Skelton because at the end of the "Red Skelton Show" he would say
"Goodnight and God bless." And I was like I always liked that. So I said, you
know, I didn't say `when I get famous' because I wasn't even thinking about it
then. But when I did sign my first autograph or whatever, one of the first,
for whatever reason I thought about that. And so thank you, Red Skelton.

GROSS: Oh...

Mr. WASHINGTON: And thank you "Bonanza" and thank you Auntie Em and
everybody else.

GROSS: Do you love the songs? Did you love the songs from "The Wizard of
Oz"?

Mr. WASHINGTON: Are you kidding me? (Singing) "Follow the yellow brick
road, da-dun, da-dun, da-dun, wherever a wiz there was. Ar-ruh-ruh. Follow
the yellow brick road." (Speaking) You know? I mean, that was huge. You've
got to remember they only show that like once a year. What was the guy's
name? Danny Kaye!

GROSS: Oh, Danny Kaye, right.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Danny Kaye would introduce it. Right? Danny Kaye would
introduce it. I mean, we couldn't wait. That was huge. Huge! And then of
course "King Kong."

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Yeah, because "Million Dollar Movie" showed...

GROSS: "Million Dollar Movie."

Mr. WASHINGTON: ...the movie 90 times the same week.

GROSS: "King Kong," "Godzilla."

Mr. WASHINGTON: "King Kong," "Godzilla."

GROSS: "Hunchback of Notre Dame."

Mr. WASHINGTON: I didn't watch that one. You're asking me. This is what I
remember.

GROSS: Great. It's been so much fun to talk with you. Thank you very much.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Goodbye.

All right. (Singing) Because, because, because, because...

GROSS: Denzel Washington directed and stars in the new film "The Great
Debaters." Here's more music from the soundtrack of the film featuring Alvin
Youngblood Hart and Teenie Hodges.

(Soundbite of "Step it Up and Go")

Mr. ALVIN YOUNGBLOOD HART and TEENIE HODGES: (Singing)
Had a little girl, she little and low
She used to love me but she don't no mo'
You gotta step it up and go, yeah, and go
Well you can't stand pat, I declare you gotta step it up and go

Got a little girl, she stayed upstairs
Tried to make a livin' by puttin' on airs
You gotta step it up and go, yeah, and go
Well, you can't stand pat, I declare you gotta step it up and go

Front door shut, back door, too
Blinds pulled down, what'cha gonna do?
You got to step it up and go, yeah
Yeah, and go
Well you can't stand pat, I declare you gotta step it up and go

Got a little girl, her name is Ball
Give a little bit, but she took it all
You gotta step it up and go, yeah
Yeah, and go
Well you can't stand pat, I declare you gotta step it up and go now

Me and my baby walking down the street
Telling everybody but the chief of police
You gotta step it up and go, yeah
Yeah, and go
Well you can't stand pat, I declare you gotta step it up and go

See my woman tell her hurry home
Ain't had no lovin' since she been gone
You gotta step it up and go, yeah
Yeah, and go
Well you can't stand pat, I declare you gotta step it up and go

Well I sang this verse, ain't gonna sing no more
Hear my gal call, I got to go
I gotta step it up and go, yeah
Yeah, and go
Well you can't stand pat, I declare you gotta step it up and go

(End of soundbite)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Maureen Corrigan on Judith Freeman's "The Long Embrace"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Book critic Maureen Corrigan begins the new year in a retrospective mood by
looking backward to the Los Angeles of the 1920s and '30s and the writer who
immortalized it.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:

Anyone who's ever gone on a pilgrimage to the house of a beloved writer can
identify--up to a certain point--with Judith Freeman's obsession. Freeman is
a Raymond Chandler fan. And because she loves his writing so much, she wanted
to get closer to the man himself. So Freeman set out to visit the places in
and around Los Angeles that Chandler and his wife Cissy lived during their
near 30 year marriage. Except, this being LA, the city of the relentless
future, instead of, say, the Berkshires, Boston, or another one of those
history-conscious northeastern literary locales, Freeman knows that there
aren't any well maintained Chandler houses where the great writer's library
and desk knickknacks are preserved in climate-controlled amber. Instead,
Freeman finds herself driving to addresses that turn out to be, at worst,
demolished dead ends or at best apartment houses, bungalows and hotels, many
of them dumps.

The Chandlers moved over 30 times during their LA years. Even when they had
money, they always leased furnished flats or small houses. And they often
restlessly moved on to yet another modest rental within months. In the noir
tour of "Chandlerland" that she chronicles in her compelling book "The Long
Embrace," Freeman visits every one of these crumbling shrines hoping to pick
up clues in the sun-dappled shadows. Like a distaff Philip Marlowe, Freeman
conducts stakeouts on these places in her car. She even begins sipping gin
gimlets, Chandler's cocktail of choice. Her meta-biographical investigation
may sound cute and contrived, but Freeman is in deadly earnest. And because
of the hypnotic power of her writing--and, of course, the passages from
Chandler's fiction and letters she cites--her case of spirit possession is
contagious. I just might try a gimlet myself the next time, as Chandler wrote
in the "Big Sleep," the world seems a wet emptiness.

As it can probably be said of most writers, Raymond Chandler was a man better
to be haunted by than to be married to. He was, off and on, a philanderer as
well as alcoholic and depressive personality. In the final years of their
marriage, Chandler and Cissy bought their first home, a seaside ranch house in
La Jolla, which of course Freeman visits. As she describes it, the ocean view
from the living room picture window is spectacular. But morose Chandler
didn't much care for it; too much water, he once said, too many drowned men.

The one constant in Chandler's life was his adoration for Cissy, whom he
married when he was 35 and she was 53, although Chandler at the time didn't
know Cissy's true age since she knocked off 10 years on her marriage license.
When the pair married in 1924, Chandler was a repressed mama's boy, possibly
still a virgin. Along with all the other familiar biographical mysteries of
Chandler's life, Freeman dutifully delves into the speculation that Chandler
was a closeted gay man.

But that isn't the kind of closet she's most interested in investigating.
"The Long Embrace" really excels at capturing the spirit and significance of
place. All the while I was reading her book, I kept thinking of historian
Mike Davis' great cultural studies of LA as well as, to mix my genres and
California's cities, Hitchcock's "Vertigo."

To read "The Long Embrace" is to be transported back swooningly to the LA of
the '20s and '30s, a city that sold itself as the American Italy. Freeman not
only evokes the mood of dust-moted locales like the Ambassador Hotel and the
old Union Station, but she's also astute in showing how Chandler excavated the
meaning underlying the transient, often bizarre, man-made geography of L.A.
Describing the boarded up Clifton Cafeteria, once an LA landmark, Freeman
reflects on a passage about diners from Chandler's novel "The Little Sister"
and uses that passage as a springboard to talk about the appeal in the 1930s
of cavernous cafes like Clifton's, where fast food, cheap food, food that you
selected yourself and put on a tray and pushed along a metal railing became
inextricably wed not to mere nourishment but to the possibility of escaping a
haunting emptiness for a while.

Throughout "The Long Embrace" Freeman somehow manages the dextrous feat of
paying homage to Chandler without being swallowed up in his gorgeous language.
Like Cissy before here, Judith Freeman is a dame who knows how to hold her own
with a man who's trouble.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved" by
Judith Freeman.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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