Denzel Washington directed and stars in The Great Debaters, a true story about a small, all-black Texas college debate team that achieved national prominence in the 1930s. The film costars Forest Whitaker and Kimberly Elise and was produced by Oprah Winfrey; it recently scored a Golden Globe nomination for best drama — not bad for Washington’s second directorial feature (after 2002’s Antwone Fisher).
In August 2007, EW spoke with the two-time Oscar winner about his talented young cast, how he managed to avoid getting bugged out on location in Louisiana, and whether he might one day move behind the camera full-time.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you always know that you wanted to play real-life debate coach and author Melvin Tolson?
DENZEL WASHINGTON: No, absolutely didn’t want to play him.
So why did you end up in the role?
It’s called money. It’s called: They’re not gonna give you enough money unless there’s someone of a certain name to do it.
As the director of the film and an actor in it, did you find it hard to wear both hats?
Absolutely. It’s the worst part of it. When I did Antwone Fisher, I really hated it. But on this one, I just tried to embrace it, and have fun. It wasn’t so bad, but I wouldn’t really look forward to doing it again.
You don’t feel like it gets better the second time?
No — not the kind of actor I am. Because I’m dead serious about my acting.
How would you describe yourself as a director, then? Do you approach directing the same way?
I don’t. First, of all, I would try and say this: ”I want everybody to have a good time, I want everybody to work hard.” And if you talk to other people that were on this film, not too many of them will tell you they worked harder than me. I was the first one there, the last one to leave.
Did you know that you were getting into this when you signed on?
You know, you never know. The time to worry about flying is when you’re on the ground. Once you get up in the air, you know, you just got to trust the pilot. And I guess I was the pilot.
Is it true that you had your cast go through a debate camp?
Yeah, Texas Southern is one of the top debating teams now. So we took them down there and just threw them to the wolves, basically, which is how I like to do it in pictures I’ve acted in. I like to be thrown to the wolves, just to see where you stand.
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