Want to know how to tick off Denzel Washington? Think about it for a second — because, honestly, why is that something you really...

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Want to know how to tick off Denzel Washington?

Think about it for a second — because, honestly, why is that something you really feel the need to do?

The guy is a paragon of decency, a cat who wears virtue like an Armani tux, and all he has ever done is love his wife and his God, help a bunch of poor kids and make a slew of fine movies.

But, OK, here’s the rub: Get him on the phone toward the end of a long day of junket interviews and ask the man, two Oscars in and age 51, what’s left for him.

“She says, ‘What’s left for you now?’ ” he’ll exclaim to some publicist/assistant type in the background. “Life is left! How old are you?”


Probably it’ll wash right over, though, when you explain that the question didn’t come out as intended, that what you really wanted to know is what hasn’t he done that he’d still like to do and that you were caught off-guard when, after 18 minutes of conversation, he said he needed to wrap it up.

Denzel Washington is laughing, anyway — and, Lord, that’s a laugh. Deep and easy and authentic. And somehow at odds with the adjectives tossed his way. “Handsome” and “sexy” always show up first, followed by “guarded, “aloof,” “deeply private.”

And maybe he is. Maybe that’s exactly the way Washington, who has taken the opportunity to chat with us about his new thriller “Déjà Vu,” which opened Wednesday, should be described.

Washington doesn’t go club-hopping. He doesn’t launch into drunken, anti-Semitic tirades. There aren’t any on-set tantrums. And where, oh, where is that reality show needed to illuminate the more mundane dysfunction surely percolating inside “Denzel’s House”?

Except maybe the dysfunction doesn’t exist. The man doesn’t even wade into politics. Asked about the social commentary underlying the plot of “Déjà Vu,” in which his character tries to stop an Oklahoma City-style bomber by using secret government surveillance technology that can see inside any building in the world, Washington concedes that it’s an interesting debate. “We say to our government, ‘Yes, catch the bad guys, but don’t come into our house to do it.’ It is tricky, the times that we live in.”

But he goes no further.

Question: Did you do a lot of research going into this?

“As much as we could.”

Question: Do you have a method to prepare for each role?


Well, OK then.

Proud dad

Anyway, what is it, really, we want to know about Denzel Washington that he won’t tell us? Maybe a few things, but in truth, his story is well-known, and mostly because he has been willing to share it time and time again.

Washington has been married for 23 years to the same woman, Pauletta. He’s the father of four kids in their teens and early 20s of whom he’s so proud, he told Oprah Winfrey that “my shirt’s not big enough for my chest.” He’s an impassioned supporter of the Boys & Girls Clubs, and he’s a preacher’s son who grew up to be one of the most respected performers of a generation.

No life is untroubled, of course, but Washington seems to have dispensed with his share of turmoil early on. Growing up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., he split time between his mother’s beauty shop, his father’s church and the Boys Club. When his parents divorced when he was 14, he began to run the streets a bit. A scholarship and his mother’s insistence sent him to boarding school and later to Fordham University.

Work and God

Washington now has a book. Not because he was itching to become an author, but because he’s a “How high?” kind of guy when it comes to the Boys & Girls Clubs, which asked him to anchor a book for their benefit. “A Hand to Guide Me” is a collection of essays by such people as Jimmy Carter and Colin Powell remembering the unsung mentors who shaped their early lives.

It was during a Boys Club camp variety show that Washington became enthralled with performance. Ambitions of medicine and journalism were abandoned; he landed the lead in a college play, had a TV movie booked before graduation and has rarely stopped working since.

A part on the TV drama “St. Elsewhere” led to acclaimed performances in such movies as 1987’s “Cry Freedom,” 1992’s “Malcolm X” and 1993’s “Philadelphia.” For his portrayal of an ex-slave in “Glory” (1989), he won the Academy Award for best supporting actor. The 2001 role of a renegade cop in “Training Day” put him in a two-person club with Sidney Poitier, the only other black man to win a best actor Oscar.

What he seeks in projects now, he says, is “a good story — good filmmaker and good story.” What he brings to those projects, whether audiences notice or not, is his religion. Washington says he is a “God-fearing man — a man of God, child of God” who thought about becoming a preacher and insists a spiritual message be present in each of his films.

“Not that I’m trying to hit people over the head and say, ‘You must convert,’ but we all have a spiritual nature, and I don’t think we should deny that,” he says. “We should embrace it.”

Washington just finished shooting “American Gangster,” a crime drama expected to be released next year. In March he’ll direct “The Great Debaters,” marking his second turn behind the camera.

And there’s another plan for his next 51 years, one we’ll let him share in his own words: “Make people better. Lift them up.

“I wouldn’t want to go through life saying I didn’t help.”