An incognito look at his debut

Denzel Washington caught a glimpse of `Antwone' in small Calif. theater

January 28, 2003|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Denzel Washington needed Emeryville. It's a small city tucked between Berkeley and Oakland on San Francisco Bay, but in a defining moment, it was the center of the earth.

Emeryville was where Washington screened his directorial debut, Antwone Fisher, for the first time. He sneaked into the theater with a baseball cap pulled low over his face after the lights went down. And he waited.

Washington has won adulation in front of the camera. Two Academy Awards, including a best-actor turn for Training Day, have made him one of the most bankable stars. A test screen with studio executives and a real audience, however, can make even an industry giant feel small.

Todd Black, the Antwone Fisher producer who introduced Washington to the script, said he never showed fear during the entire process. ("I had to go to a chiropractor, I was so messed up," Washington confessed in a recent interview.)

Now he was in Emeryville, feeling the anxiety all over again. He settled into his seat and saw the audience laugh in the expected places and squelch tears in the Hallmark moments. He also noticed laughter he didn't anticipate but understood. Ease descended on him like butter over popcorn. "But I had to get out," he said. "I didn't even see the `directed by.'"

Washington's directing credit is not seen until the end. It is his way of ceding ego to craftsmanship. He took a modest approach in rendering Fisher's real-life saga as an abused and abandoned boy who confronts his anguish with the help of a Navy psychiatrist (Washington).

Days before the shoot, cinematographer Philippe Rousselot gave a panicked Washington advice he once received from a famous French director: The camera goes in front. Instead of trying to be the Godard of Yonkers, Washington was himself.

"In 25 years, 30 pictures, something's gotta stick," Washington said. "You start to realize, you know, I do know a lot of this stuff. I just haven't had to apply it."

A choked-up Fisher, who wrote his life story while a guard at Sony, got word to Washington that he was happy with the movie.

"Winning for me is Antwone Fisher saying, `You did a good job,'" Washington said. "I promised Antwone that I would take care of him. He's been through enough."

Fisher's life was so packed with tragedy that much of the rewriting was done to take it easy on the audience. His foster mother beat him; his foster sister molested him; his best friend got blown away in front of his eyes during a robbery attempt. The beat-all-odds story has connected with audiences so far.

Washington said directing has made him less patient with other directors but more appreciative of the down moments.

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