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Denzel Washington: Working hard for the public

His Oscar nomination, choosing roles, and Sidney Poitier

Denzel Washington plays a corrupt cop in "Training Day."  

By Paul Clinton

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Denzel Washington has long been considered one of the best actors of his generation.

It's a status repeatedly recognized by the voters of the Motion Picture Academy. Two weeks ago, Washington received his fifth Oscar nomination, this one for best actor for his performance as a corrupt cop in "Training Day." (Read the CNN review.) He already has one Oscar on his mantel, a supporting actor honor for 1989's "Glory."

Washington is one of two African-American actors up for best actor this year. The other is Will Smith, nominated for his work in the title role of "Ali." (CNN review.)It's the first time two black actors are vying for the top performance award. Another African-American looking for Academy gold this year is Halle Berry, for her dramatic turn in the film "Monster's Ball." (CNN review.)

Washington says his candidacy is sweeter this year because one of his primary role models, Sidney Poitier -- the only African-American to win best actor ("Lilies of the Field," 1963) -- is being honored by the Academy with a special award for his contributions to the art of film during his 50-year career.

CNN spoke with Washington after his nomination was announced.

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CNN: So this is your fifth nomination. Is it beginning to be old hat?

Denzel Washington: (Laughs.) No, not old hat, but I am starting to feel like the elder statesman here. We've been talking about the younger folk like Halle and Will that have been nominated. I'm happy for them. They deserve it. They earned it. I'm really happy for Ethan Hawke (his co-star in "Training Day"), as well.

CNN: Where were you when you found out about the nomination?

Washington: I was knocked out and my publicist called me and said, "Hey, you're in and so is Ethan." And I say, "Hey, cool," hung up and went back to bed.

CNN: You went back to bed?

Washington: I went back to bed. (Laughs.) You know, the pressure's off now. The party is now. It's all party from here on.

CNN: It was nice to see Ethan get nominated; he has sort of come in under the radar.

Washington: That's the underrated performance. I sort of play the flashy character, and make all the sparks and all of that. But he's the steady one and really gives a wonderful understated performance.

CNN: Should it be a big deal in this day and age that three African-Americans are nominated in the top categories? After all, they're all wonderful, well-deserved performances. Why should that be surprising?

Washington: Well, I think they are there, and I am there, because of our performances. So what it means is that this year there were three excellent performances by African-Americans. That's all it should mean. What it means over time when the history of the business is 'blah, blah, blah' -- who knows? What I do know is that they deserve to be there -- so I'm happy for both of them.

CNN: Do you consider yourself a role model?

Washington: I try to do the best work I can do. Basically, we're here to entertain the people who buy the popcorn and drink the soda, and we entertain them. I feel my job is -- since they're trusting me -- I want to earn that trust and I want to give them the best performance I can do. That's all I try to do. I try to work hard for the public.

CNN: "Training Day" is quite a departure from many of your films in which you play a good guy, an Everyman-type role. Was that a deliberate decision?

Ethan Hawke -- also nominated for an Oscar -- and Washington in "Training Day."  

Washington: Well, I always try to play things differently. Look when I went from "Malcolm X" (1992) to "Much Ado About Nothing" (released 1993) in the same year. So, I look for different parts.

It ("Training Day") was a good script, and I just couldn't say no to it. I didn't have any trepidation about playing a bad guy -- quote, unquote -- actually, I didn't think he was a bad guy. He was just misguided. (Laughs) Bad guys need love too.

CNN: Was making that film a good experience for you?

Washington: It was fun. Twenty-eight days' shooting in a car wasn't so much fun, but I had a good time making that film. And I'm really glad for Ethan Hawke. I know he's on cloud nine. He's a new dad and getting all these accolades now, so I'm very happy for him.

CNN: Things are going well for you with your nomination for "Training Day," and your new film "John Q." (CNN review.) So you're sitting pretty.

Washington: And in the middle of all that I've just directed my first film (based on a true story and called temporarily "The Untitled Antwone Fisher Story"). We previewed the film up in Berkeley last week and had a good experience there, and we're downstairs cutting away. So, it's good for me that I'm busy and concentrating on a whole new venture.

CNN: Before we go, let's talk about Sidney Poitier receiving a special Oscar this year for his outstanding contribution to the art of film.

Washington: Sidney was someone I talked to early in my career, and he gave me some of the best advice in my career about what roles to take and when to wait. He's a class act, very elegant. He's consistent, he's honest, he's a friend. They don't make 'em like that anymore.




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