Taking a detour from the red carpet at Lincoln Center for the premiere of his new film, Flight, Denzel Washington, FCLC ’77, made an unpublicized stop to speak to Fordham theater students on Oct. 14.
Alternately professorial, philosophical, and parental, the Oscar-winning actor, arguably the University’s highest-profile alumnus, gave students direct advice on the craft and life.
Washington reminisced about his time at Fordham when he meandered from pre-med to political science before coming downtown from Rose Hill to try his hand at acting. Once there, he was cast as the lead in Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones. At the time, the actor said, he didn’t even know who O’Neill was, but to this day the playwright remains one of his favorite writers.
“The pain that he suffered, I just related to it,” said Washington. “The tears on the page made sense to me.”
Washington recalled lean times of trying to figure out how to take in a Broadway show ($6 at the time), get uptown, and eat—all on a student’s tight budget. He said the hardest role he ever played was “unemployment.”
But, for all the struggles, Fordham was where he wanted to be.
“Being in this part of town at that time, on this stage, I can’t tell you how much it did for me,” he said. “I was right here at Lincoln Center, right in the middle of things.”
The actor recalled standing in the student section of Broadway theaters, watching Robert De Niro shootTaxi Driver up the block from campus, and seeing James Earl Jones playing Oedipus in an uptown church.
“I watched everybody,” he said. “I was like, ‘Wow, I want to be like them.’”
To that end, Washington pointed to a singular aspect of his craft: emulating another actor’s approach.
He added that he wasn’t alone in the method. “I had a chance to meet [Laurence] Olivier and he said, ‘Just steal.’”
He told students to forget about film acting during their time in the theatre program.
“When I was here, we never talked about movie stars,” he said.
Following his years at Fordham, Washington was accepted into MFA programs at Yale and Carnegie Mellon universities. However, the William Morris talent agency snapped him up first, and fame followed. But the actor said that, although he understands that ‘movie star’ fame is part his job as an actor, it is not what he values.
“I’m sitting here with you now and there is a premiere over at Lincoln Center right now,” he said. “They’re doing the whole business, and I’m here, and this is where I’d rather be.”
“It’s not what you have, its what you do with what you have,” he said.
“My life is not typical in this profession, but one thing I know I have in common with everybody here is the ability to give back. Take what you have and use it for good.”