BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Denzel Washington keeps hearing the Oscar buzz about his directorial debut for the movie "Antwone Fisher," which opened in theaters Friday. But the Oscar-winner says he'd rather have people talk more about Antwone than him.
"The movie really isn't about me or my debut," explained Washington during a recent interview at the Four Seasons Hotel. "It's about Antwone Fisher. It's the power of his struggle and the triumph over his struggle. I think if the focus of the film is shifted too much on me, the power and the message of the movie might be diminished."
And "Antwone Fisher" is an extremely powerful movie. In the film, Washington plays a naval psychiatrist who befriends and mentors Fisher (Derek Luke), a guy with a violent temper. His uncontrollable behavior nearly gets him kicked out of the service. It takes some time, but Washington discovers much of Fisher's anger stems from psychological, sexual and even physical abuse endured while growing up in a foster home. The screenplay was actually written by Fisher and based on his autobiography, "Finding Fish."
"Fisher's story touched Washington so much that he not only wanted to star in the film but to make it his directorial debut as well.
"More than anything, I wanted to convey to the cast and crew throughout the production that we were really doing this for Antwone," says Washington. "I felt really responsible about taking care of him and his story."
Washington says directing the movie was "the most frightening yet exciting thing he had done in his life. I just jumped right in and didn't really think about it," he said. "The time to worry about flying is when you're on the ground. There's no point in worrying about it when you're up in the air because there's nothing you can do about it. That's how I approached this."
For newcomer Derek Luke — who turns in a stunning performance as Fisher — Washington says he gave the New Jersey native wings to fly in his role. "I knew right away he would nail it," says Washington. "We had been casting that role for almost five years. I looked at everybody. People got too old because we took so long to make this happen. In fact, Cuba Gooding Jr. did a reading with us after he won the Academy Award and he got too old. I just realized in that process that I wanted a new face. Someone that when audiences see him up there they go, oh yeah, that's Antwone."
Washington says after doing 30 films he's learned to surround himself with the best people and let them do their jobs. "I gave Derek one piece of advice," says Washington. "I told him, 'Don't imitate.' I wanted him to capture the spirit of Fisher's likeness. When I played Malcolm X, it was the spirit of him. I don't look anything like Reuben "Hurricane" Carter, either, but I captured the spirit. I wanted him to know when we were shooting that it didn't have to be perfect and it didn't have to be precise, but I told him to make it honest. It had to be honest."
As director, Washington says there was a fine line between conveying some of the dramatic parts of the movie and choosing to leave them out completely.
"I had to be really careful doing this because we didn't even cover one-third of the horrible things this guy went through," he says. "We hint at a lot of stuff. But some of the things may have been too much for audiences to handle. I mean this guy had a rough, rough life. And now for him to have the kindness in his heart and this desire to help other people with similar issues is amazing. A lot of people may want to pretend that this issue doesn't exist. But it does. Abuse is colorblind. It can happen to anyone. That's why I had to be part of this incredible story."