When Denzel Washington speaks, people listen. Even the characters he plays in movies like American Gangster, The Book of Eli, and The Equalizer have a certain gravitas about them–the mysterious quality of being taken seriously. There are many actors I find entertaining but would not take life advice from them. Denzel is one of the few exceptions. I’ve transcribed a YouTube compilation in which Denzel shares his secrets to success. The clip features themes of faith, hard work, and staying true to yourself. Will Smith also appears in the video discussing the toxic effect of basing one’s self-worth on what other people think.
Denzel Washington: Without commitment, you’ll never start. But more importantly, without consistency, you’ll never finish. It’s not easy. If it was easy, there’d be no Carrie Washington, if it was easy, there’d be no Taraji Henson, Pete Henson. If it were easy, there’d be no Octavia Spencer, but not only that, if it were easy, there’d be no Viola Davis. If it were easy, there’d be no Michael T. Williamson, no Stephen McKinley Henderson, no Russell Hornsby. If it were easy, there’d be no Denzel Washington. So keep working, keep striving, never give up. Fall down 7 times, get up 8. Ease is a greater threat to progress than hardship. Ease is a greater threat to progress than hardship. So keep moving, keep growing, keep learning, see you at work.
Will Smith: We tend to base our self-esteem on what other people think. And that’s not really self-esteem. Self-esteem is supposed to be how we feel about ourselves. I was just saying how dangerous it is to allow other people to determine how you’re going to feel about you. And it’s kind of like looking into a broken mirror. You’re going to look in a broken mirror and then change your face to try to look good in this defiled, busted, broken mirror. And it’s just other people’s opinions is a really s**tty way to determine how we feel about ourselves.
Denzel Washington: You’ll never see a U-Haul behind a hearse. I’ll say it again, you’ll never see a U-Haul behind a hearse. Now I’ve been blessed to make hundreds of millions of dollars in my life. I can’t take it with me, and neither can you. So it’s not how much you have, it’s what you do with what you have. And we all have different gifts. Some money, some love, some patience. Some the ability to touch people. But we all have them. Use it. Share it. That’s what counts. Not what you drive, not what you’re flying in, not what kind of house you bought your momma. . .
Dreams without goals are just dreams. And they ultimately fuel disappointment. Goals on the road to achievement cannot be achieved without discipline and consistency. I pray you all put your shoes way under the bed at night, so that you got to get on your knees in the morning. . .
The one thing that I’m most happy about in terms of my career is the fact that I got there–by the grace of God, first of all–but short of that, I got there just by working hard. Not partying with the right people, not by compromising myself in any way or cutting any deals. Just by working hard, just by plugging along. “Sawing wood,” as I like to call it. . .
I don’t get life mixed up with making a living. I was there for all four of my children being born. When the first one was born, I recognized the difference between life and making a living. Their life. Our family’s life. Acting is making a living.
Interviewer: What do you think is the biggest difference between doing a play [and a movie]– I mean, it’s a cliched question but I’d be interested to know your answer.
Denzel Washington: I think a part of what Viola just said is you get to dig deeper and you get another day. And you get the energy. You do a movie, and it’s 200 people that are used to it, and they don’t care. Everybody is doing their job. It comes in the theaters somewhere, and you’re picking your nose at home somewhere. There’s no energy. When I was on Broadway five years ago with Julius Caesar, I made a decision to sign autographs every night. I don’t know what I did–it ain’t happening this time, no. Only as I rub my knees, only because my knees are bad, it’s hard for me to stand.
Interviewer: And why did you decide to do that?
Denzel Washington: I wanted to say thank you. It was my way of saying thank you. The first night there was like 5,000 people out there, I said wait a minute, everybody who has play bills from our show. ‘Cause it was like people were just wondering up the block. I’m like wait a minute, I forgot I’m on 42nd street. But honestly, the energy, and I was out there an hour and a half every night, every show. But the energy you got back. The five little old ladies who just drove in from Detroit. And I’m like what are yall doing tonight. And they said, “We’re getting back in the car, baby, we got to go back tonight.” And a little 84 year-old lady was like “Baby, if I was 3 years younger.” True story. And I say this also because I hope it happens with this play–we had some high schools come. We had one school from somewhere, I forgot where, and they were doing Julius Caesar. Some young kid was like “My Brutus is a bit different. . .
He’s more the classic stoic.” But it was great to engage and exchange with these young people. There was an energy. I got more from it than I gave to the people that I signed for. The odd thing about success in film, the budgets get bigger, you make more money, but they become more formulaic, so you don’t get the opportunity. God willing, if I stay around long enough, this is what I’m going to be doing. . .
You know, you’re always affected by opinion, but the more opinions there are of you, the less I look at them because I can’t live my life based upon what other people think about me. I can’t concern myself too much with what other people think, it’s just not healthy. I don’t think I could continue to do what I do if I was constantly worrying about what somebody thought about it. . .
And anything you want good, you can have. So claim it. Work hard to get it. When you get it, reach back, pull someone else up. Each one teach one. Don’t just aspire to make a living. Aspire to make a difference. . .
You don’t have to compromise yourself. If there’s something you don’t feel good about, then don’t do it. The most important choice I was made was to say no. And I’ve said no many times to films–especially early on–I just didn’t feel comfortable with. There was one script that was my brought to me, I called it the [bleep] they couldn’t kill. He was accused of raping his wife in the 40s, and they tried to hang him, but he didn’t die. And they tried to electrocute him. They were like “It’s a comedy.” It ain’t funny to me. So I actually called Sidney Poitier, who I was fortunate at that time, and still, to be able to call. And I said this movie is making me sick. And they offered me $600,000 to play this. And he said to me, and I’ll say this to you, he said the first two or three or four films you make in this industry, Denzel, will determine how you’re perceived. He said I’m not going to tell you what to do, but remember that the first three or four or five films you make will determine how you’re perceived.
I turned it down. I turned money down. I needed the money. I turned it down. Six months later I got Cry Freedom. So stick to your guns. If you don’t feel like you should do it, then don’t do it because you don’t want to be a negative energy on the set. That’s how I feel sometimes. I’m like, you know, I ain’t doing this because I’m going to slap somebody on the second day. I think the most important decision you can make as an actress is saying no. It’s saying no. You don’t have to take your clothes off if you don’t want to. . .
Put God first. Put God first in everything you do. Everything that you think you see in me, everything that I’ve accomplished, everything that you think I have–and I have a few things–everything that I have is by the grace of God. Understand that. It’s a gift. In everything you do, if you think you want to do what you think I’ve done, then do what I’ve done.