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Denzel Washington Had a Very Weird 2021

The internet resurfaced both old and new awkward and uncomfortable moments with the iconic actor — and it’s worth revisiting how he handled every one of them

This month, Denzel Washington has been doing press for his newest film, the Joel Coen-directed The Tragedy of MacBeth, which included him appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, where the two spit lines of Shakespeare at each other from memory. At one point, of course, Washington gets in the line, “It’s good to be the king.”

Yet despite being the baddest badass actor in Hollywood — at present, his nine Oscar nominations make him the most-nominated Black actor ever recognized by the Academy — people still think they can come for a king like Washington. But it’s like what Omar said in The Wire, “If you come at the king, you best not miss.” Someone needs to tell that to the folks who made 2021 a very odd year for Washington. The six incidents below showcase just how strange the last 365 days were for Washington, though it should be said that through it all, he remained unflappable and just kept on clapping.

Uncle Denzel vs. Damson Idris

Idris plays Franklin Saint in the series Snowfall, which Washington didn’t realize until he experienced an awkward red carpet interview for his new film Journals for Jordan. Making matters worse, a journalist had to remind Washington that Idris had auditioned to play his son in Fences. Washington didn’t quite play along and admitted to having never heard of the actor, who’s also known to do a wicked impression of Washington.

“Who are you talking about? I don’t know who that is… What show — Snowfall? No disrespect, Damson, no disrespect,” Washington responded.

The moment went low-key viral as young fans of the actor tweeted about the interview. To his credit, Washington promised that he’d find out who Idris was. And to Idris’ credit, he handled the slight with a self-deprecating grace.  

Denzel Supports Trump (No, Not Really)

This one was bullshit from the start, propagated by a bullshit website (Breitbartt with an extra “T”) and then repeated ad nauseum without attribution. The Washington Post actually spent the time to go full-on Snopes and debunk the story. This wasn’t, however, the first time Washington has had to deal with such an internet rumor. In fact, he’s warned the press to do better due diligence so they don’t keep falling for uncorroborated bullshit.

Denzel Stalked Jared Leto to Get Into Character 

In Washington’s other recent film, The Little Things, in which he stars alongside Leto, a notorious on-set prankster, Washington told the press he didn’t suffer any Leto-inspired chicanery. “He didn’t do any of that with me. Nah. He’d have been paid a visit,” Washington joked. If anything, Washington admitted that he was the one who took things too far. He reportedly stalked Leto during the day, without the actor ever catching on. “I’d follow him around,” Washington explained. “I was outside his apartment sometimes, and he didn’t know. I won’t say anything more about it. I’ll put it this way, he didn’t know.”

Apparently, he managed to both defuse and out-creep Leto — not an easy task. 

Denzel vs. Katie Couric

This one started when the former Today Show host complained on a podcast about the time she felt Washington came for her live on the air. It dated back to a 2004 interview in which she asked him about actors staying in their lane

Couric: Denzel, are you — do you feel— you know some people say Hollywood folks should stick to acting?
Washington: I don’t know what Hollywood folks are, first of all. Hollywood is a town that has some stars on the sidewalk. I don’t know anybody from there. So, I don’t — that’s like saying — calling you a type of folks. I’m not a Hollywood folk. I don’t know who they are.
Couric: Okay, all right, well, let me rephrase the question. Are you one of those people that —
Washington: Ah, there you go. Am I one of those people? Hmmm, isn’t that interesting?
Couric: Oh, stop, stop, stop.
Washington: No, don’t stop. I heard what you just said: “Am I one of those people?” No, I’m not.

FWIW: Washington later sent Couric a donation by way of an apology, despite having to suffer through her smooth-brained questions. Here’s how Couric described the gesture: “He must have been having a really bad day ’cause he later wrote a big check to my colon cancer organization, which I thought was super sweet. I admire him so much, but I remember walking out and feeling really kind of shaken that he had kind of gone after me in a way that was completely, weirdly uncalled for.”

Denzel vs. Ellen Pompeo

The Couric feud was a small cut of beef, though, compared to Pompeo going on a podcast with her fellow Grey’s Anatomy alum Patrick Dempsey and recalling a time she cussed out Washington in front of the cast and crew of the long-running show. 

“[Executive producer] Debbie Allen was like, ‘What can I do to keep Ellen interested? What can I do to keep Ellen here?’ Because after you [Dempsey] left, I was like, ‘Oh, why do I have to stay here?’ And Debbie was like, ‘No, no, no. You’ve got to stick around. I’m gonna bring in a surprise for you,’ and she would never tell me who it was. But she knew I was a huge fan [of Washington]. So Denzel Washington shows up to direct that week’s episode. It was something of a treat for his wife who’s a huge fan of the show. Less of a treat for Denzel, he’s there to work.” 

During the shoot itself, Pompeo was filming a scene with an actor who had made a choice to speak quietly and not look at the actress during their big scene together. “I yelled at him,” Pompeo told Dempsey. “I was like, ‘Look at me when you apologize. Look at me.’ And that wasn’t in the dialogue, and Denzel went HAM on my ass. He was like, ‘I’m the director. Don’t you tell him what to do.’”

From there, things went from zero to yikes in record time. “I was like, ‘Listen, motherfucker, this is my show. This is my set. Who are you telling?!’” Pompeo boasted.

In the end, though, she mostly chalked it up to actors being actors: “So, we didn’t get through it without a fight, but that’s actors for you. Passionate and fiery and that’s where you get the magic, and that’s where you get the good stuff. So, it was an amazing experience, it really was.”

That said, Pompeo did feel the need to snitch on Washington to his wife Pauletta: “I was like, ‘Yeah, he yelled at me today. Yeah, he let me have it today, and I’m not okay with him, and I’m not looking at him, and I’m not talking to him.’”

‘I’m Leaving Here with Something

Although the original clip is from 2018, a popular video of Washington popped back up in 2021 and went viral all over again. It was from a video withJamie Foxx, when Washington recalled his time at the 1988 Oscars when he was nominated for his role in Cry Freedom, the story of South African freedom fighter Steven Biko

“Let me tell you a Sean Connery story,” Washington said to Foxx. “He was up for The Untouchables. I was up that year for — I think it was Cry Freedom. He comes out to present an award and got a three-minute standing ovation — for presenting an award. I went to get the coats. I said, ‘Well, I’ll get the coats, ‘cause I know I ain’t winning tonight.’”

That’s when Washington dropped the best part of the story — the part that’s since become a beloved meme for Black Twitter. “So now we leaving,” Washington continued. “I’m leaving without the Oscar, right? But as I’m leaving, I see the back where they’re doing — they’re getting the meal ready, the food ready for the Governors Ball. I see a big tray. I’m like, ‘I’m leaving here with something.’ Know what I mean? I’m from around the way. I’m leaving with something. Then my mother told me to get the flower arrangement. True story.”

So yes, Denzel Washington had a weird 2021, mostly on the internet. But as a reminder of the talent he brings to the game, check out the clip below of him as Biko. In it, Washington sums up what it means to be conscious and confident as a Black man in a world that’s governed by white supremacy. No matter what he goes through — online or otherwise, in 2021 or otherwise — this is what Washington’s legacy says loudest: Be confrontational. It’s how you change the world.