In my first interview, Whitaker spoke about playing James Farmer Jr., who later became a civil rights leader. The movie provides a fictional profile of the 1935 Wiley College debate team, which made a very impressive run in the 1930s.
PHOTO: The debate team in "The Great Debaters" is played by (left to right) Jermaine Williams, Denzel Whitaker, Jurnee Smollett and Nate Parker. (Weinstein Co.)
ALEXANDYR KENT: You must be excited to have a big film release on Christmas day. How do you feel?
DENZEL WHITAKER: I'm so proud of this movie, to be honest, because it's one of those movies where you don't look at it from an actor's perspective. You become an audience member. Even myself, I kind of forgot where some of the scenes are placed. Really you just become wrapped into the movie, and I've never had that happen to me before, even when shooting TV shows. So I'm definitely proud of this movie and what it's going to do.
AK: What is something you admire most about James Farmer Jr.? As far as character, he's the youngest of the bunch and he's being tested.
DW: His maturity, you know? I can definitely see myself as a James Farmer Jr. just because of his maturity level. He's a very mature kid. He wants to basically be with the adults and he wants to debate with the adults and show him what he really has. I've always seen myself as kind of like that. I like the role because I can definitely find parts of me in James Farmer Jr. Of course, the first crush, wanting to prove myself at Harvard, and finally getting the big moment.
AK: When you did get that big moment, it must be kind of fun to stand up at that lectern in front of 200, 300 people out there all looking at you.
DW: We had up to like 800 people, to be honest. We filled every seat one of the days. We brought in 800 to 1,000 extras, and it was unbelievable. First of all, when you step on the Harvard stage, you can feel that history everywhere. There's so much history, you can just feel it in the air basically when you walk on that stage. And then to have all those people in front of you. It's intimidating sometimes, but once you get into that mindset and once you get to do the scene, it's kind of nice. It's enjoyable.
AK: What kind of opportunity does this represent to James Farmer Jr., to join the debate team? Psychologically, this is a 14-year-old kid who's ultimately going to take on kids at Harvard. It's not something that's expected in 1934, 1935. When you looked at that role, what that something intimidating?
DW: I'd say it's definitely intimidating to think that this 14-year-old is going to take on Harvard. I could only image what's going through his mind when he actually found out he was going to be debating. Not only that, just being there and feeling what Harvard has to offer. A very limited number of people got to step on that stage. As African-Americans as a whole, stepping on that stage, there's a lot of pressure on his shoulders and a lot of people looking up to a 14-year-old. I really think that's where his great moment comes from. A lot of people are looking up to him, and he delivers. I think that's the special thing about it.
AK: Had you had any experience in parliamentary debate?
DW: We went to debate camp. Actually, what we do in the movie is Lincoln-Douglas. We went to debate camp (at Texas Southern University) and we learned impromptu and parliamentary. We went there for two days and Denzel told us, 'Y'all better come back and you better say you won!' He was like, 'You're actors. At least if you don't know what you are talking about, be passionate about it.' There is a passion to debate. It's not all facts and figures. You got to appeal to the audience. So when we went to debate camp, me and Jurnee did parliamentary. Me and Jurnee were teammates, by the way. Killed them. It was the freshman Texas Southern University debate team. And you get 15 minutes to prepare. You are pulling out textbooks. You are going on the Internet. You are thinking of facts and figures that really, like, relate. You know, things that you learned in life. Then you finally get up there, and you either have to negate or you have to be for the topic. You have to be the affirmative. You just have to be in tune. You got to write down everything. You got to really be collaborative with your partner. But ultimately, if you can pull it off, really persuade the audience, there's nothing better. Because it's really a great feeling winning a debate. It's kind of like playing a basketball match and winning that. To be honest, when you get wrapped up in it, you're in it.
AK: There's a certain athleticism, too, in the vocal work. Was that hard to learn? That's definitely a different style. Denzel Washington is of course a genius of getting up in front of the camera and using his voice to carry a film.
DW: That's from his theater background, definitely from him being on Broadway. He's from a theater background and that's what he told us. We kind of need to find our roots. Definitely at the beginning of our two weeks of preparation, we did some exercises with him where he had us doing tongue-twisters. The tip of the tongue. The teeth and the gums. We did red leather, yellow leather, and we were literally yelling across the room. He put us in an empty hallway, and we were yelling across the room to him on the other side. If he couldn't hear us, or if our pronunciation wasn't right, if we didn't enunciate something right, he would yell at us.
AK: Was he really yelling at you?
DW: Well, not like really yelling at us. He was kind of like getting us going. He was getting us fired up, really. It was definitely like him coaching us like we were technically in debate camp, but with Denzel. But that was the theater side of it. He was teaching us the theater background. To use our voice, with these exercises that they are doing, he would want us to be full out. Using our bodies, our hands, lifting from the bottom of our voices, from our deepest in our stomach, and um, he was just like, you can never go too big with these exercises. After we were done with these exercises, he was like, 'OK, bring it down a notch. Now you're at the right point.' And I think that kind of set the tone for the whole movie, really, how we kind of got into that debating mood.
AK: He sounds like a real professor.
DW: Oh, definitely like a real professor. Definitely like a real Professor Tolson.
AK: This is your second time around working with Mr. Washington. You worked with him in 'Training Day.'
DW: I worked with him a little bit. A lit bit.
AK: What was it like the first time? Did you comprehend who he was?
DW: Not at all. I was at the age of 10, and it was kind of my first time being on a set. I didn't really know what was going on. Right when I got on set, they were like, 'Sit here. Do this.' And then you are going to be in the backroom. Once they started rolling, I didn't even know they were rolling. And then Denzel came out, he was like, 'Hi. I'm Denzel.' I said, 'Hey, I'm Denzel.' We were like conversing about our names. But I never really expected or kind of knew how big Denzel was at the time. It was kind of like after I filmed the movie, and 'Training Day' became a hit success was I like, 'Wow, I just worked with him, you know?' And never did I see it as he was an Academy Award winner. I kind of regret that in a sense. I didn't get a picture.
AK: But did you know that you were named after him?
DW: Yes, I was named after him. I knew that.
AK: But you were 10.
DW: I was 10. Everything was new to me. I was confused. I was walking on the set like what's going on. Is this real? I was definitely confused, and at the moment, I regret not getting a picture. And that's why it was kind of important to book this role. I wanted to connect with him more on a personal level. I definitely look up to Denzel. He's definitely a mentor and someone I look up to in my acting career. So for me to book this role, that was why I really wanted to book this role.
AK: The second time around you met him, I'm sure you comprehended who he was.
DW: Yes, I comprehended who he was.
AK: Did you get your picture?
DW: I got a few pictures, yeah.
AK: This time he was behind the camera. He was giving you all these directions. He obviously won the Academy Award for 'Training Day.' When somebody like that steps behind the camera, and also shares the screen with you quite a bit, what is the kind of pressure of the feeling that you have when you think, 'OK. This is going primetime?'
DW: Definitely. I just wanted to make him proud, really. I just wanted to show him my talent. That he understands how passionate I am about acting. And I mean, it's really one of those moments where you’re working with someone of greatness. Someone who has a background of Academy Awards, and this is your one shot. So if you screw this up, you’re pretty much done. It wasn’t so much of a pressure. It was I’m ready. I’m focused. I’m going to keep my head in the game 24/7. I just want to impress. To make sure that I’m delivering the performance, so that he can never say that, ‘Oh, well, I regret hiring that kid,’ you know? It’s one of moments where you’re kind of on the spotlight 24/7 and you got to make sure you perform, especially with doing scenes with him. Because easily, easily, he could have stole the scene. He could have stole every scene of this movie, really. But it was kind of nice how he let me, Jurnee and Nate be the focus of the movie and also step back and kind of coached us and worked with us.
AK: The chemistry between the three students seemed to be really genuine. Did you really enjoy working with those actors, Nate Parker and Jurnee Smollett?
DW: Oh, I did. It’s definitely an extended family. Even while doing press interviews, and whatnot, we’re laughing behind scenes. Joking around. It’s all genuine. We would hang out in Shreveport. We would hang out at everybody’s houses, go over to the local bowling alley. We’d go to the Bossier mall, and we’d spend our day there. The Boardwalk.
AK: How was your time in northwest Louisiana? That’s a tough time to film, because you were outside a lot.
DW: We were filming a lot of running scenes, a lot of outside shots, a lot of wool suits, three-piece suits. And it was raining too, which would sometimes ruin the shot. We had bugs. We were filming in the woods. We were filming deep in the woods. Between the bugs and the rain and the hot weather … if it wasn’t for that, I would have enjoyed myself. (Laughs.) I got bit by a mosquito every other day, so for me, I was applying ointment between scenes. It wasn’t the best experience I’ve had, but I definitely did enjoy Shreveport. I had a good time out there.
AK: Lastly, what do you think is going to be most memorable about this experience? I know the film is not out yet, but what’s kind of stuck with you about working on that set and working with not only Denzel but Forest Whitaker and this incredible talent?
DW: To be honest, just to work with elite people, and not only Forest and Denzel, but to work with Nate and Jurnee, I feel they are great actors by the way, definitely a great experience overall. When the DVD comes out, it’s something take out and show my kids. If I don’t end up booking a job as big as this, at least I get to show my kids a DVD and say, ‘Your father was once a big-time celeb, I guess you could say.’ I’m proud of this movie. I hope we just get the message out of knowledge is power. We really focus on that message, you know, inspire other people. And down the road from now, I just hope to maybe work with the cast again.
AK: Congratulations, Denzel, you have a wonderful movie.
NOTE: In the movie, the team earns an opportunity to challenge Harvard University, a detail that hasn't been verified historically. But the Wiley College team did beat the national champion team from the University of Southern California in 1935. The detail was changed for dramatic reasons, because Harvard represents the pinnacle of the American education system and that's arguably easier to understand for popular audiences.