One of Hollywood's most successful actors, with two new movies out in quick succession, Denzel Washington shuns the glitz and glamour in favour of family life. The son of preacher man talks to Steve Pratt about Oscars and a guardian angel.

Two years ago Halle Berry wept and wailed as she collected her best actress Oscar and, amid the tears, declared what an important moment this was for black performers in Hollywood. Less hysteria surrounded Denzel Washington taking home an Academy Award for best actor at the same ceremony.

You'd expect nothing less from the quiet man of American cinema, a star who commands up to $20m a movie but who values family life above glitzy premieres and wild partying.

The preacher's son turns 50 this year and with two movies being released in swift succession over here, this Washington would be telling no lie if he claimed to be one of Hollywood's most successful actors.

And one of its most versatile, evidenced by those new movies - as a washed-up CIA agent turned bodyguard in Tony Scott's violent thriller Man On Fire and as a Gulf War major investigating brainwashing accusations in the remake of 1960s political thriller The Manchurian Candidate.

Stopping off in London en route to the Venice Film Festival, Denzel shows no signs of any impending midlife crisis. He proves a good deal chattier and funnier than you're led to expect from his serious screen image.

Inevitably, Berry's emotional outburst at the Oscars is mentioned. He has a different take on their winning than Berry. "I think the bottom line is she and I won because we both had good parts to play and, needless to say, black or white, good parts are hard to come by," he says.

"A good actor with a good opportunity has a shot. Without that, it doesn't matter how good you are. If you don't have a good juicy role to take a bite out of, you won't be there on that night."

He's creating those opportunities by producing and developing more material, including a film about entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. If Sidney Poitier showed the way for black actors in Hollywood, Washington has continued the work to become one of the industry's most consistently successful and busiest actors.

He's reached the top without attracting the usual publicity that accompanies stardom. No scandal, no partying, no nothing. His religion plays a key role in his life. He credits his father, a Pentecostal minister, and his mother for setting the example that he's followed. His father, he's said, was both his hero and his spiritual guide.

His Oscar for Training Day followed a best supporting one for Glory in the late 1980s. But, as his mother says: "Man gives the award, God gives the reward." So awards don't concern him that much.

"In the case of this last one for Training Day, it's interesting because I was really, 'Yeah, whatever' kind of attitude about it. You know I'd been to the party enough times and was like, 'Whatever they're gonna do, they're gonna do, it doesn't matter. Free suit, decent dinner and go home.'

"But the next day I went to the gym, where I box and work out, and a young black actor there said, 'Aren't you excited?' and I was like, 'Whatever'. He was like maybe you feel that way but not the rest of us. He said black actors felt that if I didn't win what chance did they have? When I won, he called all his friends and it made them feel like they had a shot.

"You never know how you're going to affect people. Maybe it doesn't affect me that way but it's not always just about me."

A question, prompted by the brainwashing tactics used in The Manchurian Candidate, about any strange things that have ever happened to him produces an unexpected reply about seeing an angel as a child.

"I woke up one night and this angel kind of looked like my sister. That sounds funny, but I saw wings. I walked over to the door and opened it so some light could come into the room - and it sort of faded away," he recalls.

"It's a true story. I asked my mother about it and she said, 'Well, it's probably your guardian angel'. I was like, 'Yeah, right, ma'. But I've always felt protected, it's as real as you are in front of me now. That's the God's honest truth."

He goes as far as to say that the guardian angel has helped him make good career choices. That influence extends to shooting difficult scenes, like a whipping scene in Glory, a film about the first unit of black soldiers in the American Civil War. "I didn't prepare. I didn't need to do anything but pray. I said a prayer and, as I walked out on the set, it came to me," he says. "Sometimes it's just fate, it's not science. I don't even try to figure it out."

Similarly, an inquiry about preparing to play a character like John Creasey in Man On Fire, a burnt-out CIA agent with a drink problem who's working as bodyguard to a nine-year-old girl, also produces an surprising answer. He shared with director Tony Scott a couple of scriptures from the Letter to the Romans in the Bible that had been brought to his attention by a real life cop with whom he worked on the movie Training Day.

"The part of it being about coming out of the darkness into the light, which I felt is the arc of this character. The darker we can make him, the more depressed and alcohol-driven he was at the beginning of the film, the greater the journey for him.

"The other part of the scriptures that we applied to the story is that they talked about certain people who are designated to protect those of us who can't protect ourselves. Like the soldiers in the war now in Iraq, or in any war, we didn't take care of those young men and women when they came home. What happens to them when they've seen all the death and destruction that they've seen?

"Well, John Creasey was a man who'd seen a lot of death and destruction, and probably had his share of killing. What we see at the beginning is the result of that. It has destroyed his soul. I mean he literally has the Bible in one hand and the bourbon in the other, and obviously the two of them don't work well together."

Seeing Washington play darker characters, first as a corrupt cop in Training Day and now in his two latest movies, surprised those who only viewed him as a Mr Nice Guy. After all those heavies, he agrees that perhaps a comedy would be a welcome change. "Before Training Day I guess they didn't think I could be a heavy. I don't think he was heavy, he was misunderstood. So now those roles are coming," he says.

"I have a script in my bag that I've been asked to do with Halle Berry that's sort of a romance. I've gotta read it first, so we'll see. That's sort of like how Hollywood works. They all head in one direction. Every book in the Bible's being optioned now after the success of The Passion."

* Man On Fire (18) is now showing in cinemas. The Manchurian Candidate (15) opens on November 19.

Published: 09/10/2004