But for the first time in a distinguished film career that spans more than two decades, Washington is the villain -- a juicy role the 47-year-old native New Yorker said he relished playing.
In the new cop drama "Training Day," he portrays a corrupt Los Angeles narcotics officer who shakes down gang members and drug dealers, shoots people and drinks on the job, all on the day he is supposed to be showing his new partner (Ethan Hawke) the ropes.
"It was a lot of fun," said the star of "Remember the Titans," "Malcolm X" and "Glory."
"It was a lot of fun because it was new. I've done, I don't know, almost 30 pictures now, and this is the first time I've done anything like this, so it was fun. It was fun to be able to say whatever you wanted to say and get away with it. I was talking earlier about 'Devil in a Blue Dress' and that's when I really realized that Don Cheadle's character, Mouse... I was like 'Man, I'm playing the wrong part.' He's got the good part and nobody's ever asked me to play the bad guy. I guess they don't look at me that way. Maybe they will now," the actor explained.
Washington described his character, at the point we meet him in the movie, as "an egomaniac, an arrogant thief, a killer, a liar and someone who'll use anybody."
"He's a sick, sick man and we even added the stuff with the kid in the middle of the shootout (to make him look worse)," he said. "That wasn't in the script. I said, 'Let's take the tension a step higher by putting the kid right in the middle of it.' And now, suddenly, I'll use my own kid... He's the boogey man," adding that his character "gets what he deserves" at the end of the film.
The scene with the child wasn't the only one in which Washington was encouraged to improvise.
"We improvised a lot," he said. "'You want to go to jail? You want to go home?' was not written. Calling him a 'nigger' the whole movie was not written. I just put that in there. Almost that whole last scene where I'm screaming at everybody, I made it up. The bones of it were there. But I just realized that I kept developing... and (director) Antoine
(Fuqua) encouraged me. He said, 'Man, some of this stuff you make up is the best stuff.' So, we would just flow with it. Like when I came up with that 'King Kong' line, I don't know where that came from. I was just riffing. I just think it was his ego. What was important to me was that he suffered and that everyone turned his back on him. That he crawled on the ground. That's why I made sure I got down on the ground like a snake. Nobody would help him and he died in the worst way."
The movie took Washington and Hawke to some of LA's tougher neighborhoods to film, something Washington said didn't scare him in the least.
"It's a movie," he stated. "Ninety-nine point nine percent of the people in the neighborhood are just hard-working folks."
Asked if what we see on film in those neighborhood is exaggerated then, Washington replied: "I haven't seen too many cops riding around with $70,000 Rolex watches and... No, all of the gang bangers were gang bangers. The (gang members) you saw in red were real. And they were from that street ... I didn't worry about what procedure was or what cops really do because I said, 'There can't really be one like this guy.' You can't shoot up half a neighborhood and then ride around all day with bullet holes ... Somebody's gonna be checking in. Nobody in that neighborhood called the police?'"
So, does that mean he didn't feel even the slightest sense of danger?
"I didn't. I didn't," he insisted. "I mean, it's exciting, but, I mean, they're people. I tell you, I felt a sense of danger when I filmed in Rahway State Penitentiary (for 'Hurricane'). When they lock them doors behind you. That's a sense of danger. And I got along with the people in there. I've made a lot of movies that I got a lot of support in the streets. And love in the streets, as they say. And I've never had a problem with black people at all."
The star of "Cry Freedom" and "Philadelphia" even recalled meeting members of the infamous Crips gang while he was shooting scenes for "Training Day" in Imperial Courts.
"When I got there that morning (director) Antoine was like, 'Let's go meet the fellas.' And I was like, 'Yeah. Let's go meet them,'" he said. "So, I go meet everybody and they're like, 'You gotta go meet my mom.' 'Well, where is she?' I said. And she'd come over and give me a hug and she's like 'Well, I'm gonna go fix you something to eat' and I'm like, 'Come on, let's go get something to eat now.' Go in the house to get some food and she's like 'Oh, baby, he's so nice.' And someone (from the crew) told me later on that that was the head guy's mom and they said 'You're in over here now. We can't even mess with you.'"
Washington claimed that he even asked some of the gang members for advice on how to effectively play his part.
"I don't remember if it was Crips or Bloods, I said now, 'Which guy would you go for?'" he recalled. "And he said, 'Hey we'd just sit back and let you guys just kill each other.' I said, 'What guy would you lean towards' He said, 'We'd lean towards Jake (Hawke's character) because he's younger and maybe we could manipulate him and we know that you're so far in over your head that you'll give anybody up or kill anybody to survive.' I found that interesting."
Washington said the film was not a political statement about corruption in the police force.
"The overwhelming majority of cops do a great job," he said. "This is not an indictment of the LAPD. And the LAPD doesn't have a monopoly on bad cops. We all know that. This is about a guy who went too far. This is not based on anyone in the LAPD."
Asked to explain his universal appeal to men and woman of all races and ages, Washington humbly replied: "You go to the theater and there's like 18 choices and there's 100 different reasons why people don't go or go to what they want to go to and there still are and they'll make a decision based upon what they want to do. That's out of my hands. I can't control why people go to films or why they don't and I don't worry about that. I just try to make good pictures ... I've learned that all I can do is what I do. Put it up there on the screen. Work hard for the people. That's what I'm doing it for. That's why we're here. That's why I make movies -- for the public. I make the best movies I can make."
As for being nominated for another Oscar, Washington said he's not going to get himself all excited, but instead try to keep an even keel and just keep making good pictures.
"We'll see what happens," he said. "I just remember the look on my mother's face (when he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for 'Glory' in 1989.) It was a heck of a 'thank you' card. I just remember she couldn't believe it. I remember looking out, she was just like, 'My baby. My baby's up there with the big boys.'
"Then later on that night, she was funny because, we were sitting in the front row and all these stars were going by and nobody's really speaking and later on that night after I won everybody's dropping by and she's like, 'Oh, I see this Hollywood stuff. Now everybody's your friend now.' I said, 'You got it, Ma. That's it. You got the game in a nutshell.'"