Ten Essential Denzel Washington Co-Stars
Among the pantheon of great movie stars, Denzel Washington is special. For one, he’s literally never been bad. Even if one of his movies disappoints, his performance is never the problem; he’s always doing interesting work. But one of the qualities that really places him at the pinnacle of the craft is his ability to elevate the actors around him. If you’re appearing opposite Denzel Washington, you better bring your A-game.
But who is Denzel’s greatest co-star? To find out, we relied on an age-old strategy—subjective opinions—to come up with a list of ten of our favorite Denzel Washington screen partners. These aren’t necessarily the best performances by his co-stars, but taken collectively they demonstrate a fundamental Hollywood truth: if you’re an actor, there should be no one you want to share the screen with more than Denzel Washington.
Tom Hanks, Philadelphia
Though the Academy may have decided that Tom Hanks was worthy of an Oscar win (fair enough) and Denzel didn’t even merit a nomination (travesty), Philadelphia is a true two-hander, providing plenty of opportunities for the two superstars to shine. Jonathan Demme’s film keeps the two actors apart for large swaths of the runtime — during which they each more than hold their own — but when they share the screen Philadelphia becomes transcendent. As an actor Hanks has an impressive ability to play deceptively unassuming, his nuanced performance (overshadowed perhaps by the physical transformation) perfectly setting up Washington for the more expressive role. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that they’re both often shot in Demme’s trademark close-up style, allowing two great face actors a massive canvas to strut their stuff.
Dakota Fanning, Man on Fire
One of the tests of a truly great actor is how well they work with children. You can’t fake it with a kid. Sincerity comes naturally to them, magnifying any false notes or missteps by their adult co-stars. Working opposite a child actor requires a different skill set, and when that child is as talented and precocious as a young Dakota Fanning in Man on Fire, the bar is even higher. Denzel and Fanning’s chemistry is immediate, and her performance anchors his character throughout the entire film. You can track Denzel’s entire arc throughout the film just by how they look at each other. Dakota pushes Denzel to stretch much more than this straightforward action movie would otherwise demand, and it’s their connection that elevates the film above your standard mid-budget genre fare. It’s a remarkable duet.
Angela Bassett, Malcolm X
Spike Lee’s magnum opus revolves around such a towering and all-encompassing tour de force by Washington that it feels like there’s scarcely room for any other performances despite the nearly three-and-a-half hour length. But part of the brilliance of Malcolm X is the fact that the numerous supporting performances are absolutely integral to the story primarily for how each actor’s work helps contextualize and flesh out Denzel’s Malcolm — a difficult task to pull off without coming across as a mere archetype or cypher. No one accomplishes this feat better than Angela Bassett, playing nurse, activist, and eventually wife of Malcolm X Betty Shabazz. Through no fault of the actors’ own, the biopic wife stands as one of the most difficult types of movie characters to play, simply because the role on the page is often so thanklessly written. Lee gives Shabazz a bit more to do here than you might expect from another filmmaker, but all the credit goes to Bassett for making her a complex figure in her own right while still devoting most of her narrative energy to humanizing Malcolm.
Ethan Hawke, Training Day
As a corrupted inversion of the standard buddy cop formula, Training Day’s success is entirely dependent on the relationship between its two leads. Fortunately, Ethan Hawke’s laidback, naturalistic style meshes perfectly with Denzel’s megawatt bravado, making them the ideal pair to follow down this journey through Los Angeles’s criminal underbelly. Denzel won a well-deserved Oscar for his performance as the corrupt detective Alonzo Harris—he dominates every frame with the depth and star charisma we’ve come to expect from him. But I’m not sure that he would’ve gotten there if not for Ethan Hawke, who gives the platonic ideal of a Denzel costar performance. As rookie detective Jake Hoyt, he spends the entire film in awe of Detective Harris, regarding him with amazement and fear. As an audience surrogate, he expresses and amplifies the feelings that we have watching Denzel give this performance, and in doing so perfectly represents how cool and terrifying it must be to show up for work knowing you’ll have to act opposite THE Denzel Washington.
Chris Pine, Unstoppable
When it comes to movies about rivalry and begrudging respect amongst overly macho professionals, Tony Scott was one of the masters, and his last film was one of the genre’s best thanks in large part to the interplay between Washington and Pine. Unstoppable plays like a sort of drawn-out Speed, giving Denzel’s “one day from retirement” veteran railway engineer and Pine’s hotshot new conductor plenty of time to trade barbs and eventually reach a point of mutual trust and understanding as they attempt to slow down their runaway train. Like Ethan Hawke in Training Day, Pine naturally understands his own unique brand of star power and how to use it as a foil against an actor like Denzel — a natural collaborator, but one whose own charisma is so powerful that it’s hard for him to ever truly play a mere supporting role. Pine happily takes above-the-title second fiddle, allowing both him and Washington to be in perfect position for a series of expertly-executed volleys that keep the film rolling along at an enjoyably breakneck pace.
Gene Hackman, Crimson Tide
At this point in his career, it can be tough to remember when Denzel wasn’t always automatically the biggest star in the room, so it’s fun to look back at a time when he was the young gun pushing an established veteran to stretch their acting muscles. Although by 1995 Denzel was already clearly among the best actors of his generation, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to expect the legendary Gene Hackman to blow everyone else in Crimson Tide out of the water (pun absolutely intended). But Denzel more than holds his own against Hackman, and their scenes together are the most exciting part of Tony Scott’s submarine thriller. Now with the benefit of hindsight, we know that Denzel isn’t just a generational talent. Like Hackman, he’s one of the all-time greats, and Crimson Tide is nothing less than an on-screen passing of the torch from one legendary performer to another.
Ray Allen, He Got Game
No, Ray Allen isn’t one of the ten best actors Denzel has ever worked with, but as one of the few non-professional actors to serve as Washington’s co-star, his performance as Jesus Shuttlesworth in He Got Game provides unique and valuable insight into just how good Denzel is as a collaborator. Yes, all the credit in the world to Spike Lee for directing his actors, and we should note that we’re not damning Allen with faint praise here — his turn is moving and impressive, and he more than holds his own against screen legends. But Washington is one of the most magnetic presences to ever grace the screen, and it’s not hard to imagine that if he really wanted to he could completely overshadow an untrained newcomer like Allen. The fact that he doesn’t, that Allen’s performance feels of a piece with the rest of the film and like it exists in the same world, let alone the same family, as Denzel’s Jake Shuttlesworth speaks volumes about how Washington elevates those around him through skilled generosity and sheer force of will.
Julia Roberts, The Pelican Brief
There’s star power, and then there’s Star Power, and both Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts have the latter in spades. They are both such effortlessly commanding screen presences that seeing them together seems like it might almost be too much, but Denzel’s cool confidence and Julia’s effervescent charm and up being a perfect match in The Pelican Brief, contrasting their relative strengths in a true celebration of movie star charisma. Although this legal thriller never really gives either of them the room to stretch their acting muscles all that far, watching these two interact is its own kind of thrill. Like most John Grisham adaptations, The Pelican Brief has a convoluted plot involving Supreme Court assassinations, video deposition testimony, and campaign finance violations, but it’s never less than wholly compelling, and that has everything to do with the fact that Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington are at the helm.
Eva Mendes and Sanaa Lathan, Out of Time
No slight to these two actors for the shared entry, we promise: they’re just both so integral to what makes Out of Time click that it wouldn’t be fair to only highlight one of them. One of the biggest challenges of Carl Franklin’s screwball noir is that there has to be crackling chemistry between both Denzel and Mendes and Denzel and Lathan, and that said chemistry in each case has to feel natural and distinct while simultaneously reading like the flip side of the other pairing’s coin. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Mendes and Lathan — two of our more undersung actors — are up to the challenge, playing their characters with vibrancy and complexity beyond what you might expect from the genre. But they also help shine a light on how good Washington is at manufacturing and maintaining on-screen chemistry: this is one of the few times he’s circled romantic comedy territory and it only makes you wish he’d go to this well more often.
Viola Davis, Fences
Honestly, this entire article could have just been about Viola Davis. True, she has an unfair advantage over every other performer on this list; six years before the film adaptation of Fences, she starred with Denzel in a 2010 Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play—a production that earned them both Tony Awards. So it’s no wonder that in Fences, Denzel and Viola inhabit their characters so deeply that they feel real. The contours of their marriage and their relationship are so detailed and well-worn because of how long they lived with these characters and with each other. It’s not just that they’re two of the best actors of all time (they are). It’s also the unprecedented level of trust that must come from knowing that you’re doing career-best work opposite a screen partner who’s doing the exact same.