A Star in Her Own Right: Pauletta Washington on Being a Strong Woman Behind a Powerful Man

The wife of Denzel Washington, Pauletta Washington is taking on a role in the play Autumn that’s very familiar.

Pauletta Washington in 2014 Robin Marchant/Getty Images

She is the wife of one of the biggest stars on the planet, Denzel Washington, and the mother of rising star and verified hunk John David Washington. Now Pauletta Washington is ready to claim her own star.

The actress, who celebrated her 66th birthday in September, is appearing in the Billie Holiday Theatre production of Autumn, in Brooklyn, N.Y. On opening night of the play, her son, who stars in Ballers, had high praise for her.

“I love my mother. The fact that she sacrificed so much to raise four children, and as she has got back into acting, I am so proud. Everything she does encouraged and pushes me to be the best and do more,” John David Washington tells The Root.

Autumn, which runs this week through Sunday, is a political drama that touches on issues of gentrification, class and race wars, as well as family and the ties that bind. While it’s been 18 years since Washington appeared in the film Beloved, the actress has taken on a few other roles since then and has no less than three other projects this year.

Pauletta Washington sat down with The Root to talk about her play, career, family and why she’s rooting for her husband’s new movie, Fences, in the race for Oscar gold.

The Root: What drew you to this play Autumn?

Pauletta Washington: Doing this role is a gift; it’s wonderful because of our playwright, Richard Wesley, who is brilliant, and I had the privilege of taking part in the first staged reading. I love the play, and Richard has really worked on it and now, I feel, has a masterpiece. It’s very rare that you get material that rolls off your tongue, that contains so much substance, and this one does.

TR: When it comes to acting, you have a lot going on right now. How did you get to this point?

PW: When I became an empty nester, maybe it’s been seven years now, I got back on the scene, and a lot of people weren’t aware that I was on the scene. Before I left, my career was very, very active. If it’s a story that I feel is exciting and necessary, those are really motivating factors for me. Autumn is politically based, but it’s a human story behind the politics. I play Melissa, the first lady to a mayor of an [unnamed] large city, and it’s so representative of so many women behind powerful men.

TR: Did you shape it after someone you know, for example, Michelle Obama?

PW: I would say it was a combination of several women. Firstly, my mother and her position in our house. Growing up [in Newton, N.C.], my father was the principal of a huge school. So him being in that position and seeing how my mother handled it, she was really a big influence on this role. Then there was Colin Powell’s wife, Alma, along with the first lady and other first ladies. She’s a quiet storm, she’s in the public eye, but you know good and well, behind the scenes, he’s a powerful man, and my being in that position of having a man that’s powerful in his genre, I understand that position as a woman.

TR: You are the quiet storm, the strong woman behind that powerful man, Denzel Washington. How much give-and-take is there in your relationship, and how much support is there between the two of you when it comes to work and acting?

PW: First of all, Michelle Obama, and any woman behind an influential man, has always been there. Maybe the public, and the media, is now saying we recognize you, but take it from me, I’ve been on the scene a long time. When Denzel first started, I was right there, but there was no focus on me. But there’s been no less presence in his life and in my life than now. As you climb, you grow deeper in the foundation, so it makes our foundation deeper.

TR: How do you sustain your relationship?

PW: It’s all spiritual, it’s all based on God. I’m limited as a human being, and when you look at certain situations, it’s very bleak. Or at least it appears that way, but then I seek spiritual counseling. My inner circle of people are like-minded, so we strengthen each other.

TR: You spend a lot of time strengthening others. In fact, you are responsible for making sure Omari Hardwick had a roof over his head instead of sleeping in his car early in his acting career.

PW: Actually, Omari was a godsend for me because the school John David attended had very few minorities. So he came home one day, and he was very excited, he said, “Mom I met our substitute teacher today, and he was a black man.” So I suggested he bring him over, and I loved him.

At the time, Omari was young, and from that day, he just became attached to our family. He also became like a big brother to John David and prepared him for the NFL. That proverb, “It takes a village,” that’s for real. Omari is so humble, he didn’t tell me that he was living in his car at one point, and when I found out, we helped him out. When he really started working and had money, he paid us back.

TR: When your children decided they wanted to go into the acting world, did they come to you and say, “This is what I want to do. What do you think?”

PW: I was praying and hoping that none of them wanted to be actors. I think it’s in their blood. The only requirement was they had to go to college. My oldest daughter, Katia, graduated from Yale with a history major. My oldest son, John David, went to Morehouse. My baby girl, Olivia, went to NYU for acting. My baby boy, Malcolm, went to UPenn and started out finance but ended up in theater because he loved the history of theater and film. Now he just graduated from AFI as a director, and he’s working with Spike Lee on Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It.

TR: Do you think this year we won’t see #OscarsSoWhite trending thanks to several amazing films, including your husband’s own, Fences?

PW: It starts with the script, the casting, the directors. When you think about my husband’s career, short of Spike Lee’s films, the roles were not written for black people. Philadelphia was not written for a black lawyer. Man on Fire and even Training Day, not really. But because of the choices that were made by whoever it was, the directors, the casting director, it started there. We have to open those windows and give us more opportunities. We need writers, we need to tell stories that include minority people, and then we won’t have this discussion about “Oscar so white.”

TR: And Fences?

PW: I saw Fences; it’s a beautiful story, and the talent in it just gave me chills. I am very proud of my husband, both behind the camera and in front of the camera, and Viola Davis. It’s just amazing.

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