08/09/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
HE'S NOT AFRAID OF CONTROVERSY
In his latest gig, Washington steps into Frank Sinatra's role in a remake of the 1962 Cold War political thriller The Manchurian Candidate. The movie has drawn fire for daring to redo a classic—and for what some claim is a pro-Democrat spin aimed at influencing this fall's presidential election. Whale director Jonathan Demme says he hopes "this picture is as offensive to all the parties as it is to any particular one," Washington likes the movie's timing. "It's a good year for a film like this," he says. "I think people are looking at the other side of everything. One of the good things about The Passion of the Christ is it said, 'Hey, we can disagree about a movie, but it can be engaging.' Same thing with Fahrenheit 9/11." As for the remake reactionaries? "There's nothing about films that is so precious they can't be redone," says the actor, who says he never watched the original so he could put his own spin on the part. "Macbeth's done all the time."
HE LIKES PLAYING CRAZY—BUT YEARNS TO DO COMEDY
Before his Oscar-winning turn as a cop gone bad in 2001's Training Day, "I never was asked to play the heavy," he says. "I guess they thought I was the noble, nice guy." Candidate lets Washington stretch even more as an increasingly paranoid Army major who suspects that a sinister corporation brainwashed one of his soldiers (Liev Schreiber), now a vice presidential candidate. Meryl Streep, who plays Schreiber's scheming senator mom, calls Washington "divine.... He's amazing in this part because he brings this disheveled dignity. The more crazed he gets, the more powerful he gets." Washington says that after all this "delving into the dark side," he's itching to try his hand at comedy: "I think it's about time to do a spit take."
HE TAKES HIS BIBLE SERIOUSLY
After Streep invoked Jesus's teachings to condemn the war in Iraq at a Democratic fund-raiser, Washington, a devoted member of his Pentecostal church, took exception. "He didn't only say, 'Turn the other cheek,'" Washington said in a Dateline NBC interview alongside Streep. "You got to read the whole book." Retorted Streep: "Oh, I do read the book." The exchange was just friendly sparring, says a movie source, and the two actors remain pals.
HE HAS A TRICK PINKIE
Candidate costar Kimberly Elise saw the intense actor's lighter side. "He has this pinkie that goes out of joint"—Washington says he'll soon have surgery on it—"and he'd freak you out with it. He'll tell a child, 'come and touch my pinkie,' and it will collapse."
HE'S FEELING HIS AGE
With his 50th birthday looming in December, Washington jokingly describes a typical day: "Going to the gym, coming home and icing my knees. My arm. My wrist. My shoulder. My neck. I got about 8 lbs. of ice." He's disappointed that his kids—John, 20, Katia, 16, and twins Olivia and Malcolm, 13—no longer need him to coach their sports teams, an occupation that soaked up a lot of his time while they were growing up. "The kids are too old now," says Washington. "My daughter's playing varsity basketball in her high school. My son's a college football player. My other son's a basketball player. My other daughter's a dancer. They don't need me anymore. They're putting me out to pasture."
HE TALKS TO PLANTS
At the L.A. home he shares with wife Pauletta, 53, Washington planted about 100 trees to create a small orchard. "I ate the plums this year and [will eat] tangerines when they come in; [I] walk around talking to the flowers," he says. He's also learning to sail. "You start to figure out that life just ain't that complicated," says Washington, who will next play a Harlem drug dealer in the drama Tru Blu and plans to direct The Great Debaters, about an African-American college debating team. "When you're younger, you're racing, you're looking to go everywhere. Now I'm enjoying the simple things in life."
Jason Lynch. Jess Cagle and KC Baker in New York City and Pamela Warrick in L.A.