Amy Longsdorf
July 22, 2004 06:00 AM

Denzel Washington is back on the big screen, this time to share the bill with another Oscar-winning powerhouse, Meryl Streep, in the remake of the political thriller The Manchurian Candidate. But don’t look for fireworks between the two – they never shared a scene. Washington, 49, recently chatted with reporters about working with his elusive costar, getting back behind the camera and nearing the big 5-0.

How is it that you’re in a movie with Meryl Streep, yet you two didn’t actually share any screen time?
I didn’t really realize it until the day that we were doing the last scene. It was like, I’m an extra in this scene. Probably the most exciting day in retrospect was just the read-through. Just waiting to see what she was going to do and how she was going to do it, and she was really having fun. I was like, She’s sort of joking it up, but there’s obviously a method to her madness.

Is there any woman as powerful as Meryl is in this?
My mother. (Laughs) More powerful.

Had you seen the original?
No. Still haven’t.

Why not?
It goes back to theater, and I’m from the theater. You reinterpret or you interpret plays all the time that have been done over and over. When I read this, and I’m glad that I hadn’t seen the film, I said, “Wow.” It was all new and fresh to me.

What about it got you?
It was just fascinating. I was like, Could this happen? … We all get brainwashed. We are all led in a certain direction. Malcolm X said, You started off hating the Germans and loving the Russians. Five years later, you were loving the Germans and hating the Russians. How did that happen? Someone told you something. You didn’t go to Russia or Germany. So somehow you were, in some sense brainwashed or programmed. So it happens in subtle ways.

Do you think you could ever be brainwashed?
Yes, and I was by my mother. She brainwashed me. She trained me well. She did a good job.

Washington calls costar Meryl Streep "one of the greatest," comparing her to Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis.

Are you planning on directing again?
I’m going to, yeah. Fall of next year.

The Sammy Davis Jr. story?
Not that one. That’s just the one the paper talks about. The Great Debaters is what we’re working on to do next fall.

What’s that about?
There’s a small school in Texas called Wiley College. It’s a black school, and in 1935, they had one of the best debating teams in the country. They beat everyone, this little school. These four kids would get in the car and one of them happened to be (civil rights activist) James Farmer who was a 15-year-old freshman. So it’s a really interesting story about the spoken word. I think that it’s very smart. I like the idea of someone (like) Mos Def being in it.

It’s almost your birthday (July 28). The big 5-0.
Yeah. I love 5-0 now. When you turn 1, you’ve already lived a year. So, I’m learning to sail. I’m living and enjoying it. I’m embracing it. I’ve got no choice. Even if you get 50 more, you’re not going to like the last 20 of them.

Are you worried about getting older in Hollywood?
I don’t worry about that. I think that it’s obviously more of a concern for women because they seemed to be discarded.

Actresses have a shelf life?
Yeah. We get older and they get younger.

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