NEW YORK -- The Denzel Washington you meet backstage at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre doesn't appear to be living the glamorous Hollywood life. He looks more like a college kid during finals.
He's wearing a black Yankees cap, black sweatpants and blue sneakers. There are free weights on a counter near a bottle of diet cola. Notebooks and papers are strewn everywhere. He's bracing himself against a chilly New York spring with some chicken noodle soup laced with hot sauce.
"Have a seat," the star says, gesturing toward a banged-up sofa and settling into his own chair before a makeshift desk improvised from a minifridge. "I've got good heat here."
Washington appears to be completely in his element while putting the finishing touches on his performance in a new production of "A Raisin in the Sun."
"It's just a great opportunity -- that's how I look at it," says Washington. "It's like getting back to your roots. It's going good. ..."
Like an athlete in training, Washington has poured himself into the work, filling two composition books with notes and marking every page of his script with highlighter and notations.
The first notebook starts with the poem "A Dream Deferred" by Langston Hughes, the work that partly inspired Lorraine Hansberry to write this play. Washington has copied it out by hand. A few pages later, there's a photo of Hansberry, "I got her in there? I forgot I had her in there," Washington says, flipping through.
The play marks Washington's first return to Broadway since his 2010 Tony Award-winning turn in August Wilson's "Fences," and every preview has been sold out, with premium seats going for as much as $348.
His co-star, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, is an old friend and Samuel L. Jackson's wife. She says, "Denzel? Listen, he's a Stradivarius. ... It's so wonderful being on the stage with him. He's so elegant and so giving."
Set in 1950s Chicago, "A Raisin in the Sun," which opened April 3, centers on the struggling Younger family as it anxiously awaits a $10,000 insurance check -- and the ensuing squabbles over how to spend the money.
Washington plays Walter Lee, a chauffeur with dreams of opening a liquor store, a role made famous by Sidney Poitier, who played it in the original 1959 production and reprised it in the 1961 movie. Coincidentally, this revival is in the same theater where the play made its debut.
Washington's research took him all the way to Poitier's home. The actors recently met to talk about the role, and when Poitier rose to act out scenes, Washington pulled out his cellphone to capture it. "As you can see, I'm no cameraman," he jokes while playing back the jerky images.
"He's ... complimentary, and he was like, 'Oh you're going to kill. You're going to be better than I was,' and all this stuff," Washington says. "He's just a sweet, gentle man. It wasn't even about the play anymore. I was just like, 'I'm going to come hang with him.' "
Though Washington is an Academy Award-winning film star known for "Glory" and "Training Day," he says his dream, when he first started acting at Fordham University, was to work onstage. His first roles in college were in "The Emperor Jones" by Eugene O'Neill and Shakespeare's "Othello."
"I was too ignorant to know what pressure even was," he says with a laugh.
As a young man, Washington once saw James Earl Jones starring in "Oedipus the King," and hung out in Jones' dressing room while the older actor was greeting well-wishers.
"Obviously he didn't know who I was. I was a student. I'm picking up his rings and his props while he's talking to the people. I'm like, 'Man, that's what I want. I want to do that. I want to do what he's doing,' " Washington says.
The revival of "A Raisin in the Sun" hasn't been completely without drama: Last month, the cast was shaken up when Diahann Carroll pulled out, and Richardson Jackson stepped in as the family matriarch.
"Diahann realized she just couldn't handle it physically. If we live long enough, we're all going to come to that place where we go, like, 'OK,' " says Washington. "Even I had my doubts in the beginning: Can I remember all this?"
Richardson Jackson's last Broadway appearance was in the Tony-winning 2009 revival of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," an August Wilson classic. She and Washington both performed in Ntozake Shange's "Spell #7" in the late '70s. He says he pushed for her to come on board to play his mother, saying "I knew she was strong and powerful."
At 64, she's only five years older than Washington, 59. Poitier was 32 when he played Walter Lee opposite 41-year-old Claudia McNeil in the original Broadway production.
"No, you can't have a baby at 5, but I don't think you can have one at 9, either," jokes Washington. "That's acting -- she's my mom, and I'm her son."
Washington is dedicating his performance to the late Tony Scott, who directed him in such films as "Crimson Tide" and "Man on Fire." Scott committed suicide in 2012.
Washington's mother, who turned 90 at the end of March, plans to visit New York to see her son in the play. Another fan who will see Washington's performance is Poitier.
Washington says he told Poitier, "Don't come early ... and don't tell me when."