And so here he is, a man with nothing to prove, no mountains to climb really, who’s been at this for more than 25 years. In person he seems oddly both relaxed and on edge. He has no entourage with him, no handlers to run interference. It’s just Denzel, pushing the air with his shoulders as he jogs past tables in the Trump Hotel café and takes a seat across the table from me. As he sits, he smooths his cropped hair with the palm of his hand and lets loose that smile—the one that spans the full width of his face. You know the one.

But Denzel Washington is not looking much like a leading man this morning. His Nike shirt and blue jeans are rumpled, his bristle of beard is half grown in, and his eyes are red and puffy from an overnight flight from L.A. It’s almost a relief, really, to see him looking like a normal human being, but he is still Denzel.You look into his face and you’re seeing Malcolm, Hurricane, Stephen Biko, assorted detectives, coaches and military men, indignant fathers, a psychiatrist, a struggling musician, investigators of injustice, always conflicted—like the doomed slave in Glory, for which he won his first Oscar, and the rogue cop in Training Day who won him his second. And you wonder, he’s 51 years old, and he’s conquered it all. What is left for him to do?

He doesn’t want to do Martin or Mandela. Not that he has anything against them. But enough of the icons. “I want to have some fun,” he says. “Something silly, get my shirt caught in a taxi, you know?” That means comedy for a change, or maybe a romp like Mr. & Mrs. Smith, maybe some more plays, more directing. But before his next act, he rejoins Spike Lee for their fourth film, Inside Man, in theaters March 24.

Right now we’re just blocks from where it all started at New York’s Lincoln Center. Back in the seventies, after figuring out that premed, political science or pro football weren’t in the cards for him, Denzel began studying theater at Fordham University. While there, he worked as an usher at The Metropolitan Opera, housed in Lincoln Center, and in his off time caught the likes of James Earl Jones playing Oedipus the King at St. John the Divine. “I remember that play,” he says. “Back then I wasn’t thinking movies. I was thinking, One day I’ll play Oedipus the King.”

That classical bent is why he still takes issue with the celebrity part of his job description. “We weren’t trained to be famous,” he says. “We were trained to do good work. I wasn’t trained to party with the right people or be at the premiere and wear the right whatever.” He says he’s grateful that he didn’t set out to be a movie star or think of film as much of an option. “I’m glad I came through the back door,” he reflects, “because I wasn’t so desperate for it.”

When It Rains, It Pours

If you expect Denzel to sidle up, flirt, and let his eyes go where they’re not supposed to when women pass, like other famous men used to getting whatever they want, that’s not his style. He’s too smart for that, too in control. He’s kept a tight rein on his personal life ever since his first film some 25 years ago, the 1981 paternal-identity farce Carbon Copy with George Segal. Then, after a stint on the eighties television drama St. Elsewhere, he grew up and became the consummate leading man, playing Biko, Malcolm and the rest, and finally occupying the director’s chair for Antwone Fisher in 2002. He’s done everything but the one thing his legions of female fans would like to see more of. Why doesn’t someone with his charisma do more love scenes?

“I’ve done a bunch of them,” he protests. “Mo’ Better Blues. Out of Time. I don’t know if He Got Game had the love scene in it or not, but I did kiss her.” He stumbles a bit more, then claims there really isn’t a lot of sex in the movies these days anyway. “Okay, give me a movie with a lot of sex scenes,” he shoots back.

I’m stumped myself at first. Then I blurt out, “Monster’s Ball.”“I didn’t see Monster’s Ball,” he says in a surprising admission about the movie that won Halle Berry the Oscar the same night he won for Training Day. “I’m not into that.” He’s referring to the explicitness of the sex scenes. “I’m more interested in romance scenes than sex scenes. Oh, I can think of one! Mississippi Masala!”

“Do you know how long it’s been since Mississippi Masala?” I ask, rolling my eyes.

“I don’t know, but you asked me.”

He’s a sex symbol who refuses to be reduced to just that. He says he just doesn’t see it. “I won’t even repeat the things that women say they’d do to me,” he says. “I tell them, ‘You may not really want to do that. You may be saying that, but you need to think about what you’re saying.’ ”

It’s not the most comfortable topic for him. So he’s expansive when a jeweler comes in and saves him. The man has brought some designs for Denzel to look at for a Christmas present for his wife, Pauletta. “I’ve got three ideas,” says the jeweler, a small man in a tan suit, who scoots his chair closer to Denzel. He pulls out three velvet satchels, each with diamonds the size of salt and pepper shakers inside. There’s a bracelet, a pair of earrings and a ring that might give your hand a small workout.

Denzel is leaning toward the earrings, and once the jeweler departs, the conversation naturally turns to Pauletta, the woman he married 23 years ago. Denzel talks about how she gave up her singing career on Broadway to take care of him and the kids—a sacrifice he’s never forgotten. “I’m going to tell you what real love is,” he says, thinking back to the birthday party he gave her in this very room five years ago. “Pauletta’s always liked ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.’ That night I got up on the mic and asked her to sing it for me, and she wouldn’t. But the whole time, I had Roberta Flack hiding in the hallway, and she started singing it. Pauletta was floored,” he recalls. “Pauletta’s been one good wife and an incredible mother.”

But this is Hollywood, which means there’s buzz about his marriage that won’t go away. At the moment there’s talk about him and Sanaa Lathan, his costar in Out of Time and one of the few actresses who’s actually kissed him on-screen. The rumor coursing the radio airwaves and gossip blogs at this moment is about a baby on the way. I ask him about all the talk.