Why Denzel Washington Refused to Film Love Scenes With Julia Roberts

The actors were originally supposed to kiss in the 1993 thriller The Pelican Brief.

In 1993, two of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood teamed up for a legal thriller based on a hit novel. The Pelican Brief stars Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington as a law student and a reporter who work together to get the bottom of the assassinations of two Supreme Court justices. Initially, the film was going to include a kiss between the two characters, but the scene was cut.

Nearly 10 years after The Pelican Brief came out, both actors spoke out about why they never even filmed a kiss between their characters. And while Roberts was certainly interested in smooching Washington, he had a specific reason for declining a love scene with her. Read on to find out more.

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Roberts wanted Washington as her co-star in the drama.

According to a 2002 profile of Washington in Newsweek, Roberts was cast first and told director Alan J. Pakula that she wanted the actor for the role of Gray Grantham. At that time, Washington had already been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Cry Freedom, won the award for Glory, and would soon be nominated for Best Actor for Malcolm X. As for Roberts, she was also already a huge star, and had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Steel Magnolias and Best Actress for Pretty Woman.

"I had suggested him from the beginning, and he did amazing things with a character that didn't look like much on paper. What more could you want?" Roberts told Newsweek of Washington.

She said she caught flak for not kissing him.

Julia Roberts at a SAG event in 1993
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

It wasn't Roberts' decision to cut out the planned kiss for their characters, and she told Newsweek that she'd been criticized for the lack of a love scene between them.

"I have taken so much [expletive] over the years about not kissing Denzel in that film," Roberts said. "Don't I have a pulse? Of course I wanted to kiss Denzel. It was his idea to take the damn scenes out."

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Washington was thinking about his Black women fans.

Denzel Washington at the GQ Men of the Year Awards in 2002
Everett Collection / Shutterstock

According to Newsweek, Washington had "several reasons" for why he wanted the love scenes between his and Roberts' characters cut from the film. One of these reasons was that he didn't want to offend the Black women who made up much of his fan base. Reportedly, the audience at a test screening of his 1989 movie The Mighty Quinn booed when Washington kissed white actor Mimi Rogers. He reportedly had this kiss removed from the the final cut of the film.

"Black women are not often seen as objects of desire on film," he told Newsweek. "They have always been my core audience."

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John Grisham reportedly didn't want Washington in the role.

Denzel Washington at a screening of "The Pelican Brief" in 1993
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Per the Newsweek article, it was reported at the time that Washington was offered his entire salary to drop out of The Pelican Brief, because John Grisham, the author of the 1992 novel, did not imagine the character as Black.

"He saw himself in the role, and obviously I'm not anything like him in looks or otherwise. I wasn't what he wanted, and that was made clear," Washington said. As for Grisham, he commented, "Alan Pakula called me about casting and said they were considering Denzel. I said fine."

Newsweek also reported that Will Smith claimed Grisham did not approve of him potentially being cast in the 2003 film adaptation of Runaway Jury, which ended up starring John Cusack. The author didn't comment on that claim.

Other stars complained that Washingon nixed interracial love scenes.

Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts at the 22nd Annual American Cinematheque Award in 2007
Chris Polk/WireImage via Getty Images

Washington has filmed onscreen kisses with other white co-stars in his career. For example, he and Kelly Reilly share a kiss in the 2012 movie Flight. However, another leading lady complained that her romantic storyline with his character was taken out of their movie on Washington's request.

In a 2012 interview with the A.V. Club, Kelly Lynch, who is white, talked about working with Washington on the 1995 movie Virtuosity and said that she was disappointed that he stepped in and had their love story cut.

"I said, 'Denzel, what is it? Why don't you believe that the man you're playing couldn't be attracted to me?' I mean, it wasn't a cheesy love story. It was actually really well-written and moving," Lynch said. "And he said, 'You know what, Kelly? I hate to say it, but, you know, white men bring women to movies, and they don't want to watch a Black man with their woman.' I was like, 'What? No. Really?' He said, 'No, I'm sorry, but that's truly what it is. That's what the audience is.' I'm like, 'But how about The Bodyguard? That was a huge hit movie.' 'Well, that's different. That's a white man. It's different.' I said, 'So that's your main motivating factor on this?' He said, 'Yes.' So the love story wasn't a love story anymore."

Lynch added, "I'm sure he believed what he was saying, although I think he's wrong."

In 2004, it was reported that Washington had a love scene between himself and another white actor, Radha Mitchell, cut from Man on Fire. According to Today, a source said, "Denzel Washington is concerned about the way audiences react to him in an interracial romance," and explained that he didn't want to upset his Black women fans. Washington's representative denied that he demanded this on Man on Fire and also denied that he did so back in 1993 on The Pelican Brief, despite his comments to Newsweek.

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Lia Beck
Lia Beck is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to Best Life, she has written for Refinery29, Bustle, Hello Giggles, InStyle, and more. Read more
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