Denzel Washington strides into a hotel suite clad in casual black. The only contrast is a pair of white sneakers thrown on after a quick workout in the ring.

Washington has just returned from boxing, a sport he enjoys."I'm boxing with a real trainer. I mean the real deal. We spar and do everything," he says. "The mental aspect of it makes you learn so much more."

Washington, 42, springs from the sofa after answering a few questions about his new movie, "He Got Game," and throws a few punches. He laughs, possibly at his own spontaneity, and sits down again.

He grew up playing pickup basketball games in the projects of Mount Vernon, N.Y., and his outlook on athletics defines his work as an actor. Like boxing, much of acting is a mental game. It's not just how hard you punch but the preparation it takes to get there.

Washington learned to play the trumpet eight years ago for his role in Spike Lee's "Mo' Better Blues." He added weight to his usual 195 pounds to play an alcoholic soldier in "Courage Under Fire." For Lee's "He Got Game," Washington let his normally close-cropped hair grow long.

And boxing? Sure, it's a fitness thing, but he's also preparing to play Ruben "Hurricane" Carter, the boxer who spent 20 years in prison for a murder conviction that was eventually overturned.

Washington stars as Jake Shuttlesworth in "He Got Game," a movie about a father, his son and basketball.

Jake's son, Jesus (played by the NBA's Ray Allen), is the nation's top high school basketball player and must choose whether to play college basketball or head straight to the pros.

Jake is serving time in prison for murdering his wife, but he gains a temporary release from the governor - with one catch: He can earn early parole if he persuades Jesus to pick the governor's alma mater.

While Jake's family is far different than Washington's, the role still caused him to reflect on his own fatherhood.

"With all the father-son stuff, I actually got a little misty," said Washington, the father of four.

"I'm very involved," he says of parenting. He has coached basketball and football and makes Los Angeles his home so his kids can be where he works.

It's a far different approach from what Washington experienced growing up. "My father wasn't into athletics. He was a minister. We had no days like that."

While seemingly open, Washington is selective in providing details on his life.

He will tell you he has four children, "teenagers down to 7 years old" but does not give names or exact ages. He says he and his wife, Pauletta Pearson, are building a new home but won't reveal where. And he speaks of being married for 15 years this June but pretends not to remember the date.

Is this an attempt to salvage some privacy while still maintaining superstar status and commanding $10 million a film?

"I think I'm normal more so than overly private," says Washington, who won an Oscar in 1990 for his supporting role as a runaway slave in "Glory."

"I am just trying to raise kids and do what you are supposed to do. I would not want to be considered 20 years from now the most whatever as an actor - like the sexiest man alive - and then have the kids be screwed up.

"I wasn't raised like that. My wife wasn't raised like that. So we keep it basic and drive them to school, feed them and do whatever else you should do as a parent."

He recalls a recent visit by the architect of his new home. One of Washington's kids fell down and ran straight into his wife's arms for comfort.

"He (the architect) said, `Denzel, I've done houses where that child runs right past the mother (and) straight to the nanny. Denzel, that's a different kind of house.' "

Washington is quick to give credit to his actress wife, whom he met in 1977 on the set of "Wilma."

"My wife does the majority of the work. She has these kids rooted in a strong spiritual base. They say their prayers. They say grace before every meal."

Although Washington is one of Hollywood's most sought-after actors, it doesn't seem to have hit him yet.

"I never got into it to be a movie star," says Washington, who cut his usual acting fee in half so Lee could afford him for "He Got Game." (Lee offers this detail.)

Washington began acting in theater while attending Fordham University in New York City.

"I thought I might make $500 one day on Broadway," says Washington, who will collaborate with "Glory" director Edward Zwick to play an FBI agent in his next film.

He says his successes don't have to change his life or standards. While often labeled as sexy, he manages to avoid doing gratuitous nude scenes.

"Do you have to take all your clothes off to be sexy?" Washington asks. "You had huge sex symbols in the '30s, '40s, '20s and '50s and they never took their clothes off."