Denzel Washington wants--no, needs--to explain why he's shown up for breakfast in a New York City cafe wearing a pink necktie. "I want you to know I didn't pick this tie out," he says as he takes his seat. "I mean, it's not that I don't like the tie. It's nice, I think--just an odd choice for me." But the two-time Academy Award winner is here to talk about what might seem an odder choice: to put his $20 million-per-film Hollywood career on hold in order to play Brutus in a Broadway production of "Julius Caesar"--memorizing line after line of Shakespeare's English and doing a grueling eight three-hour performances a week. "I recall when we began rehearsing," he says, "standing outside the theater and thinking, 'Oh, Lord, what have I done?' "

Exactly what he wanted to do, it seems. It's been three decades since Washington, 50, started acting at Fordham University, where he appeared in "Othello" and "Much Ado About Nothing." He made his Broadway debut in the 1988 "Checkmates"; since then he's been... a bit busy. But although such stylish thrillers as "Man on Fire," "Training Day" and the remake of "The Manchurian Candidate" weren't exactly five-finger exercises, in recent interviews he's been tossing around words like "jaded." "Theater is where it really all began for me," Washington says, "and I always loved Shakespeare because it was the most challenging thing you could do. I guess I saw this as a way of redeveloping muscles I haven't had to use in a while."

Meanwhile, director Daniel Sullivan had had his eye on Washington. "Over the course of years of doing Shakespeare plays, I always knew that when I did 'Julius Caesar' Denzel would be perfect for Brutus," he says. "The play is really about Brutus, and I think Denzel is such an amazing actor--he's interestingly transparent, so the audience can literally see what he's thinking." The critics haven't been quite as kind: Washington received respectful, if mixed, reviews, with many noting the production could use more of his legendary charisma. "Maybe I should've tried Shakespeare in a smaller city first," he says with a laugh. "But that's the fun of it--trying something different and putting yourself out there." Washington gives Sullivan full credit for the production's modern twist--the actors are dressed in Valentino and walk through the theater aisles after Caesar's death. But he credits himself with a fresh approach to Brutus, Caesar's tortured friend turned assassin. "Through history we've read that Brutus was stoic and cerebral--basically a boring guy," says Washington. "I was, like, 'Later for that--I want this guy to have some fire.' He loved Rome and he was passionate about it. That's what drove him to do what he did. And the director was in full agreement that Brutus could use a spice."

If Washington's mood this morning is any indication, he's having the time of his life. Such previous stage work as his 1981 star turn as Malcolm X in "When the Chickens Come Home to Roost" brought in more-diverse-than-usual audiences, and Washington hopes his "Julius Caesar" will have the same effect--despite ticket prices ranging from $51.25 to $101.25. ("Premium" seats go up to $251.25.) "I'm not just doing this for the highfalutin crowd--for lack of a better word," he says. "I want all people to be able to come to see this, in particular my fans. You know, people see you in films but never any closer than that. I feel I owe something to the people who've been unwavering in their support. This is a way to say thank you." And ticket sales have been brisk, with long lines outside the theater waiting for cancellations. On a recent weeknight, the balcony of the Belasco Theatre was filled with inner-city high-school kids eager to see their first Broadway play, and even more eager to see Denzel. Sobs of joy from 15-year-old girls erupted the moment he appeared onstage, along with thunderous applause from the young men. You don't get that on a Hollywood set. Welcome home, Mr. Washington.