HUMBLE: Denzel Washington
A CONSUMMATE professional with over 30 years in the business (not to mention his long time reputation as Hollywood heartthrob), Denzel Washington is one of Tinseltown’s hottest exports.
He commands respect as a hardworking talent, who gives his best both on the theatre stage and the big screen. And as we, a selection of journalists, awaited his arrival at a recent press conference in London, there was a sense of anticipation amongst us that we were waiting for a true star.
Still, when he entered the suite of London’s plush Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Washington looked pretty casual in a black top and trainers, and soon proved to be equally down-to-earth in his demeanour.
The room erupted in laughter as one journalist cheekily threw in question after question, and Washington quipped, “go ahead, get ‘em all in!” And the 57-year-old was equally outspoken when revealing he wasn’t initially impressed with the script of the very film he was in London to promote.
Starring in the new action movie Safe House, on which he also serves as executive producer, Washington’s latest offering is a fast-paced drama that sees him playing former CIA agent turned traitor, Tobin Frost, who has eluded capture for almost a decade.
TOUGH GUY: Washington stars as Tobin Frost in Safe House
After years of causing immeasurable damage to the United States with his inside knowledge, Frost surfaces in South Africa, complete with a priceless piece of intelligence. Remanded to a safe house where he is under the watchful eye of rookie CIA operative Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), the pair are forced to form an unlikely alliance when the safe house is attacked and Weston has to help his prisoner escape.
Describing his character as “a sociopath,” Washington was required to get into the mind of a man who, as the Oscar-winner describes, “will use charm, wit or pity in order to manipulate you.” Revealing that a large proportion of his work is the “preparation” for each of his roles, it is clear that the US star doesn’t mess about when he undertakes a new project.
But asked how he balances his work with his family life, the married father-of-four says that when the working day is done, he’s back to normality.
“My work is just work,” Washington explains. “I take my work seriously, but I don’t take myself too seriously. I read a book years ago called Cagney by Cagney by [the late US actor] James Cagney. In it, he talked about going to the studio, working his 12-hour day, then taking off his costume and getting in his car and going home.
TRUE LOVE: Denzel Washington and his wife Pauletta
“Most of my work is done before we start shooting; the preparation work. I write a lot, I write journals and think about how I’m gonna approach this particular scene. After we shoot the scene, I take the clothes off, I get in the car and I go home. I’ll have a meal, relax and watch a little television, then I might work for an hour-and-a-half on the next day’s work, then I’ll go to bed. I don’t lose sleep over any of it; I’ve been doing it too long.”
Asked whether he still makes time to take his wife, Paula out on dates, he laughed:
“We’re going out to dinner tonight. After 31 years it’s not a date… it’s an opportunity!”
Perhaps it’s a testament to the strength of the couple’s marriage that it has survived the trappings of Hollywood life. After all, Washington has been in the business a long time, boasting a career that spans over three decades.
Beginning his acting repertoire on the stage, in productions including Wings of the Morning and A Soldier’s Story, Washington went on to earn notoriety on the big screen when he played South African activist Steve Biko in the 1987 film classic Cry Freedom.
The rest was history for New York-born star, who went on to star in films including Malcolm X, Philadelphia, Training Day (which earned him a best actor Oscar) and Inside Man, to name just a few.
Not content with his acting credits, Washington also undertakes the role of executive producer on Safe House. In fact, he reveals he wouldn’t have got involved with the film had he not been able to have an element of control over its production.
GONGS: Washington and Halle Berry scooped the best actor and best actress awards at the Oscars in 2002
“When I met [director] Daniel [Espinosa] and we talked about the film, I was in, as far as Daniel was concerned, but I wasn’t in as far as the script was concerned, because I didn’t think the script was good enough.
“I’ve been in the habit of helping to develop material for a long time; I’ve been doing it for 20 years now. My agent said, ‘Hey, you’re doing all this work, you should get credit for it.’ So I got a producer credit. I enjoy helping to develop material. It’s a way for me to get into the part. And I’m a logic monster; if things don’t make sense, I’ve got to make sense out of it. So we’d all sit in a room every day for four or five months. It took us a long time [to develop the script] but it was a way for me to figure out the character.”
Of the decision to shoot the film in South Africa, Washington added: We were originally supposed to shoot the movie in Rio [De Janeiro]. But Daniel went to South Africa and he liked South Africa. And I think it was a wise choice, because from my character’s perspective, it would be easier for me to blend in in a black country, than in a brown country.”
Washington puts in a solid performance, leaving viewers undecided as to whether his character is a menacing criminal or a lovable rogue. At times, Frost is merciless in his violence, while other times he is suave and almost comical with his mind games; using his wit to either patronise or empathise with Weston.
The film also boasts plenty of high-speed action, most notably in a car chase scene in which attackers are hot on the heels of Frost and Weston.
The scene, which sees Reynolds driving the car, while Washington is handcuffed in the back seat, even led to an unfortunate accident between actors, which left Washington with a black eye.
“Ryan wasn’t actually driving the car, it was being controlled [from behind-the-scenes]. So we weren’t in control of how the car was moving. In that scene, I’m handcuffed and I’m supposed to jump up and put my hands around Ryan’s neck to choke him with the handcuffs.
“But because we weren’t in control, it just so happened that I got whipped forward and he got whipped back and our heads collided – and the back of his head is harder than the front of mine! It actually happened twice and the second time, my eye just swelled up.”
ACTION MAN: Denzel with his co-star Ryan Reynolds
Despite this behind-the-scenes drama and the on-screen excitement, Washington says he didn’t categorise the film as an action movie.
“I didn’t think this was an action movie. It didn’t read like one [to me]. But I think it’s a testament to Daniel’s vision that it plays more intense than it read. One thing Daniel talked about right from the start is how dirty and raw he wanted the fights to look. So when I saw that fight [scene] between Ryan and [actor] Joel [Kinnaman], I was like, ‘damn!’ I mean, they were going at it! It became so real.”
Despite his love for his craft, Washington reveals he did reach a point where his passion dwindled.
“I went through a phase where I was sick of acting. I was tired of it and I didn’t wanna do it any more. Then I tried directing a movie, and I was like ‘shoot, let me get back into acting!’ It made me appreciate acting more.”
Reflecting on his outlook on acting as he’s got older (FYI, he certainly doesn’t look like a man who’s a few years from 60), Washington says he just wants to do the best work he can.
“When I turned 50, I looked in the mirror and I realised, this ain’t the dress rehearsal – this is life. And I don’t know how much more of that I’m gonna have. Even if I had 50 more years, I probably wouldn’t remember the last 20 or 30 of them anyway.
“In the last three or four years, especially after doing the play Fences on Broadway with the great [US actress] Viola Davis, it reminded me of how I started, which was in the theatre. It reminded me how I worked in the theatre and how thorough you need to be in the theatre. So I recommitted myself to being thorough as an actor. I want to do good work with people I wanna work with.
“That’s why I said the first thing for me on this film wasn’t the screenplay; I wasn’t that impressed with the screenplay,” he continued. “If I hadn’t met Daniel, I probably wouldn’t have done this movie because it didn’t interest me that much; I didn’t think it was that good. But I liked Daniel and I liked the way he worked. When you get the chance to work with people you like and people who are talented, that’s rare.
“I don’t know how many more movies I’m gonna get the opportunity to make, but I don’t wanna look back and think, ‘man, I just floated through that one’ or ‘I just did that one for the money.’ I wanna be able to say, ‘I worked as hard as I could and I did the best work that I could do.’”
Safe House is in cinemas from February 24 through Universal Pictures