"Cream-crackered!” yells Denzel Washington. The actor’s expressing his feelings after he and co-star Ryan Reynolds have met a long line of journalists for their new film, Safe House. We’re last, and expecting a bored reception.
But we’re proved very wrong. Both are in high spirits, buoyed by the film, which pits Reynolds’ CIA operative against Washington’s rogue agent. ShortList sat down with both gentlemen to discuss waterboarding and black eyes…
How did you feel about working with a film veteran such as Denzel? Did he teach you anything?
I know discipline factors strongly in what I do, but I saw that discipline really rules out at the end of the day. He shows up with an attitude that’s like it’s the last day of shooting — he knows as much about his character on the last day as he does on the first day. And to see how physically he can still go at it was pretty incredible.
I was going to ask how it felt to punch a 57-year-old in the head…
[Laughs] Not at all like punching a 60-year-old in the head. Er… a little harder, 60-year-old heads are a little softer. No, he’s a fighter, Denzel. Between takes, he’s shadow boxing.
It sounds intense.
He is intense.
Now, let’s talk about the waterboarding scene…
Yeah, I’ve never seen it [done] before. Denzel was under the towel for some of it as well, which was also disturbing, because he wanted to see what it felt like. I’ve been told the sensation is truly like you’re drowning.
You didn’t fancy trying it yourself?
I didn’t want to have a go. If my character was [waterboarded], I would have done it. At least that’s what I like to think. But, no, I didn’t have a go. It was difficult to watch. Horrible.
Do you know if the CIA had any objection to it?
There is no film you can do where you’ll have the full cooperation of the CIA. But we had some former CIA agents on set who were fascinating guys. That’s what attracted me to the role, and the script; it felt like it de-glamorised that life. There were no poison darts, cuff links or any of that nonsense.
The film incorporates some full-on driving scenes, too. Did you have to train for that?
Yeah, I did some. I guess I would characterise them as insane driving courses: how to drive like an asshole. A lot of it is spinning cars, which, for me, was unusual on that side of the road.
Of course, they drive on the left in South Africa — the right side.
There’s so much multi-tiered irony going on with what you just said. But that was kind of interesting. None of that stuff was green screen either — it was a pretty uncontrolled atmosphere. We had the street locked off and every other car on the road was a stunt driver. So I was doing a lot of the driving. And then sometimes there was a pilot at the top of the car, like for the scene where Denzel and I were fighting. I can’t be asked to operate the vehicle at 80mph while fighting the world’s biggest movie star.
You’ve done a few action films now — do you feel like you’re getting to grips with the fighting?
You get some injuries, and sometimes you’re actually making contact. You don’t want to be punching Denzel Washington in the face for 18 takes, but I did give him a black eye, which did not feel good.
Was he OK about it?
Shockingly, he was. I thought he was going to turn me into a liquid or something at the end of the take. I thought, I’m going to be asked to leave. Not just the set… Cape Town.
So, Ryan tells me that he gave you a black eye?
Yeah. This is what happened: Ryan is the driver of the vehicle, and he’s not actually driving. There’s a guy on the roof who’s driving. He’s flying all over the place. So I’m supposed to come up behind Ryan and I’ve got handcuffs on, and put my hands and get him like this [Washington comes up behind me and puts his arms over my neck], right?
So as I was coming forward, the car jerked forward and my head flew forward and his head came back [taps his head against mine], and that’s how I got the black eye.
That can’t be the first time you’ve been hit during filming. You played The Hurricane [boxer Rubin Carter]…
Erm… you know, what’s-his-name, hit me in the face once, 20 years ago. Gene Hackman [on Crimson Tide]. I think he did it on purpose. Mean guy. Hey, didn’t something happen to him? Didn’t he get into an accident? [Washington and his agent discuss Hackman’s recent bicycle accident, but establish he’s OK.] But I’ve never had a black eye that I recall, not like this. They just had to figure out some other stuff to shoot. We iced, iced, iced all afternoon, and I had a great make-up artist who coloured it.
Now, the waterboarding scene — was it as horrific to film as it was to watch?
Well, there was some acting involved, but it’s very disorientating. I was doing what anyone would do, which is trying to hold your breath, but once you get some air in there...
So you went through the whole experience of being waterboarded?
Yeah. Well, when they torture people they will do that hundreds of times. Over and over and over. You might survive, for a while. And they may pour water on you for minutes at a time.
The film isn’t flattering to the CIA or the government. Do you think it’s important to show government-sanctioned violence in that way?
I doubt there’s a government on this planet that doesn’t use tactics like that. We don’t know what they do, especially in a post-9/11 world. On 14 September, after 9/11, they caught three guys, right here in New York. If they wanted to waterboard them, I can’t imagine anybody would have objected.
Back to Safe House. When you were filming in the townships, there is footage of you high-fiving the locals.
Yeah. We had a good time. I got right in the middle of the people. Kind of breaking the ice. They probably want to know, “Who’s this big movie star guy?” And I’m like, “Hey, what you guys doing?” And they’re like, “What, I live around here.” And I say, “Where?”, “Over here”, “Show me your house!”, “Really?” I went “Yeah, show me your house!”, “Really!?” I went, “Yeah, let’s go on upstairs and walk around.”
You went into people’s houses?
Sure. Why not? I mean, they’re human beings like me.
It’s quite an intimate thing to do.
I was invited. I didn’t kick the door down [laughs]. “I’m coming in, I’m coming in! With my waterboard.”
So tell us about your character, CIA-agent-turned-rogue Tobin Frost.
I don’t think he has a conscience, I think he’s an atheist, I think he’s a psychopath, I think he’s liar, that’s why I think he was so good in the CIA.
Is it exciting to play such a nuanced character? Is it more fun playing bad guys than good guys?
I don’t make that distinction. I don’t say, “Oh, he’s a bad guy.” I read a book called The Sociopath Next Door and realised that he had all the qualities. Less than 15 or 20 per cent of sociopaths are violent, but he’s manipulative and he wants to win. And some manipulate through pity, they want you to feel sorry for them to manipulate you. Read The Sociopath Next Door.
OK, I will do…
Then you’ll start going, “You know, that sounds like my Aunt Susan.”
Safe House is at cinemas nationwide from 24 February
(Images: Rex Features, All Star)