One of Hollywood’s most prestigious leading men offing bad guys in a revived Eighties TV classic? If anyone can do it, Denzel Washington can. Hamish MacBain meets an “analogue” acting icon
Two weeks ago, Denzel Washington was out at a restaurant with a friend when something at one of the neighbouring tables caught his attention. Perplexed him. In fact, it was something that perplexes a lot of us – me, certainly – in this day and age. A person – a woman – was sitting with a friend, but not saying anything to her friend, or even much looking at her friend.
“She could not stop touching her phone,” he remembers. “She’s eating and checking it, she’s talking and checking it. It’s like it’s an appendage: I don’t even think she realised she was doing it. It’s crazy! It’s interesting that it’s called ‘interactive’. Because it’s not. You’re interacting with your device, but you may not be talking with whoever’s across from you. Maybe I’m still analogue, you know?”
Obviously, our conversation did not start like this. We have arrived at this juncture because, as fate would have it, just 24 hours before we speak, Denzel Washington had added to his formidable list of life achievements what might just be his first information age viral headline-grabbing moment. And it came courtesy of that most notorious of information age viral headline-creating institutions: Reddit’s Ask Me Anything series. Basically, what happened was… well, I’ll let him explain it, shall I?
“I was on the phone, and the person on the phone was asking me the questions that were being sent in to her,” he says. “And so then she was sending out my response to whoever’s online. So the question was, ‘Would you play James Bond?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, sure, why not?’ and jokingly, ‘Yeah, get out there and start a campaign! Denzel for James Bond!’ But in the translation from the way I said it, to the way she put it down, to the way it went out to the world, you didn’t get my sarcasm. You don’t get the irony of it.” Helpfully, Reddit printed Denzel saying, “We start the Denzel is Bond campaign today!” in nice bold type. Then someone suggested the creation of #DenzelIsJamesBond, then Twitter went into one of its famous meltdowns, then the rest of the internet jumped into action. Before long, you couldn’t move for news stories that read, ‘Denzel Desperate To Play Bond!’ or ‘Look Out, Craig!’ or somesuch.
“So no, I’m not campaigning to play James Bond,” he clarifies with a laugh. “I just answered the question and jokingly said, ‘Hey, let’s get a campaign!’ I haven’t thought about James Bond, I was just asked about it. But it’s interesting what happens to information. It’s why I prefer, you know, talking to you. Now you can hear the way I’m talking to you, as opposed to online, where there’s no emotion connected to it, or it could be interpreted all kinds of ways. Things like this James Bond thing can just easily happen. It’s not a bad thing, but people think it’s a fact, you know what I mean? When it’s not a fact. What happened to the horse’s mouth?”
THE LAST GREAT MASTER
You might say that Denzel Washington is very much a horse’s mouth kind of a guy. Meaning: when you hire him, you are not hiring a movie star, or a celebrity. You are hiring An Actor (“a theatre-trained actor,” as he will later point out), perhaps the last of the great American Actors. From A Soldier’s Story and Glory, to Malcolm X and Philadelphia, to Training Day and American Gangster, his iconic roles are many. And they keep on coming. Personally, I’m still annoyed that his staggeringly brilliant portrayal of a miracle-pulling, alcoholic pilot in Flight two years ago didn’t win him a second Academy Award for Best Actor. Though being up against Daniel Day-Lewis playing the most adored US president of all time was always going to be tough.
As much as those films, though, the true measure of Denzel Washington’s greatness comes when he takes on what might at first seem more standard, straight-up action fare, yet brings such huge charisma, such gravitas, as to elevate movies that in other people’s hands would be trash into the realms of greatness. Last year’s irresistible 2 Guns, co-starring Mark Wahlberg, would be one example. His latest, which we are here today to discuss, would be another.
Denzel himself never saw the Edward Woodward-starring, Eighties cult classic TV series The Equalizer (“I would’ve been doing St Elsewhere,” he says. “Or I might have been in London, actually: ’86, I was with Dicky Attenborough, doing Cry Freedom”). And as good as this show about a middle-aged retired intelligence officer with a mysterious past who helps people in trouble was, it probably wasn’t top of many people’s must-be-remade-this-second lists.
But add in Denzel Washington as central character Robert McCall and suddenly you’re interested. Throw in a reunion with his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua, and you have one of the most exciting action prospects of the year.
“I couldn’t believe – and I didn’t even realise until we started doing press – that it was 12 years,” Denzel says of the gap between their projects. “I mean, we had looked. Training Day was good for both of us. He got a lot of work out of it, I got a lot of work out of it. But you start heading in different directions. He had two or three films he was committed to, he went one way and I went another. We’d looked a bit over the years, but this script came to me first and I thought of him. The producers agreed that he was a great choice. He read it and here we are.”
I suggest that although McCall is essentially a righter of wrongs – the film kicks into gear when he decides he can’t tolerate what is happening to Chloë Grace Moretz’s character – that there might be similarities on some level with Detective Alonzo Harris from their first film together. Both had some kind of employment in authority, both play outside the rules, both are not afraid to use extreme violence as intimidation…
Denzel sees it differently. “McCall is not a bad guy; he’s a damaged guy. Alonzo was a manipulator, and a sociopath from the start. He had every intention of taking advantage of Ethan’s character, Hoyt, and he did just that. I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, he’s not that bad of a guy.’ Well then, I did my job, if you think that! He was a bad guy, he didn’t care about Hoyt, or his family, or what the consequences were. He got him drunk, high on PCP and involved in a murder, in a day!”
OLD BUT MAINLY NEW
As it turns out, The Equalizer is a remake in the loosest sense. The original McCall was British, suited, silver-haired, had a fondness for guns and was located in New York. Now Denzel has taken the character somewhere else both literally (it’s set in Boston) and in many other ways. For one and two, he works in a Home Depot-style DIY superstore, and dresses down. For another, he doesn’t use a gun in the entire film, preferring to utilise objects and tools – including a nailgun straight off the rack – to see off the bad guys. “He uses somone’s gun against him,” corrects Denzel, “but he never actually fires one shot. He never comes out of the house with a weapon.”
What’s more, he has a condition: Denzel’s portrayal of which is both understated and extraordinarily convincing.
“I developed this obsessive-compulsive behaviour aspect of it,” he says. “The way he folds a napkin, places his forks and knives in a certain way, and just this rhythm. I did more than you see, actually, in the finished film. I kept adding that element: even when he’s up in the bad guy’s office, he opens and closes the door three or four times. There’s his obsession with time, and how much time he has. So those kind of things, that character development, I was interested in.”
The result of this input is a super-violent, explosion-heavy, crowd-pleasing action film, but a super-violent, explosion-heavy, crowd-pleasing action film with layers, and with depth. A Denzel Washington film, in other words.
And speaking of crowd pleasing… Believe the Hollywood trade press, and you’ll believe The Equalizer – and excuse my momentary lapse into fatcatspeak here – “tested through the roof”. Sony apparently reported its highest ever scores for an R-rated film and is already in the process of developing a second film. And that would mean convincing Denzel Washington to partake in his first ever sequel.
“I’ve been asked to do other film ‘part twos’ before, and I didn’t,” he says. “But I haven’t read a script that was good enough. So I’m not just doing something to be doing it. I don’t work like that. It’s gotta be on the page. And I don’t care how much money it made, it’s gotta be good first. You know, a part two, it’s gotta be really good.”
Does he see there being more to show of the McCall character he’s created? “Yeah, I think there’s room for it, absolutely, but I say the audience will decide that. For me it’s what the audience says, and just as importantly, will there be a good script. First of all, part one’s gotta be successful, but second of all part two would have to be good. I’m not just gonna do it because it’s – quote-unquote – a franchise. I don’t think like that. I’m a theatre-trained actor, and there’s no ‘part twos’ in theatre. Shakespeare never did any sequels, did he?”
LAST GASP ACTION HERO
Some initial reviews of The Equalizer – it premiered in Toronto last week – have drawn comparison to Liam Neeson’s Taken films. Denzel hasn’t seen either film, so can’t comment, but certainly, his latest features more adrenaline-fuelled fighting than you might, on paper, think decent for a man who will turn 60 this December. He jokes that he has “an excellent stunt double”, but in fact stresses that at least 90 per cent of the action is actually him. According to the producers, it’s more like 95 per cent. In other words, whether in real life or on screen, Washington is still a long, long way off Expendables territory.
“When I did Book Of Eli, I worked with a master named Danny Inosanto,” he says. “He was a contemporary and friend of Bruce Lee. He’s in his seventies, and I guarantee you: no 20-year-olds are messing with him. So I’ve got a way to go. My biggest problem is knee surgeries. I can jump up, but I just can’t come down. Fighting and all of that, it doesn’t bother me. And I’ve been boxing 20 years. I just came from the gym now, I just did 10 rounds. So I stay pretty fit. If you wanna be the leading man, you better stay fit. Or you become the leading man’s friend.”
In all senses of the word, then, Denzel Washington is in great shape. Don’t expect him to be slowing down, in any sense, any time soon. He is still a leading man – the leading man – and intends to stay that way.
The Equalizer is at cinemas nationwide from 26 September
More cult TV shows getting a hollywood update
Simon Templar – immortalised by Roger Moore – is set to be rebooted on the small screen by the writer of ITV’s Prey. No word yet on who’ll play the antihero, but he’ll hopefully improve on Val Kilmer’s ’97 version.
Will Ferrell stars as a crime-fighting doctor with a twist – he can morph into any animal at will. The original series, as ridiculous as it sounds, was cancelled after eight episodes.
The show that’s most famous for (initially) depriving Pierce Brosnan of becoming Bond, this detective rom-com is about to have a modern-day makeover. Steele and private investigator Laura Holt’s daughter will reopen the original detective agency.
The Man From UNCLE
Guy Ritchie directs the film adaptation of the spy show in which a CIA spook and KGB agent join forces against a criminal organisation. Starring Henry Cavill – minus the Superman cape – it’s set for a summer 2015 release.
(Images: Lorenzo Agius/Sony Pictures/AllStar/Kobal/PA/Corbis)