Interview: Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington and Daniel Espinosa on set.
Denzel Washington and Daniel Espinosa on set.
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Denzel Washington is eerily well-preserved. He will be 58 this year and, after a 38-year movie career, five Oscar nominations and two wins, he still gets a kick out of looking the part and doing the job.

In the UK recently to promote his new thriller, Safe House, he cropped up on Jonathan Ross’s chat show casually garbed in jeans and sneakers. He looked at least 10 years younger than his age, maybe even 15. Ross was impressed; so were the rest of us. Washington has an easy-going air about him these days, but it wasn’t always that way. Prior to winning the Academy Award as best actor a decade ago for his corrupt cop in Training Day he had a reputation for aloofness.

A possible clue to his demeanour lay in his acceptance speech when he collected his shiny gold man on March 24, 2002. Referencing the great Sidney Poitier, the first black star to win an Oscar for Lilies of the Field in 1964, Washington said: “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps.”

He is at the core of a tight-knit group of African-American actors – all 24-carat talent – that includes Morgan Freeman, Will Smith, Charles S Dutton, Laurence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker, Samuel L Jackson and Jamie Foxx. For a while he seemed to be the flag-bearer with a chip on his shoulder; the Oscar changed all of that.

There have been some great films, and great roles, in the last four decades. Films like Cry Freedom, Glory, Crimson Tide, Malcolm X, Devil in a Blue Dress, The Hurricane, American Gangster, Man on Fire, Training Day. There aren’t a lot of laughs in a Denzel Washington film...

And there have been some odd choices. There was some head-scratching when he chose to do a remake of The Manchurian Candidate. Ditto the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123. On Unstoppable, released in 2010, he spent most of his time aboard an out-of-control train. Clearly, Washington likes to mix it up. He decided to participate in Safe House, playing a sociopathic veteran CIA spy turned traitor opposite Ryan Reynolds’ young agent, following the death of his long-time agent, Ed Limato, in 2010. Washington felt he should do it “because it was the last thing he wanted me to do”.

Like Morgan Freeman, another Poitier-esque mentor figure, Washington has always been drawn to character roles. Playing Tobin Frost allowed him to probe deep into the mind and persona of a man who isn’t your average one-dimensional movie villain.

“I’m a logic monster,” reveals Washington. “I always want to know why things happen the way they do. The director, Daniel Espinosa, is a fine filmmaker – very passionate and very talented. He did Snabba Cash, a really interesting film. I’m sure Hollywood is looking at him as the new hot guy.

“Daniel, the producer, three writers and I worked on the story for months. We wanted to keep going deeper, making more sense out of it.”

Still, making Safe House had its memorable moments. If Unstoppable meant clinging onto a speeding train, Safe House involved some serious physical punishment and genuine torture.

“I’ve got a bad knee and there’s been a lot of running, jumping and fighting. And I was water-boarded. Having somebody pour water up your nose when you’re upside down is kind of tough,” he remarks flatly.

Like Poitier, Denzel Washington has a standing in Hollywood that many wannabe stars aspire to. Nelson Mandela has visited his home for dinner. He is friendly with President Barack Obama. He is the actor of choice for so many filmmakers and, in the case of soul titan Aretha Franklin, is ideal casting as her father in the proposed movie of her life.

Washington laughs when recalling the Safe House shoot. At times he caught 35-year-old Ryan Reynolds just staring at him. Later the younger actor confessed that he was entranced by his co-star’s presence.

“Oh, is that what it was? I just thought he was terrible!” smiles Washington mischievously. “I’ve been in those shoes. I remember I did a movie, years ago, called Crimson Tide and I was working with Gene Hackman. We were doing a scene and after a while I was doing the same thing” – he opens his mouth and stares blankly – “just watching him, Gene Hackman.

“In this role I was playing a sociopath, so I wouldn’t even speak to him. Anything I would do to manipulate him, intimidate him, keep him off balance. I wasn’t there to teach him. I was there to kill him.”

Safe House (15) is on general release from today.

The making of Safe House

David Guggenheim’s screenplay for Safe House was on the infamous Black List of the best unproduced scripts in circulation.

Shot in South Africa, part of the film was shot at Green Point Stadium, which was built for the 2010 World Cup.

Former CIA officer Luis Falcon acted as an adviser on the movie. Just like Reynolds’s character, he worked as the housekeeper of a safe house before becoming a fully-fledged operative.

The actors worked with tactical adviser Dan Hirst, British ex-military who trained at Sandhurst and is now a professional stuntman, ahead of the raw fight scenes.