How Denzel Washington reinvented himself

Denzel Washington in The Equalizer.
Denzel Washington in The Equalizer.
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As he nudges 60, Denzel Washington may have found a quality franchise in his latest film The Equalizer. Tony Earnshaw reports.

Good things come to those who wait. At least that’s how the saying goes. In terms of Denzel Washington and Robert McCall it was the combination of old and trusted friends, a promise and the joy of past collaborations that led to The Equalizer.

There are risks involved in transforming a successful TV show into a movie. All the building blocks may be there but if the chemistry is missing it can all go badly awry.

The team behind The Equalizer must have been aware of the risks involved in modernising one of the iconic shows of the Eighties. Their collective approach was to take their time – to get it right.

Hence when producer Todd Black approached Washington – a previous collaborator on two movies that Washington directed – it was with a promise of quality.

“Todd had produced both films I directed, so we’d had a long relationship. I’ve known him for 20-odd years. He said he’d got the rights to this story and he wanted to develop it for me. He finally brought it to me a year or two later, I read it, and I called him as soon as I’d finished the last page and said, ‘When do we start?’”

Washington then reached out to director Antoine Fuqua, with whom he had partnered on Training Day, the film for which he won an Academy Award in 2002. Together this power trio put their talents into a 21st century rendition of former Black Ops operative Robert McCall whose moral code leads to him step in to protect a young woman, played by Chloe Grace Moretz. Washington claims not to remember the TV show with Edward Woodward, which ran for 88 episodes between 1985 and 1989. Emulating the series was not on the cards. “Basically it’s just the name,” he says. He adds: “I guess it’s the same premise: the guy from somewhere obscure, a guy we don’t know much about, who equalises the situation. I guess in that regard it’s similar, but that’s about it. We didn’t look back to the TV series at all.”

Woodward’s original hero was very British. Washington is very American. Perhaps as a balance the makers of the new Equalizer went with a British villain. Except Marton Csokas, the actor who plays Teddy, is from New Zealand…

Washington laughs. “He’s a great bad guy. It’s funny, there was some commercial out about how they always pick a Brit to play a bad guy, and I didn’t think of that. They’re great actors, coming from the theatre. I just worked with another one, Sophie Okonedo – just a wonderful actress. We can learn from the Brits. They get on that stage and they get the work done. I really believe actors learn how to act on stage, not in movies.”

Washington knows what he’s talking about on that score. He recently finished a Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun, for which “we won Tony awards and best revival and all that”.

The Equalizer is an action film but one that features a central hero with OCD. As Washington reveals “he’s got some peculiar habits,” adding “I was just trying to enrich the character a bit, and not just make it some shoot-em-up, kill, kill, kill, guns, guns, guns.”

“I said from the start, ‘I don’t want some mindless guys running around shooting each other. Who is he? What’s wrong with him? How does he overcome that?’ All those real questions we had to answer for the sake of the story.”

After 40 years in films Denzel Washington, who will be 60 in December, has never repeated himself. Yet in Robert McCall he may have found a quality hero that deserves revisiting.

The Equalizer is on nationwide release.