Ever since Denzel Washington tapped into his badass side in
There was a time when Hollywood would only call Denzel Washington when they had a role that called for a law-abiding family man, the little guy who would stand up against oppression, racism, homophobia, and anything else that the big bad world might have to offer.
Through films such as ‘Glory’, ‘Philadelphia’, ‘Remember The Titans’ and ‘The Hurricane’, Washington established himself as perhaps the finest African-American actor of his generation. Will Smith is there for the wacky, face-pulling roles, and Samuel L. Jackson can always be relied upon to deliver his Big Scary Black Man panto turn for anyone with enough money to pay him. Washington though, is the one Hollywood calls for the roles that may actually require some serious acting skills.
Playing crooked cop Alonzo Harris in ‘Training Day’ was the role that Washington won an Oscar for and made Hollywood realise he wasn’t just there to save the day and get the girl. It blew his nice guy image straight out of the water, something that’s reflected in his not only his latest offering, Ridley Scott’s mighty fine ‘American Gangster’, but also in such recent offerings as ‘Man On Fire’ and last year’s ‘Déjà vu’. Playing good cop Keith Frazier in old buddy Spike Lee’s ‘The Inside Man’ and good soldier Ben Marco in the 2004 remake of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ proved though that Washington hadn’t gone completely over to the dark side either.
“From the day I won the Oscar for Training Day, the scripts just changed,” smiles Washington, sitting back in his London hotel room. “Earlier in my career, playing roles like Steven Biko or Malcolm X, you know, for whatever reason, the folks in charge thought, ‘Oh, he’s the noble guy’, or whatever. Since ‘Training Day’, some other doors have opened up.
“And also, just personally, I think I’ve matured. I’ve changed; I’m looking for new challenges. I actually think the character in ‘Man On Fire’ is one of the most heroic that I’ve played. What bigger hero than someone who is willing to give up their own life for someone else?”
It was Poitier who advised the young Washington when he was starting out, “Your first three or four roles will help determine how you are perceived in this industry, so be careful”. Inevitably, Washington’s clean-cut good looks saw him playing the quiet hero again and again, but, he says, he always fought the notion of being pigeonholed.
“I’ve always fought against that,” he says, “especially being an African-American. You get, ‘Well, you have so many people who are rooting for you, who are relying on you’. Well, I don’t pick roles based on what other people think I need to do, I do what interests me, and I’ll continue to do that.”
What’s interested Denzel Washington most recently is Ridley Scott’s ‘American Gangster’, in which our boy plays real-life 1970s Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas, who used planes returning from the Vietnam War to get his merchandise into America. In the sort of role he was born to play, Russell Crowe plays the detective determined to bring down Lucas’ drug empire. It’s a return to form for filmmaking buddies Scott and Crowe after their misjudged light comedy ‘A Good Year’. For Washington, it’s simply another solid performance in a career that’s seen him rarely put a foot wrong.
“This is the kind of role where, once you say yes to it, you have to throw yourself right in there,” says Washington. “Mr. Lucas is a larger than life figure, and yet, at the same time, he’s got to blend into the background too, whenever there’s trouble around. He’s a fascinating guy, and that’s always fun to play.”
The joy is in the flaws, right? “Right,” nods Washington. “Even with your good guys, it’s the flaws that make them human, make them interesting. You have to truly believe in your character, and that means finding the weaknesses as well as the strengths.”
Playing the role of the baddie to Crowe’s goodie is something of a dream come true for Washington. Literally. It was back in 1995, whilst the two were making the cyber-thriller ‘Virtuosity’, that Washington swung by Crowe’s trailer one night with a bottle of Cognac and two cigars. As smoke and the smell of booze filled the air, Washington confessed to Crowe that he wished he was playing his role.
“And now I am, yeah,” laughs Washington today. “It’s funny how these things come around.”
Did it take long for Washington to get into Superfly mode? Was there much research involved? “Well, the one big advantage about playing someone who actually exists is that there is often plenty of research material to work with,” he says. “Also, there’s a definite truth that you can aim for, a definite version of this guy out there that you can try and capture. The downside, of course, is that there is a definite version of this guy out there, and you can never really hope to actually become that guy. At a certain point, you have to trust your own instincts too…”
Like many a master criminal, there was a defining moment for Frank Lucas. When he was young, he witnessed his cousin being tied to a lamp-post by two policemen, who then shot their captive through the mouth. All for looking at a white girl.
“Can you imagine what that would feel like, for a young boy?” says Washington. “Well, I had to, and it helped me understand much of what Frank was about. It was a turning point in his life, and whenever Frank would talk to me about it, it would often bring him to tears.”
Talk of violence reminds me of a piece the filmmaker Alex Cox (Sid & Nancy, Dead Man) wrote upon seeing Washington’s roaring rampage of revenge in ‘Man On Fire’. In the film, Washington plays ex-CIA operative John Creasy, losing a battle with alcoholism when he reluctantly takes on his first bodyguard job, looking after nine-year-old Pita (Dakota Fanning) in Mexico City, her parents all too aware of the recent, highly lucrative wave of kidnappings. When Pita is indeed kidnapped, and a bungled ransom drop-off results in the parents’ worst nightmare coming true, Creasy gets medieval as he works his way up the kidnapping food chain. The scenes of torture – fingers being sliced off, a capsule of explosives being placed where the sun don’t shine, as Deasy works his way up the kidnapper food chain – inspired Cox to declare ‘Man On Fire’ “the first authentic American action blockbuster in which the hero doesn’t just go on a killing rampage, but a torture spree as well”. There’s a good chance Donald Rumsfeld is a big fan of the movie.
“I haven’t thought about that,” Washington offers, after a pause. “I guess you could make that connection now, but… it’s really not that graphic, if you break it down. You don’t see anything. It’s just suggested.”
Besides, Washington argues, given the character’s past, and what happens to him in the film, such scenes of torture are justified.
“It’s the same with Frank in American Gangster,” he continues. “Once you see where this guy is coming from, you can better understand where he ended up. That’s true with everyone’s life. It’s rarely simple, this path we take.”
Our time is nearly up, so I remind Washington of our last meeting a few years ago. Having always been told when he would visit small Irish pubs in his native New York that the only true way to drink Guinness was to get one in Ireland, Washington finally managed it on a stopover in Shannon. Has he been back since?
“I’ve got to confess, it’s still the stopovers,” he smiles. “I’ve managed to have some of the hard stuff in Shannon before, but I’ve really got to visit Ireland properly. I’m busier than ever right now, so it’s hard to find the time. But I know my wife is keen to get over to Ireland. And, you know, since she’s the boss, I’m sure we’ll make it over soon.”