Denzel Washington has played Robert McCall, the former US marine and intelligence operative who becomes a ruthless vigilante when confronted with injustice, in three films spanning across a decade, working alongside director Antoine Fuqua and a team of trusted collaborators to create a contemporary cinematic anti-hero who has captivated millions across the world.
The final instalment of the trilogy is set in Italy – McCall is seeking refuge in a small coastal town when he is drawn into battle with the Mafia – and when the director called ‘cut’ this was a special moment, even in a career as stellar as Washington’s. But Fuqua’s leading man simply packed up and headed for home. There was no big party, no presentations, just, perhaps, a contemplation of a job well done.
“I’m always one to kind of walk away quietly with no big speeches,” he says. “In fact, on my last day we were filming in Rome and I’m just a quiet kind of guy, no fanfare, look up and I’m gone.”
It’s impossible to resist pointing out that it’s exactly what his character, the enigmatic loner McCall, would do, too. “That’s true, that’s right,” laughs Washington. “After he’s done his work, he’s gone. And it’s like, ‘where is he?’”
Washington first played McCall in 2014’s The Equalizer, reuniting with Fuqua who had directed him in his brilliant Oscar winning performance as a corrupt cop in Training Day (2001).
The Equalizer 3 does, in fact, mark their fifth film together – as well as the Equalizer trilogy and Training Day they teamed up for The Magnificent Seven in 2016. They clearly have creative rapport.
“You know now with Antoine, it’s such a shorthand,” he says. “We had tremendous success right off the bat with Training Day and we got to know each other over time and our families got to know each other and all of that. I like the way he works and he’s a great collaborator and that’s important to me.”
The huge success of The Equalizer convinced him to return, in 2018, for another chapter in the McCall story, the only time that Washington has ever returned to the same character on the big screen. He knows – because people are always telling him – that McCall has found a special place in the hearts of audiences.
“What I’ve found from talking to people is that they like the character because he stands for justice,” he says. “Just different people I’ve talked to really like that character and they are like ‘well, he can get the bad guys that we can’t get. He can get those in authority, the people in power, and bring them down’ and that seems to be something that they like about him.”
Indeed, he recalls that over the years, after both the first and the second Equalizer films, he’s had conversations from people from all walks of life – from doormen to doctors – who wanted to know when McCall was coming back.
“I was talking to the doormen in my building and I had just done Fences and I was talking to them about Fences and they were like, ‘yeah, yeah Fences is great but when are you going to do another Equalizer?’
“You know, that seems to be one that they can relate to and get excited about and want to root for McCall. I remember years ago, in the 1980s in fact, I did this very serious movie (Cry Freedom) about (anti-apartheid activist) Stephen Biko and it was ‘oh it’s very important…’ and I remember talking to a friend of mine about it who was a doctor.
“And I was telling him about it and he was like ‘I deal with life and death every day, I go to the movies to escape, to have fun, not to deal with life and death.’ And I was like, ‘I never thought of it that way.’”
McCall is a complex man, both ordinary and extraordinary. A former black ops specialist who carries the loss of his much adored wife, when we first met him back in 2014 he was trying to live a quiet life in Boston, working in a hardware superstore and living frugally with few possessions except from the books he would devour, especially in the wee small hours when, suffering from insomnia, he would sit in a diner, drink his tea and read.
There he met and befriended a young sex worker Teri (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) who is controlled by Russian gangsters. When Teri is brutally beaten, McCall’s strict moral code has been breached and he has to act to try and save her and that’s when he reverts back to the deadly skills he acquired in his previous professional life.
In the second film, McCall is working as a driver when his former boss Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) is murdered and he vows to track down her killers. In the eagerly awaited third Equalizer film, McCall has been on a mission in Italy where, at the start of the story, he is badly wounded and is cared for by a doctor in a small coastal town.
“Initially he is injured and he needs help and that’s a part of it, Robert is a person who is not used to needing or wanting help. He has been very much a loner. And that’s not the case now. He can go no further alone. He’s forced to deal with people, he’s forced to rely on people and he’s forced to ultimately learn to enjoy other people,” says Washington.
“He gets drawn into the lives of the people in this little town where he finds himself. And he can’t help himself.”
With a ruthless Mafia boss and his band of murderous henchmen threatening the lives of people in the town he has grown to care about, McCall is drawn into their fight.
In this new movie he will cross paths with a young CIA officer, Emma Collins, played by Dakota Fanning.
Washington and Ms Fanning had, of course, worked together before on the acclaimed thriller Man on Fire (2004). “It’s interesting looking that little girl in the eyes 20 years ago and now she’s a grown woman,” he says. “It’s just a little strange for me personally. Dakota is just lovely and needless to say very talented.”
Long before the cameras rolled, Washington began preparing for what would be a physically demanding role. “Well, it’s been a two year process so far, just my physical transformation, going back to the beginning of 2022 I lost about 30lbs and now I’ve lost probably another 15lbs or whatever. Just re-shaping.”
Now 68 and a keen boxer for more than three decades, he’s clearly in great shape. “There’s a line in The Tragedy of Macbeth where he talks about the ‘yellow leaf’ of his life and I think I’m in that place now, I think I’m in the yellow leaf period, the leaves aren’t going to be that green anymore,” he laughs.
“And that’s OK. So I’m at a present where physically, spiritually and mentally, I want to be at my best. I want to see what is the limit, what do I have to offer.”
He likes to do as much of the action himself as he can. “Well because I’ve been training and boxing for years, for decades, I’m good at throwing punches and being physical.
“I’ve got a great stuntman and I try to let him do as much as he can and I try to take credit for all of it,” he laughs. “So when it comes to throwing punches usually it’s me throwing ‘em! When it comes to catching punches usually it’s him!”
Filming took place in several locations in Italy but mostly in Atrani, a beautiful town on the Amalfi Coast, a region of the country that Washington knows well.
“I’ve been all over Italy and for the last 30 or so years we’ve gone to that part of the world almost every summer. But I’d never been there for a job before. And it’s absolutely beautiful. It was a real pleasure to be there, to work there.”
So what does Washington hope that audiences will take from The Equalizer 3? “I hope that they will feel the warmth that’s a part of it. You start to root for these people.”
“I think the town of Atrani is only about 800 people and in our story they all join together to fight, motivated by McCall. They have strength in numbers and they help to fight against the bad guys.
“They are no longer afraid to be bullied anymore and you know it was just fun to be a part of this story and I hope that people enjoy it in the way they enjoyed the first two films. It’s got lots of spectacular action and brilliant performances from a great cast.”