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April 2004
Man on Fire: An Interview with Denzel Washington

By Todd Gilchrist

Man on Fire: An Interview with Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington, just two short years after winning an Oscar for his scenery-chewing turn in "Training Day" as the villainous detective Alonzo Harris, returns to territory mired in moral ambiguity with the Tony Scott revenge film "Man on Fire". In the film, Washington plays Creasy, an ex-soldier who searches for redemption after his charge, a plucky child named Pita (Dakota Fanning), is kidnapped and held for ransom. Washington recently spoke to blackfilm.com about the experience, bonding with a child co-star, and his own process of growing up.

When we were in the audience last night, people were cheering

DW: That's what Radha [Mitchell] was just telling me

Were you disturbed at all when you did some of these scenes? What was your reaction by the amount of violence?

DW: No. I don't think it read like we shot it. Look at the wicked stuff they did they deserved it.

Why do you like working with children? People always say don't work with kids or animals.

DW: You know . . . Dakota is a child, but she is a wonderful actor. And that's what we were doing together acting. So I guess I'm saying I don't know what a child actor is. She's an actor who's a child.

How do you establish that bond in between takes?

DW: I mean we spent so much time between the car and the house. We were together a lot, just the two of us, especially in the car, so there's a lot of time to talk and joke.

She says you whipped her ass at ping pong.

DW: I whipped her at ping pong (says he thoughtfully) . . . I don't care. I gotta win at something! It's her fault that she's a child. She's a sweetheart as you'll see if you've talked to her already. She's a bright young woman and she's just a joy to be around. You can't not like her.

What was the appeal?

DW: Really, you know, I read the script and I was like okay. But then I sat down with Tony, and I was sure I wanted to work with him again, and he told me about this 20-odd year journey he's had with this material. This was the film he wanted to do after The Hunger, a film I really liked. They didn't believe him I guess The Hunger didn't do well or whatever, artistically or probably financially. It didn't make a lot of money, so he couldn't get this off the ground like he wanted to, and he said he stumbled into some little picture called "Top Gun". There's this whole 20-year ride with all of those films, with Bruckheimer. It was just his enthusiasm, the amount of research he'd done already. That first meeting, I think I left with about 10 or 15 books . . . I like Tony. I trust him.

What about Tony's directing style? You're such a great actor. Tony's directing style is very choppy

DW: Not when we're shooting. It actually helps because what he does is the setups take longer because he's setting up 4 cameras, usually, three to four cameras minimum. The advantage to that is he'll shoot a master and a closeup at the same time. So you feel a freedom. Whatever you doing, he's gotta get it. if it's something really goo, you don't have to try and repeat it. he's going to grab honest moments when they happen. And I like to improvise, and ad lib, so he was capturing a lot of those moments. In addition to the (sounds like: soap) that was easier. What got tagged onto that was the reverse process film, and he cranks it so basically your dialogue's not going to be any good (makes growling sounds). So we sort of he can tell you thinge better than me, but I think we kind of fell into a rhythm of getting the scene with those four cameras, or whatever amount of cameras we use, getting the coverage, and then moving into a particular set-up the last set-up would be to hand crank things just to get it, or this other thing we call it the vomit comet which would spin around and everything was you know.

My question is mostly seeing the movie because . . . this movie is very stylized, you're very conscious of the directing, instead of being really into the story, I felt sometimes. And you're such a great actor Does this bother you?

DW: Nah. Change of pace. That's fine. I make enough movies and different kinds of movies. That's what was interesting to me about this. . . that's the fun of it.

There's a quote from Tony here (clowning remarks from Denzel). He says he loves your internal darkness, there's a hardness to Denzel that is interesting. Can you talk abou that?

DW: I don't know what he's talking he's made up something probably. . . He's talking about himself. Like minds attract. "An obsessive quality."

Both here and in "Training Day" there's a dark side displayed . . .

DW: You know, we sat down and talked and actually brought there's a connection to "Training Day" here, because I brought Tony this scripture I had read, in Romans I think chapter 12, verse 21. It might be 13 or 12 . . . but it's that whole chapter. It's just about coming out of the darkness. And I told Tony about it, and it was a scripture I got from a guy I had done some research with on "Training Day". And he looked at it himself in that position. If you read the verse, you'll get it. But Tony picked up on that. He was like yeah, yeah. It's as much this guy's spiritual journey. He's a lost soul. He's got the bible in one hand and the Jack Daniels in the other, and he's done a lot of things, which we never find out about, which I think is interesting. We don't know specifically what he's done, but he asks Christopher [Walken]'s Rayburn, "do you think God will forgive us for what we've done?" No, he won't. And the burns on his hands I like the fact that we don't know what that is. Actually, as we shot it, we did find out that he'd been tortured and things like that, but I think it's better not to know. So I can invest in the darkness knowing it's about the journey. It's not just the dark guy. You know, he's not the life of the party necessarily. But this young girl she brings a lot of joy out of him, and brings it back to life.

Quick follow-up to that. Do you think your role in "Training Day" freed you to go to the dark side.

DW: Yeah . . . probably more so my role 14 years ago in Richard III. That was the first time I played a bad guy and learned a lot about it like they have all the fun (laughs).

"The Manchurian Candidate" we're all looking forward to that. Can you give us a few words on that?

DW: I'll see it on Monday. I'll give you a few words Tuesday.

You have the Frank Sinatra role . . .

DW: That's why I didn't want to see it because I don't have the Frank Sinatra from what I've been told, it's been rewritten a lot. People keep saying I've got the Frank Sinatra role, but it's not the same.

Did you even read Condon's novel?

DW: No. I didn't touch it. I just read the screenplay and interpreted it as I saw it. so if there was something I did that was done in the original, then cause I copied him, maybe it was an easy choice or a good choice I don't know. We'll see.

How much did you know about the situation in Mexico kidnappings etc.

DW: I didn't know. One of the things that was attractive aboout this story when I read the book and the script was that it took place in Italy. I thought oh, southern Italy for four months? That can't be too bad. And we ended up in Mexico City which wasn't bad either. But actually, when the book was written 30 years ago, it was more of the kidnapping capital. Unfortunately now, places like Mexico City, Argentina and Brazil are the hot spots. So I'm glad I went there. It was good.

How was it filming there?

DW: I enjoyed it. Had a good time. I mean there was a lot of security, but you know the poorest people are the sweetest people. They were bending over backwards to help us. I didn't know there were so many wealthy people there. I was amazed . . . all of that stuff is there. It was odd because you went to (sounds like: Le Cirque) great restaurant in Mexico City but outside the door there's 50 bodyguards and drivers all lined up. All the wealthy people that were going to the restaurant everybody had these armored cars and bodyguards.

Did you have safety concerns of your own while you were there?

DW: I was more concerned about getting shot by one of the people that was working for me then. There were so many guns around there. It was like don't one of you guys trip and fall and kill me.

But seriously.

DW: I'm serious.

Were there security concerns?

DW: If there were, then they did a great job because I never saw any problems.

Something about having worked wih kids and coaching kids helping him in a role like this.

DW: Sure. You have to draw on it. it's just there. I've worked with children all my life so that's just natural for me.

Did you adlib with Dakota?

DW: Absolutely.

How did you get to know her?

DW: Just the way you get to know anyone else just sit around. She's a very engaging and interesting person and a very smart young woman. You start having little conversations. She's very professional.

Did you swap gifts at the end of the

DW: Yes, we did. (doesn't know what he gave her) but she knitted a scarf for my wife. She is an amazing young woman.

What's happening with you away from work these days?

DW: Do you travel I'm reading a lot everything. I just read last week I read "The Da Vinci Code" and "A Purpose Driven Life", I'm reading. Yin and Yang there!

You're going to hit an important birthday this year and I'm wondering whether you're the kind of guy that sits down and surveys an incredible career?

DW: I have been. Well, not so much my career. My life. Yeah, I think you kind of look back. I've been cleaning my closets, which is good. I actually like okay, I gotta let stuff go. Clothes you know that stuff you're never gonna wear . . . cleaning closets, I'm throwing away papers, I'm taking time off, I finished "Manchurian" at the end of January and I won't shoot another picture before October. So I'm just home homework and reading and decorating my study actually, working with the decorator. . .

Did the queer guys get hold of you?

DW: No, they didn't get hold of me. They left me a couple of messages.

Watch reality TV?

DW: No, the only one I've been watching, I must say, is American Idol. . . I think it's going to be one of those women. George is in there, but those three girls are on another level. George is right there with them, though.

Do you sing?

DW: No. I'll put it this way I sing like one of them. I won't say who, but I can sing as good as one.

About the Oscar? Did you feel different afterwards?

DW: It was the second time I won.

That's true, that's true, but for best supporting . . .

DW: No, to me, that's never been a big deal. That's like saying that winning a writing award for a 500-page or 500 word thing as opposed to a 1000-word.

Sidney Poitier in the room, did that make you?

DW: That was nice. That was two years ago.

When people come over to the house do they want to pick it up?

DW: People don't come over to the house (laughs) My wife socializes, not me. I don't have a lot of friends.

Where do you keep them?

DW: Next to each other, They walk around at night. No, just like in the study or trophy room or whatever.

We were talking earlier about all the revenge films coming up Kill Bill, Punisher, Walking Tall. Do you have any idea or is it just kind of a mood in Hollywood or

DW: No, I don't. I didn't know that. You guys know because you go to the movies. I didn't know these other films were coming out, nor did I know what they were about. It's probably just coincidence that they're all coming out at the same time. I don't know . . . I don't think one says, oh they're doing one, we'd better do one too.

All this screaming and yelling, felt a little like the initiation of the genre in the Seventies

DW: I have to see the movie with an audience. I haven't seen it with an audience.

My question was, is there something conscious about your film choices, because

DW: You mean in doing the movie? No, because there's no way of .knowing that I didn't do it because I thought eight months from now . . . or a year . . . that people were going to cheer or that they needed to . . .

To identify with.

DW: No, I could easily lie, I'll tell you. But no, it had a lot to do with me thinking I was going to Italy. It really did . . . He probably knew all along, trying to rook me in with Italy.

Can you talk about "City Of God" as a visual influence on this movie?

DW: That's one of the movies he sent to me. He said have a look at this. In fact, Cesar who was a dp on that film was a camera operator on our film. And the guy who plays Shorty on that film is in our film. The guy who played his wife in "City Of God" is in our picture. . .

Hard, easier, to play an anti hero rather than just a hero or villain?

DW: I don't know about anti hero. I know bad guys have more fun. From the little bit I've done, you can say anything. I didn't look at it like he's hero, anti-hero, I look at it outside of it like that. I just get into who this guy is and what he does and why he's the way he is and what is the arc of the character. Like I said, I really got a lot from that chapter of the Bible about coming out of the darkness. You know, I think he struggled with what it is he's good at. You know, everybody has a job to do. There are people in Iraq on both sides of this war who do what they do for religious reasons, and they feel with God on their side. Some people are good at annihilating people. Maybe that's their gift. What if that's your gift. What if that's what you're good at? That's what this guy is good at and I think, somewhere in his past, it was its toll on him.

Do you think that Mel's movie should get the Oscar?

DW: I'll have to see the other movies.

Do you think it's Oscar-worthy?

DW: Yeah. Absolutely.

Have you seen it?

DW: Yeah. Couple of times. I saw it in a rougher form and gave him my opinion.

About memories of strange awkward interview moment.

DW: Nothing off the top of my head. Earthquake one time I remember the ground shook. A little tremor.

Do you like these sessions.

DW: (shouting) No I hate them!

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