THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123
An Interview with Denzel Washington
By Wilson Morales
June 8, 2009
You can always count on Denzel Washington to bring that emotional intensity.
For the remake of 'The Taking of Pelham 123,' the Mount Vernon, N.Y., native delivers again in this Tony Scott-directed project, which also stars John Travolta.
Armed men hijack a New York City subway train, holding the passengers hostage and turning an ordinary day's work for dispatcher Walter Garber (Washington) into a face-off with the mastermind behind the crime (Travolta).
Also featured in the film are James Gandolfini, John Turturro, Luis Guzman and Aunjanue Ellis.
In a press conference held in Los Angeles, Washington and Scott spoke about remaking a classic film, reuniting for the fourth time, and working with John Travolta.
Denzel, you're obviously not adverse to doing remakes. What made you want to do 'Pelham'?
Denzel Washington: This film is basically the story of a hostage situation on a train in New York City. What this film has in common with the original is the fact that it's New York City. I don't know that my character and the character that Walter Matthau played are that similar. I don't know why anybody would remake a film that is literally the translation or definition of the word.
Why would you redo it in the same way?
Tony Scott: I think the motivation of the characters is very different. The similarity is that, for example, it's a hostage situation in the subway. But, if you think about the Robert Shaw character and you think about Denzel's character, the whole motivation is very different. For instance, Walter Matthau is playing a cop.
DW: I didn't want to be a cop.
TS: And also, in terms of John Travolta's character, it's based off of a real guy who actually came out of Brooklyn, gravitated to Wall Street and worked for the city. He went and did time in jail and got out of jail before the movie, and he was motivated by revenge. He wanted to take revenge on the city of New York. In the original movie, it was about the million dollars. It was about holding hostages in a subway for a million bucks. It was a stupid place to hold hostages because it's a cul-de-sac. John's character has a plan and a plot, and Luis Guzman's character hatched the plot with him when he was in jail. It's based off of real events and real characters.
DW: And the back story for Garber was based on a guy at the MTA who took the money.
TS: Yes, and a family member. It was a mixture of the two.
You mentioned that you didn't want to play a cop or an FBI agent. Instead, you wanted to play an ordinary guy. How does Denzel do ordinary? Where did you go to prepare?
DW: The deli. I just ate a lot and kept getting smaller and smaller sweaters to wear. I spilled coffee on myself. I was concerned a little bit about 'Inside Man,' where I was a cop and a hostage negotiator. I just liked the idea of him never having held a gun before. He was an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation. He had a cloud over his head. He didn't come to work knowing he was going to get an opportunity to redeem himself. He didn't even know if he was going to redeem himself. It was something he felt like he needed to do. As he got into it, deeper and deeper, he just went for it, and he brought home the milk.
Were the glasses your idea?
DW: I don't remember. I remember we tried a bunch of different ones.
TS: How we built the character was an organic process. We had an MTA worker as a role model, but then (writer) Brian Helgeland brought this other back story from another character. The glasses became part and parcel. You feel how the character feels, whether it's the wardrobe and glasses or lines in conjunction with manners.
Did you talk to MTA employees about how the control center works?
DW: One of the reasons I like working with Tony Scott is because, like myself, he's a research fanatic. I know going in that he's going to have a lot of stuff for me to look at and go to. One of the first things I did, months before we started shooting, was go to the MTA command center. It was huge. It was 10 times bigger than our set.
TS: It's the size of a football field, and it's like NASA. That's the last thing you would expect, especially if you look at the old movie. The old movie is this grubby office with this subway thing on the wall. The real world is where I get to educate and entertain myself. I go and touch the real world and real people. That's my way into movies. I love that and brought that to Brian and Denzel.
DW: We share a lot of those elements. I like being with the real folks. Once I got there and we made introductions, I kept going back. You sit and talk with people. Our technical adviser was a guy who started at the bottom and worked his way up. I talked to him and asked how you get to be in the position my character is in. He said, "You start at track maintenance. You might become a flagman. You work your way up to local dispatch. You might be a conductor. You work your way all the way up the ladder." I don't think that the character I played went to college. I think he got a job at 17 or 18 in track maintenance, and he worked his way up.
Was John Travolta's really on the other end of the phone when you were shooting your scenes?
DW: No. We were always there for each other. We were always off camera. You actually do develop a relationship. For the first six to eight weeks, we didn't shoot any scenes together, but we were developing a relationship through the microphone and speakers.
Denzel, what was it like working with John?
DW: I actually didn't know him very well. My wife knew him, but I didn't know him that well. I know him pretty well now. We didn't see each other, so it's like an old courtship over the phone. It's a long-distance relationship. You get to know a person. We would sing songs, tell jokes and do Broadway tunes. That was the nature of the relationship.
Denzel, had you ever been in a New York City subway prior to making this movie?
DW: I grew up in New York, so I was born in the subway. I rode it almost every day for many years. If you can do it on a subway, then I've seen it -- from robbery to parenting.
Was there anything new you discovered about the city or subway system during this film?
DW: When you are young, you sneak on the trains, have fun, go down the steps and take a few steps down that dark tunnel. You don't go too far because you don't know what's down there, and you know you have to get back before the train pulls in there. Our day started at the steps. We would go a quarter of a mile or half a mile down. It's just a whole other world under there. It was trippy being on the other end. I remember coming home at 2 a.m. and the train would slow down and you would see the guys working look up. You were like, "Man, what are they doing out here?" We were those guys out there at 4 or 5 a.m. I remember a woman was looking, and I was standing there and said, "I'm down here working on the trains."
Have you been in touch with John Travolta since the death of his son?
DW: I talked to John two and a half weeks ago. Needless to say, he's struggling. More than talking to him, I listened to him for about two or three hours. It's going to take time. What can you say, but just be there as a friend? He's such a sweet person. Our prayers are with him, his wife and his family.
You normally play the leading man. Does it take something special for you to play a character role like this?
DW: Leading man is something that someone calls you when you do press junkets. I'm not a leading man. I'm an actor. I get the part and interpret it. I like the idea of this character not knowing anything about how to solve this problem. He has problems of his own. I like the fact that he spills coffee on himself. He's very good as a dispatcher. He's a star in that world, but he's taken out of his element. I like the fact that he doesn't want to take the mayor's truck home. He takes the subway. He knows where he belongs, and he's comfortable in that world. Important decisions to him are whether to get a gallon of milk or half a gallon. He started at the bottom. He got close to the top but was brought back down, and he's in denial. Everybody knows what's happened. He's gaining weight, but he's eating because of underlying tension. And then he gets an opportunity to redeem himself.