Despite Denzel Washington’s inclination to do the right thing in his personal life, he knows how to define violence as an actor.
He was a convincingly conniving heroin dealer in American Gangster, a dangerous avenger in Man On Fire, and he won an Oscar for his out-of-control corrupt cop in Training Day.
“I always say, you can’t be considered (for an Oscar) unless you have a good role, and good roles are hard to come by,” says the 55-year-old. “So I keep looking for them.”
He thinks he may have found another one. Washington has to dig deep to find his brutal side for his role in the post-apocalyptic action flick, The Book Of Eli.
Opening on Friday, the Hughes Brother film features Washington as Eli, the fierce and deadly guardian of a book that might lead to the resurrection of an anarchistic society, which has deconstructed into a wasteland of roving gangs and mobster fiefdoms.
On his walking journey to deliver the book, Eli battles thugs, cons and tricksters, but is tested the most severely by Carnegie (Gary Oldman) whose posse of bad guys captures, then tries to track down Eli after he escapes with his book and a member of the tribe (Mila Kunis).
Along the way, Eli’s savagery is intense, but Washington refuses to worry about his image, or expectations from fans, when he chooses a part. “Some of the characters I’ve played killed, but they’re not necessarily killers,” he says.
Some are, though. And he’s fine with that, too. He’s also comfortable doing what it takes to get prepared, and that was especially true for The Book Of Eli.
Washington suffered through six months of martial-arts conditioning and sword-and-knife training to look as lethal as his Eli character.
Still, there’s no question the part is a departure for the actor. He shared the screen last year with John Travolta in the subway thriller The Taking of The Pelham 123. But Travolta defined the sneering bad guy, while Washington played an average dude embroiled in the caper.
Before that, he directed and co-starred in The Great Debaters, playing a 1930s activist educator who leads an all-black college debating team to the U.S. finals. That was his second directorial foray. His first was Antwone Fisher in 2002.
Acting is his first love, however. And his acclaimed role as Brutus in the Broadway production of Julius Caesar showed his versatility, as did his breakthrough in the 1980s groundbreaking medical series St. Elsewhere.
While working on that series, he took breaks to make movies. Some of them, such as Carbon Copy, Hard Lessons and Power, didn’t quite work.
Others did, including Washington’s portrayal of the anti-apartheid political activist Steve Biko in director Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom, which earned the actor his first Oscar nomination for his supporting-actor effort.
A few year’s later, he scooped up an Academy Award for his supporting role as the defiant ex-slave soldier in Ed Zwick’s civil-war epic, Glory. And he never looked back.
“I’m about doing,” Washington says. “I don’t need to talk about it, because I am usually about to do it.”
That includes re-upping with director Spike Lee for another Inside Man heist flick. The first one received decent notices and a solid box office of $184 US globally.
Washington admits he rarely rejects an offer from his director friend, which has worked out nicely for the actor and director.
Their relationship has inspired both of them since the beginning, with 1990’s Mo’ Better Blues, then 1992’s Malcolm X, which earned Washington another Academy Award nomination for his title role, followed by 1998’s He Got Game.
Director Tony Scott knows a little bit about the Washington persona, too, having directed the actor to great success in 1995’s Crimson Tide, 2004’s Man On Fire and 2006’s Deja Vu.
Right after Deja Vu, he did the crime saga American Gangster with Tony’s brother Ridley Scott. “I must be the first person in the business to work with Tony Scott and Ridley Scott in the same year,” says Washington.
Still, Lee puts him in his comfort zone. In 2005, their collaboration on Inside Man let them pick up where they had left off, with impressive results. Washington remembers having to be a quick study for Inside Man as he was just wrapping his Broadway run of Julius Caesar.
“I had about five days off in between,” says the actor, who admits he probably wouldn’t have pushed himself for any other filmmaker.
For Inside Man 2, it will be more of the same trust. And Lee and Washington will continue to borrow from each other’s instincts.
“I started improvising with Spike (Lee) on Mo’ Better Blues,” says Washington. “He said, ‘Go ahead do it’, so I did.”