Denzel Washington remains one of Hollywood’s most influential stars, constituently starring in diverse number of Hollywood films, and none is different that the Hughes Brothers’ Book who of Eli, a post-apocalyptic tale, in which Washington plays a lone man fights his way across America in order to protect a sacred book that holds the secrets to saving humankind.
An action film with a spiritual bent, the film offers a chance to see another facet to the actor. He spoke to Paul Fischer.
Question: How do you identify with Eli and what’s your hope for present-day America?
Washington: Gee whiz! (chuckles) Give me the easy ones to start off with! (laughs) What’s my hope for present-day America?
Wow! What’s my hope for humanity, I guess,… you know, I watched the film last night. It was the first time I’ve seen it finished (though) I’ve seen it numerous times. It stuck out to me that line I say about the bible, that this is probably the reason the war started to begin with. The point being, it’s not that far-fetched.
Not that this is a cautionary tale, necessarily, but it’s been going on for thousands of years. Hopefully, we’re just entertainment.
Question: How surprised are you that an action film can be spiritual and the script is metaphysical in a way?
Washington: My son is one of the producers. John David (Washington). He really pushed me to do three films. The other two were completely different. But he’s the one who really pushed me to do “Training Day.” He said, because you’ve never done anything like that. In this case, he really got his teeth into this story and he’s a very very spiritual young man, and a unique individual. He got behind and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He’s learned a lot about the process now. He’s gone through it from working on the screenplay through shooting and editing and the final mix. And I really took a closer look at it. I was probably more concerned, maybe not concerned, but looking at the fighting and all, I was like how am I going to be able to do all this stuff. The spiritual journey, once I bought into that, and really went full steam ahead and bought into and believed in the Hughes Brothers and their vision, we did a lot of work on the screenplay and just strengthened that aspect of the story. It’s cliche. But it sort of good against evil. Yet here’s a guy who has heard the voice of God yet this young innocent (Mila’s character), like when I had the big hatchet and was getting ready to destroy this guy for no reason, (my character) has gotten too far gone, and she’s the one who says stop. And things change from that point. Things change even before that. It was really my son that got me into it.
Question: Is he a messianic character?
Washington: We all have a job to do. This was his. It’s interesting if you look at it as a spiritual journey. His biggest test is right at the end. He’s almost to the “promised land” for him. Yet he has to go through the valley.
Question: What does this movie say about us as human beings in our most primal level?
Washington: A man goes down to the ocean and tries to fit all the knowledge of the ocean into his little brain instead of jumping in the water and enjoying himself. Jumping in the water is faith. For me to even suggest what mankind needs is… the spiritual journey… I just thought it was an interesting story, a good story. I embraced this primal and spiritual aspects of this story and of this man and how the “Word” can be manipulated. You turn on the TV and you see it all the time. That’s the way I’ve always argued the difference between spirituality and religion is Mankind gets a hold of it and, mine is good and yours isn’t. I’m right and you’re wrong and all that kind of stuff.
Question: How was the fight choreography? Was it rigorous for you?
Washington: Yeah. It was a lot of fun, actually. Jeff Amata who is a disciple of Danny Inosanto is a contemporary of Bruce Lee. So I was training with some of the top top guys. That was hard but it was a lot of fun just to stretch every day. I read the script. I know I win! (chuckles) Just to go down that road, that avenue was fun.
Question: Were there some things in the script where you said, no, this guy wouldn’t do that?
Washington: I don’t remember because it was a long process. I just worked my way through the script with the Hughes brothers and the writer and my son and we had the bible there because we were always looking for quotes and going back and forth. I played all the parts. I’ve taken what I’ve done as a director, and in this case anyway, applied it to the screenplay because I was really involved as a producer as well and we would sit up in my house and I’d play all the parts and flesh them out. For example, I came up with an idea with Gary’s character. I actually played it out in my house where I said, let’s have him say, “pray for me.” Like he gets right down and whispers, because he’s a complex guy. It’s easy to just make him the bad guy, and maybe that just makes him even more evil, does he mean it, does he not, but I actually played it out on the floor of my guest house. I said pray for me, I mean it.
Question: Did you do more improvisation than usual? Like with Tom Waits?
Washington: We had a shape but he was ready, he could fly, he could go. He kept asking, got any chapstick? I forget the other things he asked for. But he’s just easy like that so it was real easy to flow with him. But we had the shape of the scene. It was me coming in asking him to charge the thing up. But he charged right into it. He called it a Falcon 9. I don’t know if that even exists.
Question: Having directed, do you take that into these movies where you’re acting?
Washington: Just the process. Playing the parts – that’s something I do. I remember years ago I was talking to Warren Beatty. And I didn’t want to be in the first film I directed, and he said, no, you should be. I said why? And he said because it’s a way in that you know. You’re used to it as an actor. So I took that even further. I said I’ll look at all the parts. What would I say? Not that I would change every line or everything, but it’s a way in.
Question: Do you plan to direct again?
Washington: I plan to, yeah.
Question: Why did you want to do this movie aside from your son wanting you to do it?
Washington: That’s really the reason, there’s no other really. That’s not 100 percent. There’s never one thing. It’s a process. I couldn’t give you an easy answer because I don’t know the answer.
Question: Has your criteria changed?
Washington: Sure. It used to be, I’ll take it! I’ll take it! (laughs). Kinda! I don’t know. It depends on what I’ve done and it depends on upon where I am in life and where it’s shooting.
Question: How different is this film from the others your son convinced you to do?
Washington: He talked me into doing “Training Day” and “American Gangster.” And now this one. That has to do with him coming of age. I wanted him to read more so I started giving him scripts to read. All my children are movie buffs.
Question: What are you doing next?
Washington: (The play) “Fences.” (laughs) August Wilson. Viola Davis is in it. I’m just finishing up Tuesday with Tony Scott. Of course, hanging off the side of a train, and working on this play. The play is on Broadway. We start previews around the first of April.
Question: How many films have you made with Tony now?
Question: And with Ridley?
Washington: One. Tony just wouldn’t take no for an answer. I was like, Tony, I don’t know.
Question: What was that one?
Question: Are you excited about going back to Broadway?
Washington: I thought you were going to say are you excited about going back to Pittsburgh. I’ve got to go to Pittsburgh tomorrow. Broadway’s a little more exciting.