After a career of the playing some of the screen’s most soulful heroes, Oscar winner Denzel Washington gets to be bad, and he’s relishing the challenge. It was a good-humoured Denzel who Paul Fischer met during the first weekend of the Toronto Film Festival.
Denzel Washington is in a jovial mood, joking with his Training Day co-star Ethan Hawke before sitting down for a chat. “Here’s the money I owe you for talking me up to the press”, the actor says laughingly to the younger Mr Hawke. Washington has been eagerly touting his latest film, Training Day, a comparatively tough studio cop movie in which he plays a rogue Los Angeles narcotics officer, and the antithesis of the more idealistic heroes we have come to expect from this Oscar winning star. “I’ve done 30 pictures and this is the first time I’ve played a truly evil character,” says Washington, who won an Oscar and a Golden Globe in 1987 for his inspiring performance in the Civil War drama Glory. “It’s not for want of trying. It’s just that no one has ever asked me to play a bad guy before. That’s not how Hollywood perceives me.”
His subsequent Oscar nominations in Cry Freedom, Malcolm X and The Hurricane were for his portrayals of real-life heroes.
“It’s a huge honour and privilege to play real-life heroes, but there is a different kind of excitement and reward for an actor in playing a villain. I have to admit I had a lot of fun playing Harris in Training Day,” whom the actor describes as “an arrogant thief, liar, killer and egomaniac. He’s a sick, sick man who has no heart. I’ve known for a while now that I’ve wanted to play someone like Harris.” Washington concedes that his attraction to this script, to which he has been attached for 2 years, because it puts in light all kinds of shade of the human soul.” Yet the actor plays down the politicising of the material, insisting that Training Day “is not an indictment of the LAPD. This movie is about Harris’ ego, he’s just this crazy, crazy guy. On the day we meet Harris, he sees two options in his life. One is death and the other is what he sets out to accomplish. This gave me the licence to be as evil as possible. It’s all about Harris the man, not Harris the cop.”
Training Day was partly shot on the extra-mean streets of Pinewood, a part of Los Angeles known even to its own inhabitants as the jungle. Most of those who live there, said Washington, are just regular, hard-working people, despite the crime and gang warfare that surrounds them. “But all the gang members in the movie were real,” explained Washington, who also said he did not feel he was ever in any danger. “Danger? I felt danger in Rahway State Prison when they locked those doors,” he said, grinning, referring to the shoot for his Oscar nominated Hurricane Carter film.
There were, continues Washington, no problems with the gang members who worked on the film. “A lot of these young guys, when we gave them some responsibility, they ran with it. We were there for weeks, sometimes all night, and there was no gunfire, no robberies, nothing.” The only real mishap, he said, is that a crane fell over during shooting. “And one of the guys said to me, ‘You guys talk about us killing you? You almost killed us.'”
Washington may have had no fear working with real-life gangbangers in Training Day, but he admits to being mortified about his next project: his first turn behind the camera in the role of director, making The Antwone Fisher Story, the story of a sailor with a violent past whose life is changed through his relationship with his navy psychiatrist. The real Antwone Fisher wrote the screenplay, and Washington will play the psychiatrist. “The studio wouldn’t let me direct it unless I took a role,” explained Washington, who then added in a conspiratorial whisper, “But what they don’t know is that I’m going to cut most of my scenes out.”