Denzel Washington is one of the coolest actors around. If he’s in your movie, you know you’ll get someone who is dedicated to his craft and do his best work possible. Teaming up with The Hughes Brothers, Denzel plays a character that’s complex, driven, and willing to kill a bunch of fools if they step to him.
In this roundtable interview for The Book of Eli, Denzel talks about being a producer on the film, sword training, his character, comparisons to the wild west and more.
Beware of minor spoilers if you know nothing about the film.
What made you want to be a producer on this as well?
Washington: Well, I don’t know how it got to me being the producer but I knew that there was a lot of work to be done on the script and I knew that I needed to help do it. So I just felt that in this particular story – – I can’t tell you why because I really don’t remember. I can’t say, “Oh, it was one thing.” But I just felt like I needed to be a little more hands on on this one.
Do you expect it to be controversial that it’s the Bible?
Washington: Why is that controversial?
Some might ask why you’re saying religion has that much power?
Washington: Okay, and if they say that?
Did you not expect it to have controversy?
Washington: Well, that’s a word you’ve used three times now so you run with that. I’ve never used that word actually, but I think that there’s nothing wrong with debate, conversation/argument. Good. Imagine that. An idea, a thought, a point of view.
Do you see parallels with your other character, a free character choosing his path? Did you draw anything personally?
Washington: I’m sure, yeah. We did a lot of work, a lot of sessions with Allen and myself and my son and the writer. I walked through a lot, page by page, we did a lot of rewrites. I’m sure a lot of that has to do with my own personal experiences. I couldn’t give you one off the top of my head but coming off of directing and I know how to work as a director, I really want to flesh out and flush out the characters and I play all the parts. One day in one of the sessions, I just came up with the idea of Gary’s character saying, “Pray for me.” I mean it, that wasn’t in the original script but it just made sense to me, that this guy at that moment when it seems like he’s got everything and he’s the most evil or whatever you want to call him, he says, “Pray for me.” Does that make him more twisted? It just felt right that “oh yeah, by the way, between you and me, put in a word. I know I’m no good, but you know…”
Working with Gary?
Washington: I love working with Gary. Gary’s one of the best. We had a lot of fun. Sometimes we would do the whole scene as very British sort of, “Well, sir. I’ll need that book from you now.” “Are you going to shoot me today?” That kind of stuff, but obviously he’s one of the best of his generation, of our generation, so it was a real joy when he signed on. I was really excited about that.
What about the music?
Washington: Oh, Al Green. That was Allen Hughes’s call I think. No, that one wasn’t mine. In fact my son had picked Incubus. If you ever see the movie again, my head is bopping to a different beat than the music because we were actually playing a song from Incubus. I forget the song. Something Transmission. I guess I’ll hear from Incubus.
Talk about the Japanese sword training?
Washington: Jeff Imada, who is a disciple of Danny Inosanto, who was a contemporary of Bruce Lee trained me and I worked with Danny a bit. I don’t know, four, five, six months out we started stretching and moving and doing stuff with our eyes closed and just getting into the whole vibe. Stretching is, you don’t know, you’re too young, but when you get older, stretching is good. Stretching is real – – I don’t do it enough but it helps a lot. Yeah, it’s good stuff.
Do you still practice?
Washington: No, of course not. As I rub my knee, there’s a part of me that definitely wants to continue, but then there’s the actor part that also says, “Okay, I’ve got to put that down. I’m not that guy now. I have to play another guy.” I think I’ve been in a hotel almost 10 months this year, so I’m just glad to be here a week.
Did you get any injuries?
Washington: Nothing major, no.
Was it your first time with two directors? Was that weird?
Washington: Well, there was such a process, there was such a long process working on the material, I kind of got used to it. Then you start to see how they operate. Allen is more the casting people kind of guy. Albert was in New Mexico. He’s the guy with the room full of graphic design, all that geek stuff. He likes all that. He’s not the communicator. They know – – they obviously know each other pretty well so they didn’t seem to step on each other’s toes. Once you got the rhythm of it, once you knew who was responsible for what, it was not that hard.
Were you attracted by how different the character was from others you’ve played?
Washington: You got the headphones on. Those are the ones we use, the Dr. Dre stuff. That’s what we use in the movie. Well, if it happened today, you’ve got what you’d have on today. You don’t see it but I wear a pair of LeBrons too. The first pair of sneakers I have on are LeBrons but you can’t tell. What was the question?
Because the role is different from your other characters, did you want that?
Washington: Maybe in a more obvious way but most of the characters I play, a lot of them, there’s been some kind of evolution, spiritual evolution. You look at Malcolm X who went from hatred to a whole complete different doctrine or Hurricane Carter. Even something as dark as Training Day, the first thing I wrote on my script was, “The wages of sin is death.” In the original version of Training Day, they had him dying in the smallest way, like you heard about it on TV. I said, “No, I can’t. In order for me to justify living in the worst way, I have to die in the worst way.” There was still in my mind a lesson to be learned there or an evolution. In the case of Man on Fire, same thing. A very dark man meets this young angel who awakens him and he gives his life for her. So I guess there’s a somewhat similar theme here in that he has this mission and this mission has turned him into this violent killing machine and there’s no coincidence that at the moment when he’s about to chop whoever with this hatchet, this axe, this young girl says, “Stop.” Why was he sent through this town right before he makes it to where he’s supposed to go? He could have gone around, it would’ve been a whole different story. But in his spiritual evolution, this was a part of the process. He had to go down through the valley of the shadow of death.
Did you look at other post-apocalyptic survival movies? Were there things you wanted to avoid?
Washington: No, I didn’t. I usually take that approach, not to look at them, so whatever I come up with, at least in my mind I came up with it on my own. I didn’t want to start looking at other films and go, “Oh, I can’t do that.” I don’t want to be hemmed in by the possibility of doing exactly what somebody else did, so maybe I have. I don’t know because I didn’t look.
Were you a fan of the Clint Eastwood movies where he comes into town and kicks some butt?
Washington: Oh yeah, what was the one where he got whipped and he’s hiding under? High Plains Drifter. There is the western vibe of this. The writer definitely said that. Is he here today? Did he talk about that? In fact, earlier on it was like the saloon. We sort of de-westernized it a bit but it is the basic loner comes to town story, walks into the saloon and kicks some butt.
What kind of sunglasses were they and what else did you want your character to have?
Washington: We went through a million gazillion glasses. I went to these Harley stores and were buying goggles. We came up with the sun rules because at first he was one of the only ones wearing glasses. I said that’s not going to work, so we came up with the sun rules that too much sun will burn your eyes so everybody’s got to wear them so we could take the smell off of him, why is he walking around inside and outside with these glasses? Because I never answered the question whether he’s blind or not. I don’t think it’s important. There’s different parties were kind of hung up. “Well, we need to show that he…” No we don’t. Maybe God gave him a Braille bible and said, “Learn it.”
He comments on the smell of the apocalypse. Did it really stink?
Washington: [Laughs] No, it didn’t. There was a lot of wind blowing. It was a trippy thing that happened and it’s actually used in the movie. When I stick that sword into the first guy whose arm I cut off, I stuck the sword into him real easy, almost like a sacrifice and the wind started blowing. The sand blew right over us and kept going right through the tunnel. It was like death or something and I stuck with it. It just kind of blew through and it stopped and we cut. Everybody was like, “Uh…” I said, “I think we’re on the right track here.”
How much fun was the action?
Washington: Kickin’ butt, I was just like, “Make sure they know it’s me. There’s no stuntman, make sure.” He said, “Well, we’re going to silhouette.” I go, “Silhouette? As hard as I’m working, you’re not even going to show me after all that? Well, make sure, get close or something. It’s me, make sure they know it’s me.” It is me. That’s me. That’s me. What I learned from these masters like Danny Inosanto is he lets that energy come towards him and he goes through it. He’s like 70-some odd years old and so fluid and just a great fighter that I said I didn’t want to be karate man. I didn’t want to finish like, “Ha!” I didn’t want to do any of that but just moving through people.
Do you care what people take away from your movies or do you just put them out there?
Washington: I always say people will take – – it depends what they bring to it. It’s not for me to say. That’s the way I look at it. I don’t overanalyze it, “I want them to get this” because I think it shouldn’t be as narrow as just the way I think. I know what my character wants from scene to scene or whatever but if I start thinking result terms, what I want you to get this from it, then I might start showing you something so that I’ll get the result I want, and maybe I’m not right.
Working with Mila?
Washington: She’s a sweetheart.
Do you approach things differently?
Washington: Well, you’ll have to ask. I don’t know. What’d she say? Oh, the alarm went off. I hope we do. I think we do but obviously we still have the same fundamental task at hand to play the role.
What do you want for Christmas?
Washington: You know what? I was in my bathroom today going, “You know, I need some fresh white washcloths.” So tell my wife. Don’t tell your public. Don’t send me washcloths. But now I’m going to hear from my wife, “Why did you go on telling everybody your washcloths are dirty?”
You shot this chronologically?
Washington: Close to, close to.
How important was that?
Washington: That’s always nice. It’s not usually the case so it was no more important for this one. I don’t know who came up with that. Maybe the Hughes Brothers did and they wanted to, but that’s great. I’m glad we did, were able to.
Washington: Happy holidays.