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Safe House - Denzel Washington interview

Safe House, Denzel Washington

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DENZEL Washington talks about playing a sociopath in Safe House and what kind of research and preparation he did for the role.

He also discusses why the project didn’t appeal to him initially, how he got a black eye from co-star Ryan Reynolds and why he became bored with acting when he turned 50 and what enabled him to re-connect and re-evaluate his opinion of the profession.

Q. Could Safe House be perceived as a very controversial film back home because it’s not clear who the good guys and the bad guys are as we move through the film until we get a clearer perspective at the end? There are rogue elements of the CIA running through the film as well as guys who perhaps do the right thing for the wrong reasons and all of that muddies the waters over who is on the side of good and who isn’t?
Denzel Washington: Who knows what they do? We don’t know what they do. We know we want to be protected and then we claim that we want them to be fair and not to torture people. But on 9/12 in New York everyone was for torture if it meant getting to the bottom of it. And then the further you get away from that [day] the more you want your country to play fair. I don’t think it would have made sense for President Obama to come on air and say: “Oh, by the way, next Tuesday we are gonna shoot Bin Laden!” They are gonna do it the way they are gonna do it and it’s a dirty business.

Q. When it came to playing Tobin Frost and what he represents, did you read a book that helped?
Denzel Washington: Yeah, The Sociopath Next Door. I [actually] took it from the opposite angle [of director, Daniel Espinosa], in that I thought Tobin Frost was a sociopath. When I thought of a sociopath I thought of violence, I didn’t realise that 80-85% of sociopaths aren’t violent but they are manipulative… they’ll lie, they’ll use charm, wit, pity: “I’m not as good as you.” But as soon as you say, “oh no, you’re alright”, I’ve got you. Now I’ve started to manipulate you. Tobin Frost had the skill set that the CIA appreciated but they didn’t know to what degree. They didn’t necessarily know that Tobin Frost was a sociopath. I think his blood pressure goes down when there’s murder and mayhem. I think he was interested in winning.

Every day I wrote in my journal: “How am I going to win today?” So that when the guys are talking about water-boarding I’m telling them they haven’t even got the right towels. “How stupid are you?” Sometimes I’d use charm and then sometimes, like in the soccer stadium, I’d start screaming like a little girl: “Oh help me, he’s trying to kill me!” But as soon as I get away, I kill. I think he was such a manipulator – and because it’s a movie – that he chose not to kill the young kid [Ryan Reynolds]… he’d rather play with him. I should have shot him. So, I got as close as I could get and Daniel trimmed it back. I was probably over-acting but I was sticking the gun in his face, just controlling.

Q. I know you’ve been to South Africa before and as executive producer how much say did you have in getting this film shot in Cape Town?
Denzel Washington: None. Originally it was supposed to be in Rio, but we had talked about the fact of not wanting it to be too similar to Man on Fire, but Daniel went to South Africa and he liked South Africa, and that was it, I think it was the right choice. And I think just practically, I mean aside from the look and all that, from my character’s perspective it was going to be easier for me to blend in if I was in a black country than in a brown country.

Q. Action movies nowadays are very big and very loud and certainly there’s a major action element here, but there’s also some wonderful quieter moments, a lot more internalised. I wondered which were the most challenging and fun to do?
Denzel Washington: I didn’t think this was an action movie, I don’t even know what an action movie is. I think it’s a tribute to Daniel’s vision that it plays more intense than it read. And piece by piece as I look back on it, it was the way Daniel was putting it together.

Safe House, Denzel Washington

Q. You chose to do your own stunts on this and as a result you got yourself a black eye. Why did you choose to do your own stunts, and has that put you off doing your own stunts in further movies?
Denzel Washington: It has to be us otherwise the camera has to be so far back to hide us. These vehicles that they use they drive from the top so we weren’t in control of the car as it’s moving and in the scene I’m wearing handcuffs and I’m supposed to jump up and put the handcuffs over Ryan’s neck to choke him to bring him towards me but the guy’s driving above us and we’re not in control and we’re going fast so we are swirling around and it just so happens that I got whipped forward as he got whipped back and it just so happened that the back of his head was harder than the front of my face. It happened twice, but the second time the eye closed up.

Q. As an actor as well as producer in this film, what was it that made you want to become so involved in this project?
Denzel Washington: I can’t do it any other way. When I saw Snabba Cash I was fascinated by this young filmmaker, and when I met Daniel [Espinosa] and he talked about his life and how he grew up, what his father did and where he lived, I was in as far as Daniel was concerned. But I wasn’t in as far as the script was concerned because I didn’t think it was good enough. So, I’ve been in the habit of developing and helping to develop material for a long time… for 20 years or more. So my agent said: “Hey, you’re doing all this work, you should get credit for it.” So, he got me a producer credit. I don’t think I got any money for it [laughs]… well, maybe a couple of extra dollars! But I enjoy helping to develop material, it’s a way for me to get into the part. I’m a logic monster, if things don’t make sense I’ve gotta make sense of them. So, we would all sit in the room each and every day with maybe two or three writers for five months, it took us a long time, and that’s also a way for me to figure out my character.

Q. How do you maintain family life with a career?
Denzel Washington: My work is my work. I take my work seriously but I don’t take myself too seriously. I read a book years ago called Cagney by Cagney, by James Cagney, and he talked about going to the studio and working his 12 hour day and then taking off his costume and going home. Most of my work is done before we start shooting, preparation work, so my normal day, and I write a lot, I write journals and all that… so, my normal day begins when I start writing, it might even be the night before, like with the sociopath, how am I going to win today, am I going to use charm, am I going to use intimidation, am I going to us wit? And then we do the scene, we play the scene, and then I get in the car and go home, I have a meal, I relax, watch a little television or something and then I must start work for an hour and a half on tomorrow’s work and then I’ll go to bed. But I don’t lose sleep over it. I work better when I’m alone, although I did Training Day at home – and that worked out alright [laughs].

Q. Do you still date your wife?
Denzel Washington: Do I still date my wife? What does that mean? We’ve been married for 21 years; it’s not a date – it’s an opportunity [claps his hands and laughs]!

Safe House

Q. How do you stay looking young and have your career choices changed with age?
Denzel Washington: I went through a phase where I was sick of acting, I didn’t want to do it anymore, I was bored with it and then I tried directing a movie and I was like: “Shoot, get back over there!” It made me appreciate acting more. When I turned 50, I looked in the mirror and I thought: “Hey, this isn’t the dress rehearsal, this is life and I don’t know how much longer I’m going to have…” And even if I live for another 50 years I probably won’t remember the last 20 or 30 of them anyway.

In the last three or four years, especially after doing this play on Broadway with the great Viola Davis, Fences, [it] reminded me of how I started, which was in the theatre, and how I worked in the theatre and how thorough you needed to be in the theatre. And I made a commitment… I re-committed myself to being thorough. I want to do good work and I want to do good work with people that I want to work with, which is why I said the first thing that stood out for me about Safe House wasn’t the screenplay. I wasn’t that impressed with the screenplay. If I hadn’t met Daniel I probably wouldn’t have done this movie because it didn’t interest me that much. I didn’t think it was that good.

But I liked Daniel and when you get the chance to work with people you like and people who are talented, that’s rare. I don’t know how many more movies I’m going to get the opportunity to make and I don’t want to look back and go: “Man, I just floated through that one….” Or: “I did that one for the money.” I want to be able to say that I worked as a hard as I could and I did the best work that I could do.

Read our review of Safe House

Daniel Espinosa interview