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Man on Fire - Denzel Washington Q&A



Compiled by: Jack Foley

Q. How did Tony Scott imbue you with the passion we see on screen – in one of the best performances of your career, if I may say so?
A.
Yes! Actually, you know when I read the script I was like ‘Hmm, I don’t know’, I didn’t think it was all there.
I sat down with Tony and he was so passionate, and he kind of walked me through his history with the material. It was something that had been in his life for about 20 years, and he had done a film which I enjoyed, called The Hunger. And evidently it wasn’t a box office success, I don’t know if it was a critical success, but for whatever reason, the people who owned the rights to Man on Fire, didn’t have the confidence in him at that time to do the film.
As he put it, he went off and did a small film called Top Gun, and 20 years later it was finally time for him to do it.
And he was just so passionate about the story, he had so many great ideas about how he wanted to tell the story and he convinced me with his passion and ideas that we could get the script right.
He was just as concerned with whether or not I could play a character this dark, and he said ‘well you know, you gotta be real heavy, and I’m kinda nervous.’
And I said ‘you worry about where the camera’s going to be, let me worry about being the heavy!’ So after much collaboration and 15, 20 versions of the script later, we started shooting.

Q. How can you prepare for a character like this, when you have to get inside this man’s inner turmoil?
A.
When I was working on Training Day, one of the cops that I worked with, who was a real interesting man, he had introduced me to a couple of scriptures in the Bible from the Book of Romans and I shared those with Tony, the part of it being about coming out of the darkness into the light, which I felt is the arc of this character: the darker that we can make him, the more depressed and alcohol-driven he was at the beginning of the film, the greater the journey for him.
The other part of the scriptures that we applied to the story is that they talked about certain people are designated to protect those of us who can’t protect ourselves, you know the protectors – like soldiers in the war now in Iraq, or whatever, or in any war, especially in America as regards to the Vietnam War; we didn’t take care of those young men and women when they came home.
Like, well, what happens to them, when they’ve seen all the death and destruction that they’ve seen? What happens to them?
Well this was a man, a character who’d seen a lot of death and destruction and probably had his share of killing and what we see at the beginning of the film is the result of that; it has destroyed his soul, I mean he literally has the Bible in one hand and the Bourbon in the other hand, and obviously the two of them don’t work well together!

Q. Who’s the more daunting co-star, Dakota Fanning or Meryl Streep?
A.
Dakota Fanning! I mean I didn’t get to really work with Meryl, you know I was an extra in one of her scenes! But obviously her track record speaks for itself.
I was really impressed with Dakota, not only her acting skills, but she’s such a mature young girl and very humble, her parents have done a wonderful job with her.
The toughest part for me was actually keeping my distance early on in the scenes where we’re not supposed to be so friendly.
And I think Tony had said to her ‘Denzel – he’s very concentrated’, and she said ‘yes, I know – acting! I won’t talk to him either, don’t worry about it!’ She’s really just straight ahead and I’m convinced she’s 40 years old!

Q. Can I throw another name at you? Chris Walken.
A.
Yeah, Chris man. You know Chris Walken is Chris Walken! But Chris is a great actor and it was such an honour to play; it’s really playing with Chris and I like to do that, I like to improvise a lot and I don’t even know if we ever said anything out of the script actually! We’d just get up there and start acting up.

Q. Are your choices of dark, complex characters down to your new standing in Hollywood – or do you now just know a good role from a bad one?
A.
I think a part of it is Training Day, I think Tony had an idea of me doing this film I would imagine because of Training Day, and as I said earlier, even then he was like ‘well you know you gotta be heavy, you gotta be dark’, I’m like, ‘what, you want me to cut your throat, to show you I can do the part?’
Training Day wasn’t a stretch, that was the easiest part I’ve done in a long time, the other roles were the acting.

Q. There are three more Creasy books...
A.
Yeah? Prequels – you know what, I didn’t even know that, to be honest with you, but thank you!

Q. It’s too late now!
A.
No it’s not we can go back to before – how he got to be where he is. But, although I must say I saw The Bourne Supremacy the other day and I was like ‘it pissed me off!’
I was like, 'man he’s got a good franchise going on'. I don’t know, maybe we could go back and do a prequel. We cut, and we oh actually he was just sleeping! He reaches down and picks up that little medallion and puts it back on!

Q. What was the most useful advice given to you by your bodyguard advisor?
A.
I didn’t do a lot of research about bodyguard work because he had never been a bodyguard.
But probably the most, since he had a background in the Army, and Marines and Delta, that you’re taught about protecting your assets and, in this case, the child was the asset. So he said just look at it that way, but I didn’t want to be an expert bodyguard, because he wasn’t an expert bodyguard.

Q. Given the critical acclaim you enjoyed following Antwone Fisher, will you be intending to direct more in the future? And did you pick up any tips from Tony Scott?
A.
I’m going to direct a film next year and there’ll be a lot of spinning cameras.
The one thing I learned from directing the first film was how much I knew, or how much I had stored away from all these wonderful film makers I’d worked with, and I plan to steal from each and every one of them for the rest of my life!

Q. Tell us more about the film you’re going to direct?
A.
I don’t want act in it, it’s an obvious advantage, you can get more money out of the studio to make the film if you act in it.
It’s a little story about a Black college in East Texas called Whiley College.
They only have 500 students and in 1935 they were the best debating team in the country – they beat everybody. So it’s the little train that could.
There was a 15-year-old freshman, a very smart young man by the name of James Farmer, who became an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement in America, who was one of the debaters, and who was actually an alternate.
In our story, he’s also in love with this 19/20-year-old sophomore junior. She doesn’t know it – she falls in love with the bad guy, I don’t know why women always love the bad guy.
But she falls in love with another student who’s a real renegade, so it’s a coming-of-age little love story and mixed with like I said the little train that could.

Q. You’re playing desperate characters in both Manchurian Candidate and Man of Fire – any parallels between the two characters?
A.
Yeah, thank you, I’ll use that. I didn’t think of it that way, that they’re both desperate, I think in the case of Man on Fire he was ready to give up.
He wasn’t desperate, he was depressed and this little girl wakes him up and teaches him to love and to live again.
Definitely the case in Manchurian Candidate, he was desperate once he found out. Here’s a man who doesn’t know what’s wrong with him.
I did a lot of research about mood disorders and bi-polar disorders, and things like that, because he doesn’t know what’s wrong with him, and he’s been told that it’s post-traumatic stress disorder, Gulf War Syndrome or something like that.
But in the story that he tells, he’s not congruous with his dreams. So once he finds out that something’s awry and something really is going on, he doesn’t know who to trust, then yes, I think that he becomes quite desperate, if not manic.

Q. Are there any roles you’ve passed on in your career that you wished you hadn’t?
A.
Se7en. Not seven films, the movie Se7en – I turned that down, the role that Brad Pitt did, man!
The lead in The Passion of the Christ – no! I’m kidding, it’s a joke, I’ll be hearing about that now! I said Mel – no way I’ll do that man, nobody’s gonna see it, it’s not interesting. And of course you can see that I was right!
One other one actually that was a hit this Summer was I, Robot, they asked me to do that one.
But I was like man, if they don’t get these robots right…! I think actually it wasn’t quite as simple as that, it was I, Robot or Manchurian Candidate, and I chose to do Manchurian Candidate.

Q. No regrets?
A.
I’m pleased with what I’ve done.

Q. You’ve played a lot of tortured characters recently – time for a comedy – some slapstick, or gross-out?
A.
I don’t know, I think that would be good. Yeah, I would you know it’s just like what’s happening now: before Training Day, I guess they didn’t think I could be heavy if you will.
I don’t think he was a heavy, he was misunderstood. So now that’s coming. I actually have a script in my bag that I’ve been asked to do with Halle Berry, that’s sort of a romance, I’ve gotta read it first.
So we’ll see, I think that’s sorta like how Hollywood works – they all head in one direction…every book in the bible’s being optioned now!

Q. You must be the only man on the planet who gets asked to do a film with Halle Berry and need to read the script first!
A.
Well, if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage!

Q. Did you have any reservations about the extreme violence in the film?
A.
We had a test screening of the film and the scene with the fingers was even longer and more violent – interestingly enough, the women didn’t complain, the men complained more, the men thought it was more violent.
So I don’t know what that means, I think maybe it speaks to the maternal instinct or something like that, I don’t know. Ladies?
I don’t know what it is, but I found that interesting, so we toned it down. I don’t see how you could get around it – that’s what it is, it’s not a ‘how to’ movie, it is a ‘what would you do if you were in his shoes movie’?
As I said earlier, too, I think this is one of the most heroic characters I’ve played in that he’s willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for this girl’s life – and he does.

Q. What about the Sammy Davis Junior film? Is it true you're working on something?
A.
I’m just at a place now in my life, as a result of Antwone Fisher, that I’m just as, if not more interested in what goes on behind the camera, so there’s two or three projects that I’m developing now and Sammy Davis Jr’s story is one of them.
It’s a book that I read last Christmas and I thought it was a great book and I convinced Brian Glazer, at Universal, to option the book and we’re trying to see if we can fashion a decent screenplay – so it’s just one step at a time, at this point, it’s nothing more than trying to fashion a good screenplay.

Q. Would you be interested in playing Sammy yourself?!!!!
A.
Now THAT’S comedy: ‘The Taller Sammy!’ ‘Sammy Grows Up!’ No I don’t think so, and please spread that around: I’m not going to play Sammy Davis Jr… I am NOT going to play, I AM not going to play Sammy Davis Jr!...But I might. No, I’m not going to…

Q. How much of a kick do you get from working with Streep and Walken? Does it raise your game?
A.
Absolutely, it raises your game. Like I said, in the case of Meryl, I don’t have anything to do in the film with her.
I will admit that when we sat down to read the screenplay, I was sitting next to her, I was a bit nervous. You know: “The Dingoes got my baby.”
She’s brilliant, I mean what can you say that hasn’t been said about Meryl Streep? Had I been smarter, I would have suggested that we write a scene, just make something up. You know maybe I go visit her and ask her what’s going on or something, anything – I didn’t think about that. But hopefully I’ll get an opportunity one day.

Q. How do younger actors relate to you? Was Dakota in awe of you?
A.
No, actually, quite the opposite. The first scene we really did together is when she takes me up to my room, and she got up and sat up on the bed and looked me dead in the face and just performed.
And they said ‘Cut’ and I was like ‘oh shoot, I’m in trouble – this chick can act. Hey, wait a minute, Tony come here for a second… the girl’s gotta go!’
No, whatever it is, she’s just got this god-given ability, she’s a great actress, her parents have done a wonderful job with her – she’s very humble and as normal as a 10-year-old movie star can be.
I pray that she gets the chance to just hang out with kids and be a kid. I mean she’s growing up with adults on a set.
I was really protective, I didn’t appreciate people swearing around her, or not realising she was there, but she was like ‘oh, it’s ok, I’m used to it’.
But I’m like ‘no, it’s not right’. But she’s just very bright and a star – I don’t know what it is, she’s a little person or something, she’s amazing.

Q. Do you have a list of things you'd like to do?
A.
I don’t have a list, it’s not an agenda. The mystery is what’s good about it – opening a script and being blown away.
I had never seen Manchurian Candidate and my agent sent it to me and said – they made it back in the 60’s and you should read it.
And I read it and I was like ‘wow’, it’s a great idea. So there’s nothing I wanna do, there’s not any story I necessarily want to tell. If there are that’s more from a film-making side than an acting side.

Q. And are the rumours true about Hannibal?
A.
Yeah, it’s around, it’s being talked about. It’s gotten closer.

Q. Your character in Man on Fire listens to Linda Ronstadt – did you like that choice?
A.
No I didn’t like that choice – I hate that song, I couldn’t stand that song. I mean, I love Linda, Linda I love you, but I just didn’t like the song. I was like ‘I wouldn’t listen to this Tony’. But he liked it. He liked it!

Q. Are your Oscars currently being used as bookends or are they stored somewhere more prestigiously?
A.
I play little game with them!

Q. They’ll write this – it’ll be in the British papers.
A.
No, I just check to see if they’re still there, and nobody stole them. But as my mother says: ‘Man gives the award, God gives the reward’, so I don’t concern myself with awards, I really don’t.
I think in the case of this last one, for Training Day, it’s interesting, because I really was sorta ‘yeah, whatever’ kind of attitude about it.
You know I’d been to the party enough times and was like ‘whatever they’re gonna do, they’re gonna do,’ it doesn’t matter – free suit, decent dinner and go home!
But the next day, I went to the gym - I box, I like to work out - and the young actor there, Richard T Jones, was like, ‘man aren’t you excited’ and I was like ‘whatever’, and he was like 'maybe you feel that way, but not the rest of us'.
He said, 'you know, when you didn’t win for Hurricane, he’s a Black actor, we all just almost collapsed – if he’s not gonna win, what chance do we have?'
And he said, when I won, he called all his friends and it made us feel like we has a shot, and I was like ‘wow, ok’. You never know how you’re going to affect people.
Maybe it doesn’t affect me that way but it’s not always just about me.

Q. Man on Fire throws up an interesting statistic - that Mexico ranks as the third kidnap capital….
A.
What’s one and two?

Q. Does that suggest that the big Hollywood production shooting in Mexico was surrounded by security?
A.
Yeah, a lot of security. I was more worried about one of my bodyguards, tripping and falling and shooting me – after a while I started sneaking out without them. Armoured vehicles, a lot of corruption, you got to keep your eyes on the cops, that’s what you had to worry about down there.

Q. There’s a big thank you to Mexico City at the end of the film – did they help you a lot?
A.
I would imagine, I mean I wasn’t doing all that type of work. We shot in some rough neighbourhoods and, as is usually the case, the poorest people were the nicest.
I was amazed at how rich, there’s a lot of wealthy people in Mexico City, I didn’t realise that. But any time you have the super rich and the super poor side by side, you’re gonna have trouble.

Q. Did you and Halle winning the Oscar change anything in Hollywood?
A.
I think that the bottom line is she and I won because we both had good parts to play and, needless to say, Black or White, good parts are hard to come by.
I don’t know the statistics of how many good parts have come along, I haven’t seen that much from what I’m hearing now, although, Jamie Foxx, everyone is saying is brilliant as Ray Charles, so he has a good opportunity - a good actor with a good opportunity has a shot, without the opportunity it doesn’t matter how good you are, if you don’t have a good juicy role to take a bite out of you won’t be there on that night.
So, hopefully there are more opportunities – I’m trying to create some by producing and developing more material…if, of course, I don’t play Sammy Davis Jr myself…
I’ll try to find someone who can! Seriously, though, it’s really about the roles – that’s the bottom line.

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