Interview By: Andrea Tuccillo

Denzel Washington demonstrates an amazing power in his new film American Gangster
. One minute he’s flashing his pearly-white smile, the epitome of charm, and the next he’s flashing a fierce gaze as steely as the gun he’s wielding. In doing so, he captures the dichotomy that was Frank Lucas, who rose in the ranks of the New York drug trade to become the most powerful man in Harlem in the 1970’s.

Directed by Ridley Scott, American Gangster
is based on the true story of Frank Lucas’s life. He was a shrewd entrepreneur, a loyal family man, and a dangerous criminal. For those used to seeing Washington acting in roles of decency, seeing him kill people in cold blood or dispense heroin to the public may seem like a strong departure. But for Washington, playing Frank Lucas was easy.

“It was interesting after doing Training Day, people were like wow that’s such a shock, it must have been tough!” Washington says. “That was the easiest role for me to play actually; it wasn’t a stretch at all. Nor was this one. Fortunately in this case you had the real man to talk to and to draw from.”

In preparing for the role, Washington was able to spend a lot of time with the real Frank Lucas and gain insight into his life first-hand. “It was interesting talking to him because he said he loved that lifestyle,” says Washington. “He said he retired and he lasted for about a week and a half. He went to North Carolina on his farm that he bought and he said that’s it, I’m getting out. And he knew that they were getting closer to him and he knew he was going to get caught eventually, but he still had to have it. It’s like a boxer. You know you’re over the hill but something about the roar of the crowd, the scene, the power—it was sexy. He couldn’t give it up.”

By observing Lucas closely, he was eventually able to learn the real history behind the man. He approached his research much like a journalist would. “If you hang around long enough, you’ll get the real story,” Washington explains. “I worked with [Bob Woodward] doing research for the Pelican Brief and he used to say ‘Let the silence bring out the truth.’ So I would hang around, listen to Frank, let him brag—this is what I did, I was this, I was that—but you just keep hanging around and some days after 11 hours somebody’s tired and another side comes out. Or you see how a person treats their nephew or somebody that works for them, you see glimpses, or you see a look in his eye and you go, oh quite a few people who aren’t here any longer saw that look. You get below the surface.”

Washington said he tried to interject aspects of Lucas’s personality into his performance, but it was one bit of ad-libbing that ended up becoming Frank’s catchphrase in the film. The phrase would usually come out right before Frank decided to let somebody have it. He’d just grin at them calmly and say, “My man.”

“I just started saying it and Ridley took a liking to it,” Washington says. “There’s something interesting about smiling at somebody before you knock ’em off.”

Frank’s mother in the film is played by legendary actress Ruby Dee, with whom Washington has worked with before. He has nothing but praise for Dee. “I love Ruby, Ruby is great, and needless to say just a brilliant actress and a wonderful woman, an icon,” he says. “It was lovely. We hadn’t worked together I guess since we were on Broadway together maybe 15, 20 years ago. But you know, she steals the picture.”

One pivotal scene required Dee to literally smack some sense into her son. “She didn’t want to slap me, I had to make her slap me,” Washington recalls. “I was like, look that’s the only way this man is going to stop. It’s got to be something to do with the heart and his love for his mother and we’ll be here all day if you’re trying to talk me out of it; I’ll just leave the room. So I said you got to do something to jar him to his senses, like a mother. She didn’t want to do it, but she did it pretty well.”

American Gangster
had its premiere night at the Apollo theater in Harlem. It was an experience that was nostalgic for Washington. “It was great for me because I grew up in New York, he says. “My mother was raised in Harlem, she took me to the Apollo as a kid …so it was just full circle. I said wow, now I’m the headliner. Now it’s your name up on the marquee.”