Denzel Washington has shown a flare for playing villains, such as Detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day, which he won a Best Actor Oscar, and as gangster Frank Lucas in American Gangster. Now the 57 year-old actor hopes to pull it off again as criminal Tobin Frost in the action thriller Safe House.
In the film, Frost who is the newest arrival in a safe house in Cape Town, South Africa, when he must flee with a U.S. intelligence agent, played by Ryan Reynolds, after it’s attaced by rebels. Being that the film revolves heavily around the CIA, it was asked of Washington if he had doubts about America’s security and what goes on in a post-9/11 age.
“Why?” Denzel replies, “What goes on in the government? Years ago, even prior to 9/11, I did a movie called The Siege and did a lot of research with the FBI and the CIA. And I was amazed at that time, we probably might know it now, how little information they shared with each other. So after that, I’m not surprised by anything.”
The actor was asked also how closely involved was the CIA with the development of Safe House.
“We had a CIA operative on set almost all the time,” Washington replies.
However, Washington says that he focused more on researching sociopaths for his role rather than the CIA.
“There’s a book called The Sociopath Next Door and I thought most sociopaths were violent,” he recalls, “In fact, they aren’t, but almost all sociopaths want to win no matter what. Some sociopaths want to use pity, ‘Oh, woe is me, I just can’t do it like you.’ And then it’s, ‘No, no, no, you’re alright,’ and I already got you. Now I got you in a weak position and feeling sorry for me. I read about one sociopath that was actually a psychologist and she was so sick. There was this other psychologist that she hated and she had a nicer car than the other woman, so she would purposely park her car next to the other woman’s car, just to make her feel bad everyday. That’s sick. She was working with the other psychologist’s patient and all the work this other person had done, she destroyed, and she brought this other person into the room and destroyed him. They just want to win.”
“There was one sociopath who would steal things in the post office and then, get there the next day because he just loved the chaos that it created,” Denzel adds, “He just wanted to see how everybody was trying to figure out who it was and he loved it, I guess it’s a feeling of power. I just took that, and in my journal that I was writing, as I was going through the script and as we were shooting, I had to find a way to win through every situation no matter what. There was a scene I was talking about earlier at the football game, the soccer stadium, he’s willing to act like a scared little girl to get away. And he turns around and kills a couple of people, without giving away too much. A sociopath will do anything to win.”
Denzel also talks about the training he endured to do the action stunts in the film.
“These French guys that you always want to be with you,” Washington says, “They are the most unassuming guys. And we really had the luxury of time, a good two or three months while we were over there. In fact, there was a fight I had where I crash through the roof or something and start fighting this guy.”
“And even the fights we do at the end, we had two to three to four months before we even got to do those fights and I did mine,” he continues, “You saw [Ryan Reynolds] crash through windows and he made those fights nasty.”
Washington also adds that the stunts were not without incident.
“Ryan gave me a black eye,” Denzel reveals, “There’s a scene where I reach over and try to choke him when I have the handcuffs on. And we were flying around when we were driving the car, and he wasn’t actually driving the car.”
“It was being controlled by someone else,” he adds, “So it just happens as I was reaching forward, he was driving back, and Pow! I tried to make him feel as bad as he possibly could. It was a real look. It was like, what the… It was strange. I never had a black eye in my life, but I can’t say that anymore.”
Scenes where he’s in the trunk of car, as well as being tortured by way of waterboarding, were another challenge for Denzel in Safe House.
“I’m not claustrophobic and, not to give it away, but the car wasn’t moving and I knew I had to get out, but no, it didn’t bother me,” he says, “The waterboarding was close to real and I really wanted to get into it to see what it felt like. It doesn’t feel good. You want to give up the answers.”
“It was trippy,” Washington says, “I wanted to see what it really feels like and I did. I got caught up. Because once you’re caught with an inbreath and the water keeps coming, you’re in trouble, then you try to hold your breath, but the water is coming and they’re filling up your mouth and you’ll give up the answers.”
Washington was asked to talk about how South Africa had changed in the post-apartheid era from when he shot the film Cry Freedom in 1986, which gave him his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for playing the role of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko.
“When we shot Cry Freedom, I wasn’t even allowed in South Africa,” he says, “They told me I could come, but I wasn’t going to leave. So I had heavy death threats at that time and we shot in Zimbabwe. In 1995, I had the privilege and the honor of getting to meet Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. I got to eat breakfast with Desmond Tutu and lunch with Nelson Mandela in the oodsame day and had the good fortune to get Mr. Mandela to actually come to my house in California. So there’s been tremendous amount of change. You have a whole other generation from when Nelson Mandela got out in 1990. So you got twenty year olds that heard about it. I saw this show on television and they were talking about South Africa now and you had kids with Valley accents because of the Internet and the information age that we’re in. They’re exposed to so much more. At the same time, I still saw a lot of the psychological damage. There, I met a very, very fair-skinned woman, who was very interestingly enough studying psychology. She lived in an area over by the coast and her mother was black and her father was Jewish. And her mother had to act like she was the maid, when in fact she was married. In order to live in their neighborhood, they kept this charade up twenty years that she was the maid. Now imagine the psychological damage it not only did to her, but to her daughter, seeing her mother having to act like a maid in order to get into the house. And when they got into the house, it was a ‘normal family’. So there will continue to be psychological scars for years to come.”
“But Cape Town is like Santa Monica on steroids,” Denzel adds, “It’s one of the most beautiful towns you’ve ever seen, but it’s still set up the old way. You go ten miles inland where the townships are and they’re still there and they are helping to build some of them up. It was also interesting talking to an elderly man who built a nice house for himself in the township. It’s like, ‘Well, why are you living out here in the township? You should move more toward the beach?’ He’s like, ‘No, I don’t trust those people. They might change their mind.’ But he was also more comfortable there. He used to being there. That’s where he grew up. I was surprised, in Langa, you’d think it’s all just slums. But they have three and four bedroom homes on an acre land. It was just that was the area that they were allowed to live, so they decided to stay there. Langa is so big. It’s not like you can call 911 and the police show, they police themselves. So we were driving from the set back to the base camp and the women were making all this noise and these men were walking around this one guy and he was just walking and the guy had this big stick and he was whipping him and he was just walking. So I asked my driver. I said, ‘What are they doing?’ He said, ‘They are putting him in his place.’ I said, ‘Whoa! What do they think he did?’ He says, ‘Well, something related to the women.’ And he says, ‘He may have messed with a young girl or something.’ And I was like, ‘Why doesn’t he run?’ He was like, ‘They’ll kill him.’ He says, ‘If he tries to run, they’ll stone him.’ So that still exists, but you can get DirectTV. That was the weirdest thing, seeing The Kardashians in Langa. They should bring some of them over.”
Denzel was asked whether he has more fun playing a villain than a good guy.
“The next picture I made that will come out at the end of the year or the beginning of next year is called Flight, Washington reveals, “And I play an alcoholic, drug-addicted pilot who crashes a plane, but saves a lot of lives. It was the most intense film I done in probably 20 years.”
“I guess it’s cliche to say the bad guy’s more fun, because you can get away with or say anything,” he continues, “And when you’re the good guy, you’re sort of trapped or they can’t say that. Or even if you are playing a real-life person like a Stephen B. Gold or something, you’re sort of stuck within those confines. Bad guys do have more fun.”