Denzel Washington is one of the finest Hollywood actors of this generation and is known for his intensity. He's shown it repeatedly as Steve Biko in Cry Freedom, as Private Trip in Glory, which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, the civil rights leader & title character in Malcolm X, as boxer Rubin "Hurricane"Â Carter in The Hurricane, as Detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day, which he won a Best Actor Oscar, and as gangster Frank Lucas in American Gangster.
Now Washington brings his now-legendary intensity to the world of science-fiction as heroic post-apocalypse renegade Eli in the film The Book Of Eli. The 55 year-old two-time Oscar-winning actor explained how his involvement in the film stretched to more than just acting, including co-producing it.
"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 be the one to help do it,"Â Denzel says, "So I felt that this particular story, I can't tell you why, I really don't remember, I can't say, oh, it's this one thing, but I just felt like I needed to be a little more hands-on with this one."Â
We asked Denzel whether he felt concerned at any potential controversy about the religious symbolism of the film concerning its plot, which involves around the protection of The Book Of Eli, the last-known Bible known to be in existence.
"And if they say that, so"Â¦"Â Washington laughs, "That's a word you use, so you run with that, I never use that word. But I think there's nothing wrong with the debate, conversation/argument, whatever. Imagine that? An idea, a thought, a point of view."Â
Washington says that in the process of polishing the script, he indirectly drew from his own personal experiences to shape it.
"We did a lot of work, a lot of sessions with Allen [Hughes] and myself and my son and the writer and I walked through a lot of it page by page,"Â he explains, "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 that works because as a director, I really want to flesh out and flesh out the characters and I play all the parts."Â
"One of the sessions, I came up with the idea of Gary's character saying, 'Pray for me,'"Â Denzel adds, "I mean that wasn't in the original script, but it just made sense to me and that this guy at that moment, it seems like he's got everything and he's the most evil or whatever you want to call him and he says, 'Pray for me,' does that make him more twisted? That just felt right, that, like, oh, yeah, between you and me, put it into words. I know that I'm no good, but"Â¦(laughs)."Â
One thing Washington said he did not want to do was take any cues from any similar kind of films.
“I usually take that approach, not to look at similar films, so whatever I come up with, at least in my mind, I came up with it on my own,"Â Denzel notes, "I don’t want to start looking at other films and go, ‘I can’t do that.’ I don’t want to be hemmed in by the possibility of doing exactly what somebody else did. Maybe I have, I don’t know. I didn’t look.”
One of the biggest coups Denzel said of working on the film was working with Gary Oldman, who plays the corrupt mayor Carnegie who wants to obtain the Bible for his own monetary purposes.
"I love working with Gary,"Â he says of him, "Gary is one of the best. We had a lot of fun. Sometimes, we would do the whole scenes as these very British"Â¦(speaks in English accent) 'Well, sir, I'll need that book from you now.' (Laughing). 'Are you going to shoot me to take it?' You know, all 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. Yeah, I was real excited about it."Â
Another co-star Washington says he enjoyed working with is Mila Kunis and he hopes that he sees on-screen chemistry between their two characters.
"She's a sweetheart,"Â Denzel says, "I hope we do. I think we do, but, obviously, we have the same fundamental task at hand to play the role."Â
We wondered what set Eli apart from other characters Washington has played previously.
"In an obvious way, most of the characters I play, there’s been some kind of evolution, spiritual evolution,"Â he believes, "You look at even Malcolm X, who went from hatred to a complete different doctrine or even 'Hurricane' Carter. Even something as dark as Training Day, the first thing I wrote on my script was, ‘The wages of sin is death.’ So, in the original version of Training Day, they had him dying in the smallest way, 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. So there was still, in my mind, a lesson to be learned there or an evolution."Â
"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,"Â Denzel adds, "So I guess there's a somewhat similar theme here that he has this mission and this mission has turned him into this violent killing machine. And there's no coincidence that just as he is 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’ve gone around and it would have 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.”
One particular thing Denzel says he did to prepare himself to play Eli was to do Japanese sword training in order to wield the weapon Eli uses in the film.
"Jeff Imada, who is a disciple of Danny Inosanto, who is a contemporary of Bruce Lee, trained me and I worked with Danny a bit,"Â Washington recalls, "Five or six months out, we started stretching and moving and doing stuff with our eyes closed and getting into the whole vibe. Stretching, you don't know about it, you're too young, but when you get older, stretching is good. I don't do it enough, but it helped a lot. Yes, it's good enough."Â
"There's a part of me that definitely wants to continue, but then there's the actor part that says, 'Okay, I've got to put that down, I'm not that guy now, I've got to play another guy,'"Â he adds, "I think I've been in a hotel almost 10 months this year, so I'm just glad to be in Los Angeles for a week."Â
Directing the film were The Hughes Brothers, composing of Allen and Albert, whose work includes the classic urban dramas Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, the documentary American Pimp, and From Hell. Washington gave us some insight to how the brothers worked together on the film.
"There was such a long process working on the material, I kind of got used to and you start to see how they operate,"Â he says, "Allen is more the casting people kind of guy. Albert was in New Mexico. He’s the guy with the nine room full of graphic designers, all that geek stuff."Â
"He likes all that,"Â Denzel continues, "He’s not the communicator. Obviously, they know each other pretty well. So, they didn’t seem to step on each other’s toes. So once you got the rhythm of it, once you knew who was responsible for what, it was not bad at all.”
The Book Of Eli was shot mostly in chronological order, which, contrary to popular theory, is rather unusual for a film production. We asked Denzel how important filming it in this way was for his performance.
"That's always nice,"Â he says, "That's not usually the case, so it's no more important for this one. I don't know who came up with that one, maybe the Hughes brothers did and they did, but I'm glad they were able to."Â
Denzel says the film is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's lone gunman-style western films.
"What was the one where he got whipped and he's a pale rider, High Plains Drifter?"Â Washington says, " I think the writer said that there's a western vibe to this. In fact, early on, there was like a saloon and we de-westernized it. But it was the basic loner-comes-to-town story, walks into the saloon, kicks some butt, takes some names."Â
To properly emulate the right vibe with Eli, Washington said he had some very specific requests in shaping the character's look
"We went through a million, gazillion different glasses and we went to these Harley stores and we were buying goggles and we came up with what we called 'The Sun Rules', because at first, he was like one of the only ones wearing glasses,"Â Denzel explains, "We 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 can take the smell off of him. Why is he walking all around him inside and outside?"Â
With the film set in a post-apocalyptic land of desolation, we wondered what filming on a set dressed in raggedy old clothes was like for Denzel and his co-stars.
"There was a lot of wind blowing out there,"Â Washington laughs, "It was a trippy thing that happened and it was 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 and the sand blew right over us and kept going right threw the tunnel and it was like death or something. And I stuck with it, and it just blew through and it stopped and we cut. And I said, 'I think we're on the right track here.'
Particularly on the right track for Washington, he says, was doing the fight scenes.
"I was just like, 'Make sure they know it's me, no stuntman,'"Â Denzel notes, "They said, 'I want do you as a silhouette.' 'Silhouette? You're not even going to show me after all that? As hard as I'm working. Get closer or something. Make sure they know it's me.' That's me."Â
"What I learned from these masters like Danny Inosanto, he lets that energy come towards him and he goes through it.,"Â he adds, "He's seventy some odd years old and so fluid, and a great fighter. I said I didn't want to be karate man, I didn't want to finish [in a stance]. I didn't want to do any of that, but just moving through people."Â
We ask Denzel what he hopes people will take away not only from The Book Of Eli, but his filmography as a whole in general.
"I always say it depends upon what they bring to it,"Â Washington replies, "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 it shouldn't be as narrow as just the way I think. I know what my character wants from scene to scene, but if I start thinking result terms, that 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."Â