Denzel Washington interview: Unstoppable, Barack Obama, badgers and more
As his latest movie, Unstoppable, arrives in cinemas, we spoke to Denzel Washington about trains, politics, and attention-seeking mammals…
It’s a rainy autumn afternoon, and Den Of Geek, along with a handful of other writers, is gathered in a London hotel to meet Denzel Washington. It's cold and damp outside, but atmosphere in the room is one of excitement and expectation – for most of us, this is easily the biggest-name actor we’ve had the opportunity to meet.
As Denzel bounded energetically into the room, dressed casually in a blue Kashmir sweater, he came across as relaxed and immediately likeable, and seemed as keen to chat about politics and 3D movies as Unstoppable, his latest film…
You’ve worked with Tony Scott quite a few times now. What is it you like about working with him, and can we look forward to seeing more collaborations between you in the future?
He hasn’t called me for Top Gun 2! But in the past 18 years we’ve done five movies, and he calls me. That’s the first thing. He calls and says, “Hey, do you want to do this?” But he also makes excellent films, and it’s a good mix for me - he makes character-based thrillers or character-based action films. We’ve had a lot of success together, and he’s a nice guy, I like him. We get along.
But I don’t know when we’ll work together again. Like I said, he didn’t call me for Top Gun 2 [Laughs].
On the subject of character based action films, that’s been your speciality for quite some time now - the thinking man’s action hero. And in Unstoppable, you’re not the only lead - you’ve got Chris Pine in there.
And Rosario Dawson. And the train.
Well, exactly. But how was that, being in a double hander action film, as opposed to you in the lead by yourself?
I’ve done a lot of two handers. A lot with Tony. Crimson Tide, with Gene Hackman. Pelham with John Travolta. Man On Fire, which was kind of a two hander. A one-and-a-half hander, with Christopher Walken. What was the question? [Laughs]
Chris Pine’s obviously a younger generation in Hollywood. Was it almost like giving the action mantle to a younger actor?
Titles don’t mean anything. That’s what someone says later on. Chris was just the best actor for the job. Tony gave me a list of about ten young actors, and he was the one who stood out.
So you were quite heavily involved in the casting process?
Well I had casting approval, yes.
Did you get involved with casting Rosario Dawson? I thought she was excellent.
I didn’t have to. Tony said, “What do you think of Rosario?” and I said, “Great.” That was the extent of it. But she was great. And in the real events, it really was a woman who was the boss.
Did you see any of the news footage of the real incident?
Oh yeah. Tony got hold of all the footage. These guys really unhitched their train, went backwards and caught it. I don’t think they ran on the top of it, though. But it’s a movie. I’m sure there was no 70 piece orchestra playing up there either. [Laughs]
Maybe they were in the truck...
Yeah! I liked that character too, the guy in the truck.
Ned! I loved Ned, man. He’s the hero! And he’s willing to let you know about it at the end too.
So was that really you running on top of the train?
A lot of it was, yeah. A stunt man did an overwhelming majority, but I had to do it. I ran on a train going 50 miles an hour. Like a fool. [Laughs]
Wasn’t that really scary?
Yes it was. But I got used to it. One of the most frightening moments was when we were about to go over that big turn, on the top of the train there, and the train’s up in the air a hundred feet. But I didn’t have to run on that part of the movie. I wouldn’t if you paid me. I wouldn’t be running up there. It was bad enough being on the ground. No sir.
Hollywood’s a pretty ruthless industry when it comes to age. Have you found ageism affecting you?
I think as long as you’re making the studios money, they don’t care if you’re in a wheelchair with two canes and no feet [Laughter]. I think that’s the bottom line. I don’t think it has anything to do with age. I think it has to do with making money.
And for women?
For women it does. I think it’s definitely a double standard. The guy gets older but the girl stays 20, you know? When you hit that magic four number they give you the elbow.
Of course, Meryl Streep’s the exception to the rule, but for every Meryl Streep, there’s a whole lot of others that aren’t getting work.
Going back to casting, presumably you had some involvement with other aspects of the movie. The script, things like that. How has your working relationship with Tony Scott changed over the course of the 18 years that you’ve worked with him?
I’m sure I’ve got more to say now, because I know more. I was just glad to be there when I started. But he wants my input. One of the good things about working with him is that I trust him. I know he’s going to shoot the heck out of it, and I don’t even have to think about that. My whole thing is script development, and personally, character development.
This is the second film you’ve made that has some relation to trains. Are you quite an expert on trains now? Can you actually drive one?
In the first film [The Taking Of Pelham 123] it was more about hostages. It could as easily been about a plane, it didn’t matter. In this one, it’s all about the train. And I did learn to drive a train, yes. I can drive that particular locomotive.
There were a lot of scenes with just you and Chris Pine in a cabin. Was that shot in a train, or was it a set?
We didn’t shoot anything on a set. We - or at least, I - didn’t shoot anything with a green screen or anything like that, or use CGI. What he did was he built a platform around the front of this car, and cut the back of the car off, and put a circle track that ran around half of the car.
So you see those scenes where we’re talking, and we’re heading down the track at 50 miles an hour, this big contraption’s going around the circle like this [traces a circle on the table]. So it was a real challenge for Tony.
There were two sections we were shooting where there was a road alongside, and they were in a pickup truck with five cameras, and there were helicopters. It was crazy. The helicopters were kind of frightening, because they were getting real close, they were right on top of us.
On the subject of effects, what do you think of the current trend for 3D in movies? Does that interest you, at all?
I think the industry jumps on anything that’s popular and bleed it until it’s useless, and people get sick of it, and then they’ll move on to something else.
Did you like Avatar?
I didn’t see Avatar.
You’re the one person who didn’t see it!
Yeah. [Cameron] doesn’t need my money! Believe me! I think he’s alright, though.
So what movies have you enjoyed this year?
I’m not really a movie buff. What did I see this year? The Hurt Locker I really liked. An Education. I saw the last one with Claire Mulligan, Never Let Me Go. The Other Guys.
Are there any roles that you’ve turned down, which you’ve later regretted?
Seven, and Michael Clayton.
Who were you going to play in Seven?
The kid [Detective Mills, Brad Pitt’s character]. I was younger then!
Which life stories would you be interested in making? You’re well known for tackling famous historical figures.
None. There’s no checklist. They just happen. If Dickie Attenborough asks if I want to play Steven Biko, I say yes. Spike Lee asks if I want to be Malcolm X, I say yes. So there’s no plan.
Is there a checklist of directors you’d like to work with, but haven’t done so as yet?
No. There are obvious ones - Scorsese, or Tarantino [adopts sad voice], but they haven’t called.
Scorsese’s working on a 3D movie at the moment, down at Pinewood.
Really? Maybe I should just drop in. “Oh hi, how ya doin? Anythin’ for me in there?” [Laughs] But what do you guys think of 3D? Has it run its course? Are you sick of it?
[Everyone murmurs to the effect that, all in all, we’re rather bored by it.]
Sometimes they do it on the cheap, right?
Like The Last Airbender. That was one of the worst examples, in my humble opinion.
And they did that at the last minute? What happens when it’s made like that?
It looks like the weather out there [I point to a particularly, dank, murky London evening outside]. It makes the picture look all dingy and dark. It looks awful.
Because they do it after the fact?
Yeah. Clash Of The Titans was pretty bad as well.
So the best was Avatar? What about Jack-Ass? [Laughs]
In terms of your role in Unstoppable, what did you do to research it?
Hit the train. Met the guys, learned to drive a train, drove a train by myself. I met the guy I play. He was the one who talked about his daughters working in Hooters, and we put that right in the movie. He told me some guy said, “When you going to let me take your daughter out?”, and he replied, “When you going to let me take your mother out?”
He was an edgy guy. Jesse was his actual name, not Frank Barnes.
Somebody said in the press pack that they saw the train as the enemy of this film, as the villain. Would you put it in those terms?
Yeah, I think so. He definitely shot it like that. Low angled shots, to make it look more imposing. It’s the beast. We call it the beast. It’s like a monster. He tweaked the music and the sound, too.
There’s a moment where the train’s coming towards the camera - it’s the bit where two people are trying to drag a horse out of a horse box.
He cut that part together really well.
...and a badger runs across the track, right in front of the speeding train.
Did you see that? Down the track!
Was that a stunt badger? [I’m relieved to say that Mr. Washington laughed quite a bit at this question.]
I’m not at liberty to say! I know Fox is going back and forth with the badger union. He didn’t get stunt pay. He just came up, and said, “What’s going on?” He just wanted to be in the movie.
Yeah. That was a trip. It had to be real. It couldn’t have been a CGI badger. He made it though, like he thought, “Oh, I’ve done this before.”
So the political aspect of the film, the union stuff, did that come about because of the real-life story or was that brought in later?
Good question. I don’t remember. I know that, as we got down there, the places where we shot - Virginia, western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio - they were really depressed areas. We had a casting call, an extras call for fifty men, and 2,000 showed up. People really needed to work. One town we went to had 70 per cent unemployment.
So the reality of that really hits you when you get down there. I’d never been down to that part of the United States, with all the steel mills up and down the Ohio river standing empty, and owned by Russians.
It’s a really depressed area. We spoke to people in a town in Ohio, and they were saying how the graduating class at the high school is getting smaller and smaller, because when people graduate, they leave. So their kids aren’t growing up in those areas because there’s no work. They said it’s become a place you want to be from, not where you want to live.
We’ve been fascinated by the mid-term elections over here, and what’s happened with the Obama presidency. What’s your take on that? Do you think he can recover?
It’s actually happened to every president in the past 20 years. It certainly happened to the first Bush, and it definitely happened to Clinton. It’s democracy. It’s the one way that people can express their opinions.
I don’t think it’s just directed at Obama, I think people are frustrated. You’ve got to blame somebody, and he’s the boss - he’s got the big target on his head. I think there’s a desire for checks and balances, so now there’s a Republican party in Congress, and a Democratic party in the Senate, and a Democratic president, I think it now forces them all to work together.
I think the message is, “You all need to get your act together.” Clinton found his way more to the middle, and a lot of people forget about that. We’ll have to see what happens.
Mr. Washington, thank you very much.
Unstoppable arrives in the UK today.
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