Denzel Washington Interview For Daniel Espinosa’s ‘Safe House’
Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds co-star in the action-thriller ‘Safe House.’ Washington plays the CIA’s most dangerous traitor, who stuns the intelligence community when he surfaces in South Africa. When the safe house to which he’s remanded is attacked by brutal mercenaries, a rookie (Reynolds) is forced to help him escape. As the masterful manipulator toys with his reluctant protégé, the young operative finds his morality tested and idealism shaken. Now, they must stay alive long enough to uncover who wants them dead. Directed by Daniel Espinosa, ’Safe House’ co-stars Nora Arnezeder, Vera Farmiga, Ruben Blades, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Cunningham, Tim McGraw, Robert Patrick, and Sam Shepard.
You’re an actor and a producer on ‘Safe House,’ what made you want to become so involved?
Denzel Washington: I can’t do it any other way. When I saw Daniel Espinosa’s ‘Snabba Cash,’ I was fascinated by this young filmmaker. And then when I met Daniel we talked about his life, where he grew up, what his father did. I was in, as far as Daniel was concerned. I wasn’t in as far as the script was concerned, to be honest I didn’t think it was good enough. I’d been in the habit of helping develop material for a long time. I’ve been doing it for 20 years or more now, so my agent said, “Hey, you’re doing all this work, you should get credit for it, so we’re going to get you a producer credit.” I don’t think I got any money for it, maybe I got a couple of extra dollars (laughs). But I enjoy helping to develop material, it’s a way for me to get into the part. I’m a logic monster, if things don’t make sense, I’ve got to make sense out of them, like, “Why is he doing that? It doesn’t make sense.” We’d sit in a room day after day and we’d work with two or three different writers for five months.
At the beginning of ‘Safe House,’ Ryan Reynolds’ character is very much an ideologue. However some of that slowly peals away as the movie moves along. Your character, Tobin Frost, his outlook is completely different…..
Denzel Washington: Yeah. I really enjoy how as the movie moves along, we peel away the layers of who these people are, the mind-games that are going on. I liken it to ‘Silence of the Lambs’ where this guy, this young kid, he’s trying to get in my head, and I’m all getting in his head – to the point where he doesn’t know what he’s thinking about.
Tobin Frost, he’s on his own, he’s a murderer, he’s a liar, he’s a sociopath, he’s willing to do whatever it takes to win. All he’s interested in is winning. I think that he’s been so isolated for so long, he doesn’t know how to feel, he doesn’t have feelings, he just knows how to use. He has no family, no relationships, he just uses people…..and drinks good wine (laughs). Making the money is not an important thing for him, I think winning is the important thing. The chance to manipulate this kid is winning, the chance to shove it up the CIA’s behind is winning for him. And he has no remorse about it.
I read that rather than study CIA operatives to prepare for the film, you studied sociopaths. What did you learn from your research that helped you portray this character?
Denzel Washington: There’s a book called ‘The Sociopath Next Door,’ that sort of became my bible for the character. I thought most sociopaths were violent when in fact they aren’t. They say 1 in 25 people are sociopaths, and only 2 or 3 in 25 are violent. But almost all sociopaths want to win no matter what. Some sociopaths use pity, “Oh, woe is me. I just can’t do it like you.” And then you go, “Oh, no no. You’re all right,” and I already got you. Now I got you in a weak position and feeling sorry for me. I read about one sociopath who was actually a psychologist and she was so sick, there’s 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 every day. She was working with this other psychiatrist’s patient and all the work that this woman had done, she destroyed. She brought the person in the room and just destroyed them. 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. He wanted to see how everybody was trying to figure out what it was. I guess it’s a feeling of power. In my journal as I was writing, going through the script, as we were shooting, I had to find a way to win every situation no matter what. There’s a scene we were talking about earlier at the football game, the soccer stadium, he’s willing to even act like a scared little girl to get away. A sociopath will do anything to win. Anything.
The physical scenes in ‘Safe House’ are brutal, there’s something extremely primal about them. How was that for you preparing? With your character as well, he has a sort of inner calm to him when so much chaos is going on around him.
Denzel Washington: We had tremendous fighters, Oliver Schneider and his whole crew of guys, they’re really brilliant, dangerous guys. The way they trained us, it was dirty fighting, in close, use whatever you needed….I don’t even call it fighting, I call it winning – they know how to win. I remember we went out to some big club, and there was these big American Football looking dudes, they were roughing around and getting drunk. I was with the guys and I just watched how they moved around the room. They separated themselves and just spread out, they took over the four corners of the area (laughs). I just thought, “These big guys have no idea of what they might get into.” But I think they could sense, because there’s a peace about them because they know what they’re capable of. I think that was a lesson for me, to see calmness in them, how to lower your blood pressure and wait.
These guys, they were the most unassuming guys and we really had the luxury of time, a good 2 or 3 months while we were over there. In fact, there’s a fight I have where I crash through the roof or something and start fighting this guy, and even the fights Ryan and I do at the end, we had 2 or 3 or 4 months before we even got to do those fights.
Do you have more fun playing a quote-unquote “bad guy“?
Denzel Washington: The next picture I made, it’ll come out the end of the year or the beginning of next year, it’s called ‘Flight,’ 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’ve done probably in 20 years. I guess it’s cliché to say that the bad guy has more fun because you can say anything, you can get away with anything. Sometimes when you’re the good guy, you’re sort of trapped or he can’t say that. And even when you’re playing a real person, like Steven Biko or someone, you’re sort of stuck within those confines. So, yeah, bad guys do have more fun (Laughs)!
How do you feel your career choices differ now compared to when you were younger?
Denzel Washington: I went through a phase where I was sick of acting, I was tired of it, I didn’t really want to do it any more. I was bored with it. Then I tried directing a movie, and I was like, “Shoot, I’ll get back over here.” (Laughs) It made me appreciate acting more. When I turned 50 I looked in the mirror and I realised, “Hey, this ain’t the dress rehearsal; this is life.” I don’t know how much more that I’m going to have, and even if I have 50 more years, I probably won’t remember the last 20 or 30 of them anyway. In the last 3 or 4 years, especially after doing this play on Broadway, ‘Fences,’ with the great Viola Davis, it reminded me of how I started, which was in the theatre, and how I worked in the theatre and how thorough you needed to be in the theatre. I recommitted myself being thorough as an actor. I want to do good work. I want to do good work with people I want to work with. I liked Daniel and I liked the way his film was. So when you get the chance to work with people you like and people who are talented, that’s rare. I don’t know how many more movies I’m going to get the opportunity to make, and I don’t want to look back and go, “Man, I just kind of floated through that one,“ or, “I just did that one for the money.” I want to be able to say that I’ve worked as hard as I could and I did the best work that I could do.
How do you maintain the balance between family life and career?
Denzel Washington: My work is just work. I take my work seriously but I don’t take myself too seriously. I read a book years ago called ‘Cagney by Cagney’ by James Cagney, and he talked about going to the studio, working his twelve-hour day, taking off his costumes and getting in the car and going home. Most of my work is done before we start shooting, preparation work, so my normal day, and I write a lot, I write journals, so my day starts when I get to work, I start writing, even on the way. I even start writing sometimes the night before, again going back to ‘The Sociopath Next Door,’ “How am I going to win today? Am I going to use charm, am I going to use fear, am I going to use intimidation, am I going to use wit?” Then we do the scene and we play the scene, and I take the clothes off and I get in the car and I go home. I have a meal. I relax, watch a little television or something, and then I might work for an hour and a half on tomorrow’s work, and then I go to bed. Me and my wife, we’re going out to dinner tonight. I don’t call it dating, 31 years it’s not a date….it’s an opportunity (laughs)!
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