Drama king

Actor Denzel Washington in Training Day (left, with co-star Ethan Hawke), Flight and Philadelphia.

Two-time Oscar-winner Denzel Washington has done seven action movies in the last 10 years alone, including Man On Fire (2004), The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009), Unstoppable (2010) and 2 Guns (2013).

His new movie The Equalizer, which opens in Singapore tomorrow, is also an actioner.

Yet Antoine Fuqua, who directed him in The Equalizer, says he "hasn't really gone down the action route".

"It is not really his thing. He is just a powerful dramatic actor who has become a movie star at the same time.

"Some people take the money and do all the big action movies, and then they think that later on, they'll do some real acting again. By that time, the audience is often a little worn out with them.

"But you see Denzel only once every year or two and then he'll go and do theatre. That's been key."

The Equalizer is their second collaboration, after Fuqua directed Washington to Best Actor Oscar success with 2001's Training Day.

It is drawn from a 1980s television show that featured Englishman Edward Woodward in the starring role, and with the intense violence contained therein, many would suggest it falls into the action genre.

But some would argue that Washington boasts an extensive filmography and that few of his movies could be described as out-and- out action pictures. Certainly, he would make that argument.

"What category a film goes into is for you to decide," says Washington, 59, in an interview with Life! in Paris. "I don't know what it means to call something an action movie; I don't think in terms of genre.

"I just develop the character. It's dramatic. I find out what my character does and why he does it."

His character in The Equalizer, Robert McCall, is a man with a shady past - he was a killer for the government but now lives a quiet life, working in a D-I-Y superstore.

His past troubles him, however, and he suffers from insomnia and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), spending his nights in a diner, reading novels and drinking black tea.

At the eatery, he befriends a young prostitute (played by Chloe Grace Moretz) and when her Russian pimps beat her up, McCall takes revenge. It is a film punctuated with acts of violence.

Sure sounds like an action movie.

But Washington - pardon the pun - sticks to his guns, saying: "I simply see my character as a man with a set of skills, a set of issues, something in his past that has affected him. I think he suffers from a post-traumatic stress disorder, which has turned into an obsessive-compulsive disorder. He is always checking his watch."

The OCD element is something that he expanded upon in the script as he sought more depth for McCall.

He explains: "My mother had a friend who was mentally ill and she used to try and make everything neat and in order. My mother said it was because her mind was not in order.

"I found that fascinating. I thought McCall needs things to be in order because he is trying to get his mind in order - he is in denial as to what his skill set is.

"He is trying to suppress that because of something in his past, with the wife he no longer has. None of it is talked about in the movie but the universal stems from the specific, so I try to be specific. Why does he do that? Where does that lead to? What does that mean?

"I don't think about genre or whether something is 'action'," he continues. "I don't know what that means."

Besides, the violence on screen, he says, is not glamorised. "He is not some super guy. He is like the rest of us. We all have a public persona. You get a glimpse into his private life and it is not so glamorous."

Of all the A-list actors who dominated the 1990s - including Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise - only Washington has arguably survived with his credibility entirely intact.

There are many reasons for his longevity, not least his ability to keep his personal life personal - he has commanded very few column inches in the gossip sheets.

Getting any kind of glimpse into his private life is difficult.

He is a master at keeping himself to himself.

He is a devout Christian, reading the Bible daily, and remains married to his wife of 30-plus years, Pauletta Pearson, whom he met in 1977 when making the television movie Wilma. He has courted no controversy.

When asked about mistakes he has made, he concedes that he regrets turning down the 1995 David Fincher movie Seven, which turned out to be a huge hit for actors Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey, but will not be drawn on anything else.

"In life, that was the only mistake," he says with a smile. "I am not going to tell you anymore."

Growing up, he held no acting ambitions. "My desire was not to make movies," he says. "I didn't think of Hollywood. I wasn't in a rush to get out there or anything like that."

As a teenager, he proved a keen sportsman and had hoped to become an American football player - an ambition eventually realised by his son John David, who went on to play in the NFL - and it was only when he began flunking out of college that he tried his hand at acting, changing his major to drama and landing the leading role in Eugene O'Neill's stage play The Emperor Jones.

"I started in the theatre," he explains. "I didn't grow up dreaming of being an actor, so when I got into acting, I got into it in the theatre. I loved it."

His screen career took off when he was cast as Dr Philip Chandler on the TV show St. Elsewhere (1982-1988) and he gradually developed a life in film, earning the first of his six Oscar nominations with 1987's Cry Freedom, which he followed with the excellent For Queen And Country and then the acclaimed period war drama Glory in 1989, which earned him his first Oscar, for Best Supporting Actor.

In the 1990s, he rose to the top of the pile with quality movies such as Malcolm X (1992), The Pelican Brief (1993), Philadelphia (1993), Crimson Tide (1995), Courage Under Fire (1996) and The Bone Collector (1999).

He remains active in theatre and earlier this year starred in A Raisin In The Sun, the second Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play. The Obamas went to watch him.

"I look to go back to the theatre every four or five years. I love it. While movies are a director's medium, theatre is an actor's medium," says Washington, who would have liked to have done more stage work but did not want to leave his four children when they were younger.

"Because my children weren't old enough, I couldn't commute," he says. "I couldn't do an eight-show week and commute from LA to New York, so I didn't do anything.

"But once they got to a certain age, nine years ago, I did Julius Caesar and then five years ago, I did Fences. And then I did A Raisin In The Sun, so I always look to go back."

That is not to say he does not enjoy making movies. After all, he earned his sixth Oscar nomination last year for the drama Flight, in which he played a brilliant pilot with substance abuse issues. Next year, he will shoot a remake of The Magnificent Seven with Fuqua.

So, there is no doubt, Washington says, being in the movies has afforded him any number of wonderful experiences. "I get to fly planes, I have driven trains, learnt boxing and martial arts."

He remains a keen boxer - a sport he first learnt when working on the excellent Hurricane in 1999 and which he compares with acting.

"I like boxing because it is like acting - you can't master it. One small angle change can change everything," he notes.

"I get bored lifting weights or just doing aerobics, but with boxing, I am around real guys and women. It's normal, regular people. And it is a great way to get in shape. I don't get hit in the head. We spar from the shoulders down."

Even as he is approaching his 60th birthday, the sparring does not get more difficult, he says.

"You actually learn more. You become more efficient. I don't care how old you are. Age only means something if you are not doing anything, if you are not active.

"You can be 20 and be overweight and be an old man. You can be 70 and mentally fit, spiritually and psychologically, and be a lethal weapon."

So maybe he will still be making action films when he is 70?

"You are going back to genre and I don't do that," he says, evading the issue with the smarts of a top boxer stepping away from a lethal left hook.

"I know that today is Sunday and I am in Paris at the Bristol Hotel. I don't know what I will be doing when I am 70."


This article was first published on Sep 24, 2014.
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