MAN ON FIRE - DVD Q&A with Denzel Washington
Ever since Denzel Washington won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of a corrupt LA cop in Antoine Fuqua's TRAINING DAY, he's revelled in playing the bad guy. While in Jonathan Demme's remake of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, he plays a brainwashed Gulf War veteran, in Tony Scott's MAN ON FIRE he plays Creasy, a bodyguard who sets out to avenge himself upon the Mexican kidnappers who snatch the schoolgirl (Dakota Fanning) he has been hired to protect. Continuing this, he will next reunite with Fuqua as a heroin dealer in TRU BLUE. It's a new phase for the 49 year-old actor who began his career as a caring medic in TV series ST. ELSEWHERE. After moving into film, the former journalism graduate spent the early part of his career playing forthright, articulate martyrs - from Steve Biko (CRY FREEDOM) to the slave Tripp (GLORY), which won him his first Oscar, for Best Supporting Actor. In comparison to his volatile screen life, Washington lives quietly in LA with his wife of twenty-two years, Pauletta, and their four children.
Were there any scenes in MAN ON FIRE that didn't make the final cut that you would include on the DVD?
They shot another ending of MAN ON FIRE. We shot an ending where I went to the bad guy's house. They took me to the house, and he talks about how great he is. He has a gold gun that I guess he was going to shoot me with. He's talking, asking me if I want a cigarette. Then I pull up my sleeve and you see I have two watches on, like in the scene with the guy tied to the car. Then as he's talking, I go 'click' and he says 'What's that?' and we cut outside - and boom! That'll be on the DVD. My 19 year-old son saw it with his college friends, and they were like 'Arrgh, that should've been the ending!'
The film has a lot of violence in it. How do you respond to possible copycats?
There's always been violence in certain movies. That's nothing new. The first movie ever made, BIRTH OF A NATION, was very violent. Superman on television used to jump out of the window...and maybe one person died. I watched THE THREE STOOGES, when they poked people in the eye, and James Cagney...it's always been like that. This is a movie! The guy gets shot over and over and he doesn't die. He always seems to get hit in the shoulder! It's a movie. It's like I tell people. There's no score playing in life. You get shot in the head in life, then you fall down and die and that's it. But this is a movie, and it's manipulation, with music, sound and effects. When I chop the guy's fingers, it's rubber fingers! It's all manipulation.
Did the fact that your father was a Pentecostal Minister inspire you?
I would imagine, sure. But I am always manipulating the material and trying to find the spiritual message in that journey of almost every character I play. Probably less so in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, but definitely in MAN ON FIRE, and most of the films I do. Even in TRAINING DAY - the first thing I wrote on my script was 'the wages of sin are death'. The studio didn't want the character to die, and I said I wouldn't do it if that was the case. I wanted him to die in the worst way. That's why I fell on the ground and crawled because the image was to crawl like a snake.
How did you prepare yourself for the role?
I read a few scriptures in the Bible from the Book of Romans, which I shared with Tony Scott - that were actually given to me by a guy who I did my research for TRAINING DAY on. It talked about the men and women whose talent it is to protect the innocent and to destroy the evil. I looked at it from a spiritual standpoint. Creasy's searching for his soul - he has a Bible here and a drink over here. For whatever reason, he wanders to Mexico to meet his friend, little does he know he's going to meet this little angel. She teaches him to love again, to feel free to get close to people - because he doesn't want to get close to people. I don't know if you've fought in a war, but soldiers will tell you that you don't get too close because you don't know when that person is going to die. You don't want to get too emotionally attached to anyone. This girl teaches him that it's OK to do and to be again - then she's taken from him. And it is a false pretence. He thinks she's dead. Now he goes back to doing what he knows how to do well. It was very important to me to make sure that innocent people weren't killed, like the scene in the club. I said 'Tony, we have to show the club empty. Just because I'm going to get two guys that are awful, doesn't mean I should kill everybody in the room.'
In both MAN ON FIRE and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, you play a former military man - as you have done in many films before. Any connection?
If he was a beautician in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE...the fact that he was in the service is not what attracted me to the part. The fact that in MAN ON FIRE, he was in the army was not attractive to me. It just happened to be the case with both films. The fact that in both movies they were soldiers had nothing to do with my decision to make both films. That was just a coincidence. In MAN ON FIRE, he could've been a hit man or a bounty hunter. That was the least of it for me. I did no military training or no studying about the military. The only thing I cared about his past was that it had destroyed him emotionally and psychologically.
Did you see the original version of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE?
Never saw it. Still haven't. Initially, I just never saw it, then when the screenplay came to me, my agent said 'Oh, this was a film that was made in '62.' I didn't really know that much about it. I was eight years old then. I was more interested in football and girls...so when I read the screenplay, I went 'Wow, this is a good story.' Once I decided I did want to make the film, I wanted to feel free to interpret the role any way I wanted to interpret it. I didn't want to see the other film, and say 'Well, Frank Sinatra did that so I can't...' I've never done a film where I had seen the other person's performance first, and I didn't want to start here.
Critics have also said it presents a negative view of Mexico. What do you think of that?
They're right, it does. But you also know there's a very serious issue in Mexico. The thing I found interesting and sad, when I went to Mexico City, was the division between the super-rich and the super-poor. We went to this restaurant, where you can't get out for under $500. You cannot - try it! But you come out the door, and there are sixty bodyguards, armoured cars...the rich are living in luxury. But the best people, the nicest people were in poorer areas. There's this huge division...I can imagine they're upset, that this American comes in and saves the day by killing everyone. I'll say this, 'I fell in love with the regular people.' Maybe I just side with those people. I can understand them being upset. The best restaurants are in these compounds...you just can't walk and get in. It's like a fort and it's sad, very sad that so few have so much. That's the case in many countries. It goes back to the brainwashing in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. We're led to believe, in California particularly, that every Mexican is trying to get over that wall! That's what they tell you - you'd think there was no one left in Mexico.
What did you do when MAN ON FIRE came out?
I went on vacation when the movie came out. I was in Italy. I don't read reviews and I didn't hear what the TV was saying. I don't need to know. I already knew people had a good feeling about the film. Basically, I don't need to sit around and read reviews. I don't do that. I do the work, put it out there... It's like I make glasses [picks up an empty wine glass on table]. If I make the glass, I make the glass, set it down and then walk away. You may like it, or not.
When you won your Oscar for TRAINING DAY, the same year Halle Berry won hers for MONSTER'S BALL, you were a lot calmer than her. Why?
What would be interesting would be to go back and see how I reacted the first time, because it was the first time for Halle. The first time I got nominated for CRY FREEDOM I got sick. I was a wreck. The first time was pressure, then finally I was able to release it. When I won for TRAINING DAY, I had been nominated for CRY FREEDOM, won for GLORY, then MALCOLM X, THE HURRICANE and TRAINING DAY. I had sat there for MALCOLM X, and they said 'Al Pacino' and I thought he should win. Then I went back and they said 'Kevin Spacey'. OK. Good for him. Now I'm coming back, and like they say, you have to prepare for war in times of peace. So I'm already coming in, going 'They're probably not going to say my name again, so I have to prepare for that'. When Halle won, I thought 'Now I know I'm not going to win. They're not going to give it to both of us in one night!' And then they called my name, so it was like 'OK...'
So how did you feel being the first African-Americana actor to win Best Actor since Sidney Poitier?
Here's the other thing I feel. It's like writing a story. Is a 3000-word article better than a 1500 word article?' Is the reward for a 3000-word article more important than a 1500 word article? With the Oscars, they give out four and they're equal. Supporting and Best Actor doesn't mean any difference to me - all it means is you have a bigger role. When Anthony Hopkins won...does somebody count the number of words spoken? When I did PHILADELPHIA, my agent called me and said 'the studio wants to position you for Supporting and Tom Hanks for Best Actor. How do you feel?' He said, 'Your role is as big as his. They should put you in that category.' It's a decision that's made. So the whole thing about being the first to win Best Actor since Sidney Poitier didn't mean anything to me.
What do you like about being a celebrity?
You know what is very nice - when you come and see the people outside, or when you walk down the carpet, and you meet some little old lady who is getting crushed and she says 'I just wanted to meet you!' You go 'Wow! I'm so blessed!' I understand how actors can get big heads and think 'I'm so wonderful.' The little girl, Dakota [Fanning] said on the set one day 'I love my job so much. I'm so lucky to have a great job like this.' She said this! I'm convinced she's 45. But she's a little person. But that made me sit back and appreciate. I appreciate the position I'm in. I don't take it for granted. I like it and I'm reminded of it when I see the real people - just the little folks that'll stand out there all day for Tom Cruise to come out. I tried to tell them I was Tom Cruise to get more applause!
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