Denzel Washington doesn’t do franchise movies. He picks certain directors and certain projects based on his interests, but you’ve never seen him in a superhero blockbuster and you’ve never seen him do sequels or prequels. With Sony’s The Equalizer, that may finally change, and with good reason.
The “hard R” character-driven action movie was pitched to Washington as a potential franchise by producer Todd Black and he loved the script, even helped bring in director Antoin Fuqua who worked with Washington on Training Day to helm it and his vision for the project matched what the producers and studio wanted to deliver with The Equalizer.
We learned months ago that Sony was indeed already beginning to plan a sequel based on positive feedback from early test screenings and from what we learned while visiting the set of The Equalizer last August, we’re not surprised. The adaptation of the ’80s TV show of the same name takes the logo, concept and the name/skills of the protagonist Robert McCall but little else from the original series, but it makes its main character more mysterious and more layered. We spoke with Denzel Washington about the film after watching him work on set in the outskits of Boston and you can read how it went below.
I think one of the really interesting things about your character in this is that you’re dealing with OCD, which is not typical for someone showing physical prowess in movies. Can you talk about that dynamic?
Denzel Washington: We added it so he’s just not the action guy. He’s troubled, flawed and we don’t finish the story- it’s not like suddenly at the end he’s fine [laughs]. It’s been an interesting development as we’ve gone along. We started talking about it and adding things, opening doors five times. We obviously did a lot of research about it. I was surprised to find- it’s just obsessive behavior, it could be anything. In fact I read a book “I Never Wash my Hands”, so it’s not necessarily about someone who always washes their hands fifty times.
Is there something about that obsessive behavior that’s related specifically to the characters propensity for violence? We saw the clip where you go into confront the Russian guys in the office.
Denzel Washington: They cut that together already?
We didn’t see you fighting, but we saw the conversation and how you kind of go to the door and look at it a couple of times and open and close it.
Denzel Washington: They do it five times [laughs] yeah, okay.
Is that a prep thing for him?
Denzel Washington: Not every time, not every time just whenever I feel like it [laughs], because the movie would be twice as long if I did it every time. But that was one of the times. You never know when it’s going to rear it’s ugly head.
Are you always the man in black?
Denzel Washington: No, just this part of the movie.
We know the character’s past is very mysterious from what we’ve been told, but can you tell us anything about Robert McCall’s motivations?
Denzel Washington: No. [Laughs] I’m not going to change that now.
Like why he got into helping-
Denzel Washington: Well, I think he’s looking to put his past behind him and circumstances brought him here, working at Walmart. He’s trying real hard. I actually say- there’s a line I say, “I’ve done a lot of bad things in the past, things I’m not proud of.” I actually promised- in my back story, I promised my wife that I wouldn’t go back to being that person, but you wouldn’t have a movie then [laughs], so he’s drawn back in.
Is that why the character doesn’t use a gun?
Denzel Washington: What do you mean?
We were told the character, at least for part of the movie, doesn’t carry –
Denzel Washington: Well he doesn’t carry one, other people have one. He takes a lot, takes guns from people.
So he does use a gun in the film?
Denzel Washington: He doesn’t carry one, I don’t think we see – yeah, he disarms people though.
They showed us to scenes today, one was your second conversation with Chloe’s character.
Denzel Washington: Which one was that?
Where you’re at the diner.
Denzel Washington: Where we’re walking across the bridge or something?
Where you discuss her wife and a little bit about her background.
Denzel Washington: Oh okay, see you guys are ahead of me. I don’t know what’s still in and what’s not in.
I guess that the characteristic of the two sequences that they showed us earlier today is that they’re quiet and dialogue heavy, which is not necessarily what I expected to see in this movie. Can you talk about the balance?
Denzel Washington: We’ll see. [Laughs] I don’t know yet, it hasn’t been cut together yet. But they do have the story to tell and I think my character and Chloe’s sort of connect and then she’s literally snatched away. So he doesn’t come out of the gate just fighting. He’s trying to lead a normal life, but it’s not normal. He’s not able to sleep. Actually in the film, or in the script anyway, after he dealt with Slavi’s men is the first time we see him actually get a good nights rest. So he’s got issues. He’s a night person and obviously because of her work Chloe’s character is a night person.
Todd [Black, producer] told us that the script had been groomed for you.
Denzel Washington: What does that mean?
That’s what I was going to ask you?
Denzel Washington: I don’t know what that means. I’m sad to hear that. And what does that mean? I’m playing the man who kills [laughs]. What does that mean?
[Laughs] Beyond that, after the script was written you guys went through a couple of directors before you decided on Antoine [Fuqua]. What was that process like for you?
Denzel Washington: You know, that’s just a part of the process. Each time it’s different. Sometimes it’s filmmaker first, sometimes – you never know, sometimes a filmmaker’s attached. In this case he wasn’t, or she wasn’t, so we had to find one.
The characters that you choose often have redeeming qualities to them. Is that how you pick your movies?
Denzel Washington: Well the last one I did with Antoine he didn’t have too much [laughs].
[Laughs] Well, it was a fun movie nonetheless.
Denzel Washington: Oh, forget about the people he killed. It was fun. He killed them in fun [laughs].
It was great to see you play terrible.
Denzel Washington: Thank you, I think.
What does the script need to have when you pick movies?
Denzel Washington: I don’t know. It just needs to be something I’m interested in, something I haven’t done before, but no it doesn’t have to have – if the character doesn’t have any redeeming qualities then I guess then he’s got to die [laughs], but that’s not what I look for.
Pairing with Antoine again, hearing you guys talk it sounds like you have a great shorthand. How does that help you as an actor having that familiarity?
Denzel Washington: I think it’s good. That was one of the reasons I was excited about him coming on board, we had obviously good success together before [on Training Day] so it makes it easier, yeah. We know each other. I guess it is sort of a shorthand.
What characteristics make him a good director?
Denzel Washington: I haven’t thought about it like that. What are his characteristics? I mean, he’s a good filmmaker, a good friend, a good storyteller, and we get along well.
The Equalizer seems to have sequel potential, which is not something that I would typically associate with you. Is that something you’re interested in?
Denzel Washington: No. No, everybody else is, but I’m not. I’m like, let’s make one- you don’t have a sequel without a good film, so there’s no point in thinking about sequels. I’m just trying to be a part of making the best film that I can.
So you weren’t looking for a potential franchise?
Denzel Washington: No, never have. I don’t know what that is. Obviously I guess when you have a name, Spider-Man or something, some name brand thing there is that potential. I mean you don’t look at Training Day and go I’m going to do Training Day 2. I don’t look at it that way, I never have.
Are you aware that you’ve actually been put as #2 for the highest grossing stars who have not done a franchise?
Denzel Washington: That and a dollar-fifty will get me on the subway, right? Or is it two-fifty now? I’m #2 for the what, now?
Stars who have not done franchise films or sequels.
Denzel Washington: They’ve got more categories… stars who have not done franchises. Is that a complement [laughs]?
The article took it that way, yeah.
Denzel Washington: Okay, good for me.
You were right behind Leonardo DiCaprio, though technically he should be disqualified because he’s in Critters 3.
Denzel Washington: I’ll tell him you said so.
You’re a great actor –
Denzel Washington: Thank you.
And you obviously have done so many different roles portraying so many different characters. What is it now when you’re taking on a project- are there certain things that you will do, for example for this role, to help prepare for the role? And what is the most you’ve ever done to get ready for a role?
Denzel Washington: I don’t know the most. I don’t compare. I don’t know. What was the first part of the question?
How did you prepare for this role? Obviously there’s action in it.
Denzel Washington: A lot of reading up on OCD. I like to keep the mystery. I don’t like to talk too much about what I do, the movie hasn’t come out yet.
Does the OCD ever come into this as a problem or is it just an added character trait? Does it ever hold your character back?
Denzel Washington: It’d be interesting, I get shot because I’m closing the door fifty-seven times. “No wait, wait” [laughs].
Denzel Washington: [Laughs] Has it ever what, you said?
Does it ever pose a problem for your character or is it just another layer?
Denzel Washington: No, it’s just a layer. That is a good idea.
Todd [Black] was telling us that for some situations in his life that there actually was an ‘equalizer’. He was saying that he was having problems with his kids.
Denzel Washington: You mean like somebody to come in and kill someone [laughs]? With his kids? Wow [laughs].
Do you have any situations that you would like equalized?
Denzel Washington: I wouldn’t call this guy up, no. No.
Cell phone problems.
Denzel Washington: Yeah, right, call the equalizer.
You’re filming here in Boston, or right outside Boston-
Denzel Washington: You guys going to talk about my knee brace, [laughs] I’m sure somebody will.
Denzel Washington: Yeah, stylish. No, it’s because this concrete floor is rough on- I got a bad wheel. I’m sorry, you were saying what?
Filming here, was that something that attracted you? And what’s it been like filming in Boston for you?
Denzel Washington: Was it something that attracted me?
Well because you’ve obviously filmed all around the world.
Denzel Washington: Yeah, but it wasn’t my decision. You know, the filmmaker, producer, budget. I think they get tax breaks. I think it was actually written in New York, but I don’t think we could afford that or something, I don’t remember what the reason was.
Can you talk a little about filming here in the city?
Denzel Washington: I’m enjoying it. I haven’t been out around that much, but it’s been interesting. When you make a movie it’s always interesting, because you end up in places you never would as a normal visitor or tourist. You know, we’ve been all over East Boston and North, just all around. Neighborhoods you wouldn’t necessarily see just coming to visit Boston. The Commons or the basic things you see as a tourist or whatever. Large Latin community here. We filmed in an area where a lot of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans live, so I wasn’t aware of that until we got here.
Has anything held you back physically? They were saying you do a lot of your own stunts.
Denzel Washington: Father time [laughs]. No, I’m alright [knocks on wood].
If I had to guess I would think that you might have more pull than the average actor when it comes to choosing co-stars or having a hand in how a movie is cast. Is that the case?
Denzel Washington: Yeah – well, than the average actor, yeah I guess. I’m sure there are others that have… I have “contractual approvals” [laughs], but you know the most important one probably is -I don’t know what it is contractually, but the most important decision if I’m on the film with the director is the director. When you trust the director you want to trust his or her choices. I don’t want to say, ‘No, I don’t like this girl or that guy,” when the director really loves them. No, you want to go with what the director likes.
Can you tell us anything about your costars in the film?
Denzel Washington: What do you want to know? They’re actors [laughs].
Can you talk about working with Marton [Csokas] for example?
Denzel Washington: Oh, he’s cool. He’s intense and he boxes, we turned him onto a gym I was boxing in up here, training in. Did you guys talk to him?
Denzel Washington: Fine actor, an intense actor- well, he has a look. He’s not really that intense. He’s kind of a laid back guy, but he brings it. He looks the part, scary. I’m scared of him.
[Laughs] I was going to ask about Chloe. Todd mentioned that when she came in for the reading with you that it seemed to be pretty immediate that you guys could hit it off in a scene.
Denzel Washington: Yeah.
How has it been working with a young actress?
Denzel Washington: She’s a pro. It’s like working- well she’s older, but when I worked with Dakota Fanning, it’s just, they’re serious pros [laughs], doesn’t matter what age they are. And Chloe’s been in the business what?
Eight years, I think.
Denzel Washington: [Laughs] Eight years, yeah, so she knows what she’s doing, really professional. It’s all good.
I was wondering if you can tell working with younger actors before when they’ve got it.
Denzel Washington: Hopefully by the time they’re in a movie I’m in they’ve got it. [Laughs] You don’t want somebody that doesn’t have it. [Laughs] I mean, in these kind of roles, and she has a substantial role like Dakota had a substantial role in Man on Fire, you usually end up picking someone very special anyway. She outshines I don’t know how many other actors.
Talk about her character in this film and what she brings out in your character. We don’t know too much about her except that she’s a prostitute and she’s in trouble.
Denzel Washington: She’s really an innocent and she’s being abused and misled. He just helps her to believe in herself and her ability. She wants to sing, but she’s working the streets. She doesn’t really believe that she’s good enough, but she obviously, as someone mentioned, she touches him and helps him to open up, so they’re both damaged goods and they’re good for each other.
On the surface they seem like an unlikely pair, but to you what is the source of their bond?
Denzel Washington: Just what I just said. I think pain and their past. She’s lost her childhood and he’s lost his wife, so they just connect on that level.
How do you cross paths initially?
Denzel Washington: There’s a diner that, because my character can’t sleep at night, so at two or three in the morning he goes out during her…working hours [laughs]. He doesn’t go out because of her working hours, but she’s out and about while he’s out and about.
So much of a film is created in the editing room, I’m curious how much are you involved in the films you’ve made in scoping stuff out in the editing room and working with the director? Because when we were watching right now, for example, we see the wide shot where you do the action all together and then we see a whole bunch of close-ups, which of course can dictate so much of a performance. I’m just curious how involved you are in that stuff.
Denzel Washington: I always say the time to worry about flying is when you’re on the ground. If you don’t’ trust the captain, don’t go. So I trust Antoine and I’m not looking over his shoulder. He knows what he’s doing.
Not just with Antoine, I’m just curious in general with previous projects. Obviously a director, I’m sure, is curious about your take on the material and how it’s shaping up. Do you often go in the editing room and they’ll show you a rough cut and you can give comments? Or are you sort of like “I’ll see you when it’s really close to done”?
Denzel Washington: No, I’ll look at it somewhere around the first assemblage or somewhere in there, and it depends upon the director. Sometimes they don’t want to show it to you [laughs], it depends. I see it definitely before it’s tested or anything like that. Yeah, I’ll throw in my two cents. I don’t come in there- well, I’ll watch it a few times, it depends. It depends on the movie, but obviously I’m not telling you everything [laughs]. I’ll watch it a few times, because quite honestly you got to get used to looking at it. The first time you’re like, “Oh, I didn’t know I looked like that,” booger hanging out of my nose or whatever, so you got to get used to it. I think having been behind the camera now as a director has helped me to get used to watching it more, and critical of myself or whatever.
What’s the scene or stunt that we should most be looking forward to seeing?
Denzel Washington: I don’t know [laughs].
Is there someone you haven’t worked with yet that you want to?
Denzel Washington: A lot of people.
Who would that be on camera and off?
Denzel Washington: Well, any actor who’s last name starts with “O”- no, ends with “O”; De Niro, Pacino. There’s so many. I was watching Mean Streets the other night, you ever see that?
Denzel Washington: Oh man, it’s amazing. Harvey Keitel, all those guys, so yeah there’s a lot. You know it’s harder, I guess, than you think to hook up with some of the people you want to work with. They’re doing something, I’m doing something, the schedules have to always work together and it has to be the right material. So yeah, there’s a lot of great directors I haven’t worked with and great, great actors. Meryl Streep.
Do you have plans to direct again any time soon?
Denzel Washington: It keeps getting pushed back. My agents keep pushing it.
As he was pulled away for our interview with Antoine Fuqua, Washington told us to enjoy and not to steal anything. All smiles.
Other Interviews For ‘The Equalizer’
The Equalizer hits theaters September 26, 2014.
Follow Rob on Twitter @rob_keyes.