TORONTO - You hear Denzel Washington before you see him. His familiar voice booms, commanding but warm. He was on the promotional train here at the Toronto International Film Festival, dutifully pushing his new movie, Training Day, a cop drama that gives him his first crack at playing the bad guy.
He walks briskly into the Park Hyatt hotel here, flanked by assistants, taking random questions the only way he can while he's still walking, talking over his shoulder.
“Your character is a bad guy,” one journalist says.
“No he isn't,” Washington says back and cracks a smile.
He's not as big as you expect. He's tall enough to be perfect for the stoic, fist-thumping characters that fill his resume - from Malcolm X (1992) to the South African political prisoner Stephen Biko in Cry Freedom (1987) to his Best Supporting Academy Award-winning role as a black Civil War soldier in Glory (1989). But he's kind of wide. Like a Sunday morning dad. Maybe it's the clothes. Surrounded by those wearing hip film festival threads, he wears a gray T-shirt and a pretty good five o'clock shadow.
“Did this role change your life?” someone asks.
“Did it change my life? No. When I had children, that changed my life. When I got married, that changed my life.” An Italian journalist walks up alongside him and begins firing insane questions:
“I have two things, Denzel. Do you know something about Italian cinema? And then, which is your favorite Italian director?”
Washington stares down at her and keeps moving. She continues: “And will, uh, you work with, uh, uh. Italians?”
“Will I work with Italians?” he asks, confused. “Yes.”
Washington puffs out his cheeks and blows slowly. He doesn't slow and she keeps pace, her tape recorder held a foot from his mouth. “Italian director?” she offers. “Uh, we were just in Venice [promoting the upcoming Training Day],” he says. “You shoulda been there.”
“Yes,” she says, waiting and smiling.
“Fellini's not too shabby,” he says.
“What about another director?” she asks quickly.
“Fellini. I like Fellini.”
“Yes, but ... ”
“You asked me who I liked. I told you - Fellini.”
“Yes. Now what do you think about television?”
Now understand: Washington is a classic Nice Guy. He rolls his eyes subtly, looking away for a half second so she doesn't notice. He plays along.
“I like some of those [Italian] game shows.” He laughs.
Then he reaches his hotel suite to hear a zillion questions from a zillion journalists and the first question you ask is obvious: So Denzel Washington decided to be the bad guy in Training Day. Why now, after 17 years as a good guy?
“Sexy, ain't it?” he says back with a broad smile. “The bottom line was this: People have asked me, ‘You haven't played a bad guy and blah blah blah.' [David Ayer] just wrote a good script and I didn't want anyone else to get it. It was too good. Too good.
“And yes, it was in my mind that people say, ‘You always play noble and virtuous.' So I read this and said, ‘This covers all territories.'”
When Washington put down Ayer's script the first time he read it, he quickly picked it up again and wrote, “The wages of sin are death” on the cover.
“I had that in my head the whole time,” he says. “I was going to make sure this guy earned what he deserves. But I wasn't afraid [of playing that].”
Washington is the kind of actor who goes deep into a role, spending a lot of time with the people who know the real thing best. For an entire year he trained as a boxer to play boxer Rueben “Hurricane” Carter in The Hurricane (1999), and for Training Day, well, he read a book about police corruption. “Basically, that was my preparation,” he says.
Oh. That's it?
“Yeah, I didn't meet a lot of cops because I figured there's not going be anyone like this guy who tells you what they really do. I didn't want to meet him either!”
He lets go with a deep rolling laugh. “I didn't want to pattern [the character] after anybody because this is a guy who has lost control,” he says. “People ask if it's an indictment of the [Los Angeles Police Department]. Well, L.A. doesn't have a monopoly on crazy individuals. It could be Toronto. It could be Oshkosh. This is a guy who has gone too far and gets what he deserves.
“I got more from the gang bangers, really. It was in the environment [where they shot] and you just absorb,” he said, eyes wide to stress the point. “I would hear things that official sources won't say. Things like: ‘To catch a wolf you got to be a wolf.'
“If I was going to do more research for this film, I guess,” Washington says. “I'd just as well follow a wolf around.”
In the movie, which was scheduled to open Oct. 5, Washington plays Detective Alonzo Harris, a decorated career cop. But he's such a creature of institutional corruption that he seems to slither up the streets. He uses his badge to intimidate, steal, and kill. He holds entire neighborhoods at bay. A wolf is a good comparison. But in the film, Washington howls something better:
“King Kong ain't got nothing on me!”
Washington says he asked one cop, “How do you stay alive?” The guy said, “By keeping so many informants on the streets. If you're coming after me and you don't know if I know about it, I will be coming after you.”
And he says one of the gang bangers told him, “If I'm coming after you, that's that.”
“But that's the streets,” the actor says. “Kill or be killed.”
They shot Training Day in the roughest mean streets of Los Angeles, in the real homes and in the actual neighborhoods that Hollywood normally drives the long way around to go home. That was the worst part of working there, Director Antoine Fuqua says, convincing Hollywood it was cool. “Half the time I would be looking for Denzel or Ethan and they would be eating dinner with some local family on their front porch.”
It was Fuqua's insistence on soaking up local color that convinced Washington he was the right director.
“Another director was going to do it first,” the actor says. “But I said, ‘If you want me you got to want him.' I've made 30 films and I expected everyone of them to be great and it does not always happen that way. It's a collaborative effort. Everyone can have the best intentions and it still doesn't work. Well, this one works.
“I get through scripts quickly. Some you read for three hours and you're only on page seven. [Ayer's script] was unusual, a different world for me. Antoine brought his slant to it. We sat in a room, had lunch with Ethan. That was that.”
That was that?
“Just like that.”
He thinks a minute. A day of answering the same questions over and over again is wearing on him. “You know, we were in that car a long time,” he offers. And you think about this a moment: That's true.
Imagine spending weeks in a car with Ethan Hawke. Washington has nothing but praise for the actor, who is often maligned as the epitome of navel-gazing Gen-X actors, but he gets you thinking mainly because Washington is so nice you want to agree with him: Hawke has probably been in more under-rated movies in the past decade than any major actor, including Gattaca, Before Sunrise, A Midnight Clear, and Hamlet.
Wow, yeah - Ethan Hawke is great.
“Yup, when we were meeting actors, we said, ‘Look, whoever is in that car has got to be good or I'm not going to be good or the movie isn''t going to be good,'” Washington says. “But Ethan is a very, very good actor and nice person. We got along well. But there wasn't a lot of air in that car sometimes. We were going nuts sometimes.”
So, the typical closing question for a typical story about an actor promoting his upcoming movie - albeit, one with serious Best Actor nomination buzz all around it. The question is this: What's next?
“You know what? I am an unemployed actor,” he said. “I don't know what I'm going to act in next. I'm not looking for anything. I wasn't looking for Training Day. It came across my desk and I responded to it. I can't say I'm looking for this or that. I look for what's interesting and what I respond to. I'm definitely not looking to be a cop next time.”