Denzel Washington: Having a funny turn

He was deadly serious as Biko and Malcolm X, but he plays his new film for laughs, Denzel Washington tells Chris Sullivan
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The Independent Culture

As he walks into a suite at the New York's Regency Hotel, Denzel Washington looks every inch the massively successful actor that he is. Dressed in a black cashmere pullover and jeans, the shockingly youthful 52-year-old actor is on cracking form and, before I get the chance to say "How do you do?", he launches into an avalanche of good-natured jocularity.

"Hey! What you got there?" he asks, pointing to my recently acquired and entirely newfangled recording equipment. "I know it's an iPod but does this bit stuck on the end make it a recording device? What is the world coming to? Wow."

As he sits and chuckles, shaking his head, I consider that Washington has every reason to be content. The recipient of two Academy Awards, one for the cop drama Training Day, and the other for the civil war epic Glory, the actor has delivered yet another dazzling performance as Detective Keith Frazier in Spike Lee's new thriller Inside Man.

Inside Man is a tangled tale of a bank robbery-cum-hostage situation that revolves around three main protagonists: the robber (Clive Owen), the fixer (Jodie Foster) and Washington's troubled detective. Washington excels, exposing a rib-rocking comedic flair not entirely evident in his previous work.

"I've only seen a rough cut," he says. "But I need to see it with an audience because everyone is saying how funny some of it is. When I saw it, I laughed at myself most of all. I thought: 'Hey, I'm pretty funny in this.' But the lines I laughed at most were the lines I threw in; like the one with the Sikh who's been called an Arab and can't get his turban back, and says to me and the other cops: 'I can't do that, I can't do this, I can't do anything.' So I says: 'I bet you can get a cab, though.' [It seems that most New York City cab drivers are from India.] That was adlibbed. At first I couldn't believe I said it, but it worked and we all fell about laughing. Spike would give us the scenario... and then we started looking for those lines; in fact, he created a monster and we all just riffed on it and had a good time."

Washington's association with Spike Lee began some 16 years ago when he played the womanising jazz trumpeter Bleek Gilliam, in Mo' Better Blues. Since then, even though they've made just four films together, many consider them an inseparable duo. "I suppose we understand each other and are comfortable together," says the actor. "We're not like husband and wife finishing off each other's sentences and stuff, but maybe we haven't done enough movies... yet." Maybe one of the things connecting the two is the unforgettable Malcolm X, which, even though it was more than three hours and 20 minutes long, was described by one critic as "the shortest film of 1992". "I had already played Malcolm in a stage play," remembers Washington. "And so I already had an angle on the character, which really helped me, but normally I work it out as I go along. I got my method and it's not based on Stanislavski; I just get it from wherever I can get it from, what I feel, what I see."

For Inside Man, the actor saw a lot of cops - just as he did while realising the appallingly corrupt Detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day. "I met some real New York City cops who acted as consultants on the film and they had a lot of flair," he says, smiling. "In fact, I borrowed their style, with the jewellery, the bow-ties and the hats. They can't afford the $1,000 suits but they get the ones that look like them and they are slick. They have to have people skills in New York because they are on the streets all the time, whereas in LA, they pull up in a car, they isolate the people and get them out of the car.

"I remember being in a car in New York City and the cops stopped us and the driver started arguing with the cop saying: 'But I was over here, whaddya talking about?' Hey, man, you can't do that in LA. I loved Training Day because it was new territory for me and this is different again. Each role is different. Every one is a different challenge.

"But with this film, the script gave me a lot to go on. Frazier has a lot going on, apart from just this crazy heist, and it all adds up to this person. If the script is good, you can build your character.

"My criteria start with a good script," he says. "After that I ask myself if it's a decent film-maker who is doing something different, where it's going to be shot and what time of year will it take place. I ask those questions and in that order, but it all starts with what is on the page.

"And that is why I chose Inside Man. I liked the script, it was a lovely idea to work with Clive Owen and Jodie Foster, I didn't have to work too hard [only four weeks], the money was good and it was to be shot in New York - my home town. It's a New York film - the city is almost one of the characters - and I love New York. To an outsider, it seems that a lot of New Yorkers are uptight and a little brusque but it is just the New York way. I remember coming from LA years ago and I was kind of famous, and maybe I'd gotten kinda mellow, so I went into a deli and asked the guy behind the counter to add some extra pickles and I said before I paid: 'You sure you got those extra pickles?' And he says: 'What you talking about? The pickles are in there, get outa here! Stop wasting my time.' And I was like: 'Phew! I am home!'"

Born in Mount Vernon, New York, Washington was the second of three children. After his parents' divorce, Washington, aged 14, went from being a grade-A student to a chronic underachiever. But pushed by his "very tough, disciplinarian" mother, he eventually landed in Fordham University, in the Bronx, where he initially studied medicine but dropped out and found himself working in the sanitation department.

He quickly returned to college, graduated in drama and journalism, and left for Manhattan, hellbent on a stage career. His big break came when Bruce Paltrow (father of Gwyneth) offered him the role of Dr Phillip Chandler in the TV series St Elsewhere; Richard Attenborough saw the show, was impressed and in 1986 cast Washington as the murdered black South African activist Steve Biko in Cry Freedom.

He visibly bristles when asked if racism is still evident in Hollywood. "No, it's all gone," he retorts. "There is none anywhere in the world ever. It is nowhere. It is all gone! Gone forever! No, but listen. There's racism in Hollywood Boulevard and Madison Avenue. People are taught to hate and they learn it well."

With negotiations underway to direct his second feature film next March ("I'm not telling you what it is in case I jinx it") and plans to co-produce a film of director Daniel Sullivan's massively successful Broadway version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar - starring Washington as Brutus - he is a busy man, but still finds time to work on yet another film.

"At the moment I'm working on doing Déjà Vu, directed by Tony Scott," he says. "We have had a lot of success together and I like Tony. We made Crimson Tide in 1994 then Man On Fire in 2003 and now this huge $150m movie that Tony calls science fact, which is as much about surveillance and what 'they' are now capable of as it is about time travel, which is the story line."

Before we part company, I ask if he will, as he said on David Letterman's show, retire after another movie. "I said that?" He laughs. "Well, that must've been a joke. I got bills to pay. I am not going to give this up. I love it. Maybe I was just adlibbing... again."

'Inside Man' is out now

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