Denzel Washington: ‘I wasn’t that impressed with the screenplay’

The actor on Daniel Espinosa’s Safe House, which co-stars Ryan Reynolds.

Hitting UK cinemas this Friday 24th February is Safe House, an action thriller from Snabba Cash director Daniel Espinosa.

The Swedish helmer makes his English-language debut with Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds. Washington’s in bad-guy territory as an ex-CIA agent turned international criminal in South Africa who gives himself up at the American embassy when his life is under threat. After he’s placed in the safe house run by Reynolds’ CIA operative, all hell breaks loose and the pair end up on the run for their lives.

We had the pleasure of Washington’s genial and witty presence at the London press conference, where he was joined by his director. The star admits how unimpressed he was by the script and reflects on his lengthy career.

Were the contemporary elements like water-boarding in the original screenplay or added?
Daniel Espinosa: That was in the script - it was part of the whole vibe when we read it. It’s based in reality - we used different experts that had actually worked in safe houses and been their operatives. To be able to base this movie in some kind of reality that’s close to our society and our world right now.

Does this make Safe House a very controversial film back home as it’s not clear who the good guys and the bad guys are until we move through the film?
Denzel Washington: Who knows… what is it over here? MI5, MI6? Who knows what they do? We don’t know what they do. We know that we want to be protected, then we claim we want them to be fair and don’t torture people. I think that on 9/11, 9/12, in New York everybody was for torture, or they wanted to get to the bottom of whoever it was. The further away you get from it, you want your country to play fair. I don’t think it would have made sense for President Obama to come on the air and say, ‘oh by the way, next Tuesday we’re going to shoot Bin Laden’. They are going to do it, the way they’re going to do it, and it’s a dirty business.

Given these characters operate in a world of secrecy was it quite straightforward finding out some of the stuff you found out, getting people to talk to you?
Espinosa: What moved me was not so much the practical expertise – I don’t always like having these experts there because I want to direct my movie! I have a vision. What got to me was when we were shooting certain scenes I could see that he [the consultant] was emotionally moved sometimes. We talked a lot about how this work that he had done had affected his personal life, and how it affects you as a human being. Because these people that get into that line of business, I mean, they go there out of ethical reasons at the beginning. But what they’re forced to do for their country, sometimes is highly unethical acts. How does that affect you as a human being? That’s nothing political - that’s something that’s human. How do we live without compromising our own ethics? For me, that’s the core of the movie.

Denzel, you had a particular book that you relied upon?
Washington: ‘The Sociopath Next Door’. I just took it from the opposite angle: I just think that Tobin Frost was a sociopath. When I thought of ‘sociopath’ I thought of violence; I didn’t realise that they say 85% of sociopaths aren’t violent, but they are manipulative. They’ll lie, they’ll use charm, wit, pity – you know, ‘I’m not as good as you’. As soon as you say, ‘no you’re all right, you’re a nice guy’, I’m starting to manipulate you. I took it from the opposite way of Daniel’s perspective. I think Tobin Frost had the skill set that the CIA appreciated, but they didn’t necessarily know he was a sociopath. I think his blood pressure goes down when there’s murder and mayhem. I think he was interested in winning - every day I wrote in my script or in my journal, how am I going to win today? What am I going to win? When the guys talk about waterboarding, I talk about ‘you don’t even have the right towels. How stupid are you?’ Sometimes I use charm, sometimes - like in the scene in the soccer stadium - I start screaming like a little girl. As soon as I get away, then I kill. I think he was such a sociopath, much a manipulator – and it’s a movie – that he chose not to even kill the young kid, he’d rather play with them. So I got as close as I could get; I go sticking the gun in different places on him, just controlling, you know, manipulating.

Action movies nowadays are very big and very loud but there are also some quieter moments - which was more challenging to do?
Washington: I didn’t think this was an action movie. I’ve been hearing that, but it didn’t read like one. I don’t even know what an action movie is. I think it’s a testament to Daniel’s vision… I think it’s intense. I just saw the finished product about a week or so ago, but it plays more intense than it read. One thing he [Daniel] talked about from the start was how funky and dirty and raw he wanted these fights. So when I saw that fight… I mean I saw a piece of it while we were shooting it, but when I saw that fight between Ryan and Joel [Kinnaman] at the end, I was like, damn! They were going at it - there was glass and whatever they could get was banging on the ground. So I don’t know if that’s an action movie or it was a little uncomfortable as to how real it was. I mean they were like cutting each other up!
Espinosa: I don’t think you can direct a movie like an action movie, I don’t think you can do that. You can make a movie, and when it comes to the fighting, I never saw it as fighting - I saw it as struggling. I think that’s how you should perceive something if you’re trying not to do a set piece but a scene. I think all scenes that are in the movie move the character, and if you perceive it as an action movie, maybe that’s a testament that you think it’s intense, and I’m happy. I did everything I could to get the right people around me. We had a fight coordinator; he was the fight coordinator who did A Prophet, that also had very intense struggling scenes. I tried to gather people around us who wanted to do a movie, not an action piece.

Why did you choose to do your own stunts, which gave you a black eye?
Washington: It has to be us. Or you have to be so far back to hide us. These vehicles they use – he [stunt driver] was actually driving from the top of the car. So Ryan wasn’t driving the car, so we weren’t in control of where the car was moving. In this scene I’m handcuffed and I’m supposed to jump up and put the handcuffs over Ryan’s neck to choke him and bring him toward me. The guy’s up there driving, so we’re not in control. We’re going fast and swerving around, and it just so happened I got whipped forward and he got whipped back, and our heads collided. The back of his head is harder than the front of my face! It actually happened twice! The second time my eye closed up.

How do you maintain the balance between family life and career?
Washington: My work is just work. I take my work seriously but I don’t take myself seriously - too seriously. I read a book years ago called Cagney By Cagney written by James Cagney, and he talked about going to the studio, working his twelve-hour day, taking off his costume and getting in the car and going home. Most of my work is done before we start shooting; preparation work. So my normal day – and I write a lot, I write journals - so my day starts when I get to work. I even start writing sometimes the night before, again going back to The Sociopath Next Door – how am I going to win today? Am I going to use charm, am I going to use fear, am I going to use intimidation, am I going to use wit? Then we do the scene and we play the scene, and I take the clothes off and I get in the car and I go home. I have a meal, I relax, watch a little television or something, and then I might work for an hour and a half on tomorrow’s work, and I go to bed. I work better when I’m alone. Although I did Training Day at home, and that worked out all right! [On whether Denzel still dates his wife] What do you mean ‘date her’? We’re going out to dinner tonight. I don’t call it dating. After 31 years it’s not a date – it’s an opportunity! [laughs]

You’re an actor and a producer in this film – what made you want to become so involved in this project?
Washington: I can’t do it any other way. When I saw Snabba Cash, I was fascinated by this young filmmaker. When I met Daniel we talked about his life, where he grew up, what his father did, I was in, as far as Daniel was concerned. I wasn’t in as far as the script was concerned – I didn’t think it was good enough. So I’ve been in the habit of helping develop material for a long time – I’ve been doing it for 20 years or more now – so my agent said ‘hey, you’re doing all this work, you should get credit for it, so we’re going to get you a producer credit’. I don’t think I got any money for it – maybe I got a couple of extra dollars. I enjoyed helping to develop material - it’s a way for me to get into the part. I’m a logic monster – if things don’t make sense, I’ve got to make sense out of them. Why is he doing that? It doesn’t make sense. We’d sit in a room day after day and we’d work with two or three different writers for four or five months.

Denzel, as executive producer, how much say did you get getting the film shot in Cape Town?
Washington: None. I think it was originally supposed to be Buenos Aires? Rio! We had talked about the fact that we were not wanting to be too similar to Man On Fire, but Daniel went to South Africa, and he liked South Africa, and that was it. I think it was the right choice. I think just practically, aside from the look and all that, for my character’s perspective, it was going to be easier for me to blend in, in a ‘black’ country than in a ‘brown’ country.

How do you feel your career choices differ now compared to when you were younger?
Washington: I went through a phase where I was sick of acting. I was tired of it, I didn’t really want to do it anymore. I was bored with it. Then I tried directing a movie, and I was like shoot, I’ll get back over here. It made me appreciate acting more. When I turned 50 I looked in the mirror and I realised, hey, this isn’t the dress rehearsal; this is life. I don’t know how much more that I’m going to have, and even if I have 50 more years, I probably won’t remember the last 20 or 30 of them anyway. In the last three or four years, especially after doing this play on Broadway with the great Viola Davis called Fences, it reminded me of how I started, which was in the theatre, and how I worked in the theatre and how thorough you needed to be in the theatre, and I recommitted myself being thorough as an actor. I want to do good work, and I want to do good work with people I want to work with. That’s why I mentioned the screenplay [Safe House] - I wasn’t that impressed with the screenplay. If I hadn’t met Daniel I probably won’t have done this movie because it didn’t interest me that much. I didn’t think it was that good. But I liked Daniel and I liked the way his film was. So when you get the chance to work with people you like and people that are talented, that’s rare. I don’t know how many more movies I’m going to get the opportunity to make, and I don’t want to look back and go, man, I just kind of floated through that one, or I just did that one for the money. I want to be able to say that I’ve worked as hard as I could and I did the best work that I could do.