Playing a ‘sociopath’ in his latest, fast-paced, action-packed crime thriller Safe House, opposite Ryan Reynolds, screen icon Denzel Washington joins director Daniel Espinosa at London’s swanky Mandarin Oriental Hotel for an exclusive Q+A about the film, the ‘poor script’ and getting into character, as well as the actor’s thoughts on his career choices and his ‘dating opportunities’.
How did the Safe House script ideas develop to make it so real?
Daniel Espinosa: We used different experts that had actually worked in Safe Houses and been their operatives to be able to based this movie in some kind of reality that’s close to our society and world now.
Does this make Safe House a very controversial film as it’s not clear who the good guys and the bad guys are until we get a clearer perspective at the end?
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. We claim we want them to be fair and don’t torture people. I think on 9/11, 9/12 everybody was for torture, or they wanted to get to the bottom of whoever it was [who was responsible]. I think everyone wants their 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. It’s a dirty business.
Given these characters operate in a world of secrecy was it quite straight forward finding out some of the stuff you found out, and getting the consultant on set to talk?
Daniel Espinosa: What moved me was not so much the practical expertise – I always like having these experts there because I want to direct my movie. 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 had affected his personal life and how it affects you as a human being. These people who go into that line of business, go there out of ethical reasons at the beginning, but what they’re forced to do for their country, sometimes is a highly unethical act. How does that affect you as a human being – that’s nothing political; that’s something that’s human. How do we live with compromising our own ethics? For me, that’s the core of the movie.
Denzel, you had a particular book called ‘The Sociopath Next Door’ (by Martha Stout) that you relied upon. Tell us more.
Denzel Washington: I just took it from the opposite angle; I just think that Tobin Frost [his character in the film] was a sociopath. When I thought of ‘sociopath’ I thought of violence. I didn’t realise that they say 85 per cent of sociopaths aren’t violent, but they are manipulative; they’ll lie, they’ll use charm and wit, pity – you know, I’m not as good as you. As soon as you say, no you’re alright. You’re a nice guy; I’m starting to manipulate you. 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’ [a form of torture], 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, and ‘oh you’re trying to kill me!’ 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 [Reynolds’s character] there. He’d rather play with them.
Daniel Espinosa: It would also be problematic killing him that early…
Denzel Washington: I should have just shot him right there!
Daniel Espinosa: We stood there, and Den says ‘I feel like shooting him’. I said I don’t think that’s a good idea right now. We’ve got half the movie to go.
Denzel Washington: So I got as close as I could get. I go sticking the gun in different places on him, just controlling, you know, manipulating.
Denzel: You’re an actor and a producer in this film – what made you want to become so involved?
Denzel Washington: I can’t do it any other way. When I saw Snabba Cash [Espinosa’s Easy Money], 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. I’d 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 [laughs]. I enjoy 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 five months.
Denzel: As executive producer, how much say did you get, getting the film shot in Cape Town?
Denzel Washington: None. I think it was originally supposed to be Buenos Aires?
Daniel Espinosa: Rio.
Denzel Washington: Rio. We had talked about the fact that 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 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 did you go about casting Brendan Gleeson in the role? What was it like working with him?
Denzel Washington: It was actually a tough scene because it was the first day of shooting. We went back and visited some of my side of the scene. But it was tough because you’re still kind of working out who you are?
Daniel Espinosa: No, no, no, he was talking about Brendan Gleeson who plays Barlow.
Denzel Washington: Who am I talking about?
Daniel Espinosa: Liam Cunningham [who plays British agent Alec Wade].
Denzel Washington: Oh. I didn’t do anything with Barlow. Oh no, I remember I had one take in the scene where I get shot and he gets shot – I actually picked up his gun and I pointed it at him then we cut that out.
Daniel Espinosa: I’m sorry. No, I actually always saw Brendan Gleeson in front of me for this character. I’ve always loved him. I loved him in Harry Potter to Green Zone. He’s a great actor – I have a deep respect for the English acting tradition. They are always very well prepared. They have a deep sensational soul and they come with a vision of the character.
Action movies nowadays are very big and very loud but there are also some quieter moments in this. Which was more challenging to do?
Denzel 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? What does that mean? 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 Daniel talked about from the start was how funky and dirty 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.
Daniel Espinosa: I don’t think you can direct a movie like an action movie – you can make a movie. I never saw it as fighting; I saw it as struggling. I think that’s how you should perceive something to do not 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 to you think it’s intense, then I’m happy. I did everything I could to get the right people around. We had a fight coordinator. He was the fight coordinator who did The Prophet that also had very intense struggling scenes. I tried to get people around me who wanted to do a movie, not an action piece.
Denzel: Why did you choose to do your own stunts, which gave you a black eye?
Denzel Washington: It has to be us or you have to be so far back [in the shot] to hide us. These vehicles they use – was he actually driving form the top of the car?
Daniel Espinosa: Yes.
Denzel Washington: 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. So we’re going fast 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.
How do you feel your career choices differ now compared to when you were younger?
Denzel Washington: You’re an old man [to Daniel]. How old are you now?
Daniel Espinosa: I’m 34.
Denzel Washington: I got shoes older than you!
Daniel Espinosa: I don’t know how my career moves have changed with age – I’m not old enough to answer that question!
Denzel Washington: Me neither! 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 ain’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 [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. I want to do good work with people I want to work with – that’s why I mentioned the screenplay [for 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 who 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.
Denzel: How do you maintain the balance between family life and career? Do you still date your wife?
Denzel Washington: [Laughs] She’s out shopping now! My work is just work. I take my work seriously but I don’t take myself 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 costumes 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 start writing, even on the way. 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 alright.
But do you still date your wife?
Denzel Washington: What do you mean ‘date her’? We’re going out to dinner tonight. I don’t call it dating. 31 years it’s not a date – it’s an opportunity! [Laughs]
Safe House is out in UK cinemas on 24 February.