Easing into filming, becoming too emotionally involved in a role, and the pros and cons of playing a fictional versus real person — acclaimed American actor Denzel Washington shared how he approaches acting.
Oscar-winner Washington on Sunday was at the Toronto film festival for the premiere of “The Equalizer,” director Antoine Fuqua’s adaptation of the 1980s television series that starred Edward Woodward.
The film about a loner who dispenses justice from the barrel of a gun also stars Marton Csokas (“The Amazing Spiderman 2”) and Chloe Grace Moretz (“Kick-Ass”). Moretz is in two other Toronto film festival premieres this week: “Clouds of Sils Maria,” and “Laggies.”
At a press conference, the cast and crew shared insights about their métier, their successes and missed opportunities.
Washington last collaborated with Fuqua on “Training Day,” which premiered in Toronto and went on to earn Washington a best actor Oscar in 2001 for his performance as a rogue cop in Los Angeles.
– Getting lost folding napkins –
A brief telephone exchange in which Washington told Fuqua, “This is Robert McCall (the lead character in the film) calling,” set the stage for a reunion.
Washington spent the first day of filming “The Equalizer” folding napkins over and over for a scene.
Fuqua said he got lost in the moment and let it go on to the point that producers had to interrupt and ask “are you going to (call) cut?”
“He was just folding napkins… (but) when I get to sit and watch Denzel up close that way, it’s powerful for me, and it gets me excited,” Fuqua said.
Fuqua likened the experience to the soothing rhythm of music. “I started to (feel) that rhythm again.”
Washington revealed that he likes to start slowly on new film projects in order to find his footing, “because you’re not sure.”
Actors generally, he said, “are real fragile day one, and a director can really crush an actor in the first day” with overly harsh criticisms.
He recalled a director with whom he worked who said “at 9:30 am on day one, ‘no, that’s not right’.” He declined to identify the director but said it resulted in a bad performance throughout and the film was a flop.
Washington has received critical acclaim for his film work since the 1990s, including for his portrayals of real-life figures such as South African rights activist Steve Biko, Malcolm X, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and Harlem heroin dealer Frank Lucas.
Contrasting these roles with fictional characters such as McCall in “The Equalizer,” he said: “I didn’t try to imitate (Malcolm X) but (rather) capture the spirit in the materials available, in the speeches that he made, in (video) footage.
– Fictional characters are easier –
“In a film like this,” he said, “we are creating the character. So in some ways there’s more pressure playing a Malcolm X ’cause a lot of people thought they knew who he was, how he should be presented.”
“With a fictional character, you can do whatever you want to do.”
Best known for heavy roles, Washington said he would gladly try a lighter comedy or a children’s movie. “Yeah,” he said. “But nobody’s called me.”
Asked about getting lost in or separating oneself from characters, he said: “You take some of everything you do home. Unfortunately, my wife has to deal with it, ‘Oh who’s coming in the door today. Oh it’s Malcolm X…'”
Moretz added: “Sometimes it’s good for it to affect you personally, sometimes it’s okay for it to sink it, to understand it and have your own emotions become entwined with your character’s because that’s how you really understand (the role).”
But actors need to step away too and remember that “it’s a job,” or risk becoming lost in a character, she said.
Washington recalled how he “made the mistake” of turning down the lead role for the 1997 dark thriller “Seven,” because he feared it would affect him. “It was just too much when I read it,” he revealed.
The role went to Brad Pitt and became a box office smash hit.
Fuqua confided that he handed off directing “Prisoners” with Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman to Quebec director Denis Villeneuve, because as a parent he felt uncomfortable spending a year on a film about child abduction.
That film, which also premiered in Toronto, was nominated at the Academy Awards last year for its cinematography.