Denzel Washington a revelation in ‘Book of Eli’
For a guy who’s just seen the end of the world, Denzel Washington is surprisingly upbeat.
The actor projects a studied, scowling quiet for much of his new post-Armageddon thriller “The Book of Eli,” which makes it a little jarring to meet the actor and find him in an altogether different mode: gregarious, charismatic, Denzel-ish. As he talks about his new role while sipping camomile tea in the lobby bar of a Beverly Hills hotel, he stages a charm offensive -- a unique Denzel campaign designed to melt anything in his path.
He jokes about razzing one of the film’s directors, an atheist who’s making a movie with religious themes. He indulges an overly excited stranger who stops by the table to gush about a house she once helped Washington’s mother rent. And then he segues into a story about how his mother offered suggestions to Donald Trump on how to handle his business as Trump gave them a ride on his jet from Florida to New York.
“You know how New York mothers are. She takes charge. I said ‘Ma, it’s his plane, be quiet,’ ” he says, giving that trademark Denzel laugh.
Charisma is a funny thing for a star, at once a natural personality trait and an acting technique. The director Tony Scott, who has collaborated with Washington on five films -- including the upcoming train-set action tale “Unstoppable” -- notes how Washington carefully deploys charm in front of the camera (and, one assumes, in real life). “He has a keen sense of pacing, when to up the level of charisma and when to pull it back.”
Indeed, even in the space of an hour, one can see the freewheeling Denzel; on politics, he says that “you can turn the TV on to the right or the left and we’re being bombarded with propaganda, basically. It’s crazy out there.” But you can also see the opaque Denzel, the man who’s accommodating but deftly evasive on topics like the proliferation of apocalypse movies (“I didn’t have to concern myself with that”) and the meaning of “Eli” (“Depending on what you believe, you’ll take that from it”).
Dressed in the Friday-afternoon casual of a (blue) long-sleeve thermal top, (blue) track pants, (blue) retro-Nike running shoes and a (blue) Yankees cap, Washington doesn’t look like a man out to save mankind. But that’s pretty much what he’s doing in this apocalyptic, Bible-flavored western -- think “The Road Warrior” meets “The Road” with a touch of Billy Graham.
Washington’s titular character wanders laconically through a war-ravaged Earth, protecting the last extant copy of the Bible from a sadistic warlord named Carnegie (Gary Oldman). As the cat-and-mouse game unfolds, Washington’s trademark magnetism is almost entirely absent, replaced by a sullen misanthropy.
“You have Denzel doing something in this movie he doesn’t do much -- not talking,” says co-director Allen Hughes, who with Albert is the Detroit-born team known as the Hughes brothers (and the non-atheist).
The making of “Eli,” on the other hand, saw plenty of Washington flourishes. First came the preparation -- before shooting, he spent four hours a day for two months with the filmmakers playing every part in the script. And production brought his usual on-set quippiness, in which he’d make exclamations like “Here goes ‘St. Elsewhere’ ” on the odd occasion he felt scenes were by-the-numbers. (Washington served as producer and godfather on the film.) But even by the eclectic standards of a man who’s played a professor (“The Great Debaters”), a detective (“Training Day,”), a soldier (“Courage Under Fire”), a drug kingpin (“American Gangster”), a boxer (“The Hurricane”) and a civil rights leader (“Malcolm X,”), there’s a decidedly different tint to this role. It’s not just in the dialed-down charisma but the essence of the character who, instead of fighting for secular humanist justice (a Denzel specialty) uses religion and scripture as a weapon.
That the actor is a self-professed Christian gives the role a life-imitating-art feel. While the movie’s religious message is ambiguous -- is the use of the Bible as a key plot object meant to show its sanctity or simply that it can be exploited? -- “Eli” represents a rare chance for Washington. It’s one of the actor’s first parts in which he gets the frequent opportunity to quote and even improvise lines from the Bible, like the one from Corinthians that “we walk by faith, not by sight,” which he added because a pastor he likes uses it.
In fact, the movie could have felt more religious if not for a little studio intervention, according to Washington and Allen Hughes. Even as Warner Bros. has publicized the movie to faith-based media and played off religious themes in its campaign, the studio was sufficiently concerned that they asked the filmmakers to tone down the Bible references in Gary Whitta’s script.
“I’ll just be straight about it. I think the studio was nervous about that,” Washington says. “It sometimes got ridiculous in how you were trying to hide it,” he adds. “Sometimes by trying to clean something up so much it becomes about nothing.” (Alcon Entertainment, the company behind the family-values hit “The Blind Side,” produced the movie and did not interfere, Washington says.)
Family values of a different sort played into “Eli.” The film wouldn’t have even starred Denzel Washington if not for the prodding of one J.D. Washington, Denzel’s 25-year-old, pro football-playing son, who pushed his father to take the part when the actor was on the fence, in part because as Denzel says, “he’s a spiritual kid.” (Denzel was so impressed with J.D.'s skills, he brought him on as a producer on “Eli” and now takes him to some of his meetings.)
Washington’s presence, in turn, helped get the Hugheses -- who return with their first feature in nine years -- over the religion hump. “Denzel was the only guy who could solve the problem,” says Allen Hughes. “There are a lot of Bible quotations, and there’s a certain nobility that comes with him that mitigates that.”
Washington is returning to Broadway this spring, in the August Wilson drama “Fences.” That means, for at least the next few months, he’ll leave behind the studio system. As generous as it’s been to him, he’s happy to take a poke at its foibles (that freewheeling side again).
Asked about an “Eli” scene that has a baton of sorts passed from him to Mila Kunis’ character, he speculates that the studio could plan a franchise. “I guess they’ll do the new one and she’ll be in charge,” he says with facetious remove. “You can see where it’s going.”