Denzel Washington on His Action-Oriented Roles and How the Industry Has Changed Around Him

It’s probably accurate to say that most actors with decades-long careers feel comfortable doing a certain genres and are hesitant to branch out into more physical roles. 

Not Denzel Washington,  whose last three films have been the action/thrillers Book of Eli, Unstoppable, and Safe House

In an interview with Metro, Washington talks about how he has seen changes in both his roles and the film industry as a whole over his acting career, and what ambitions he has left.

Like Liam Neeson, Washington is one of the few actors who are known for dramatic roles but have begun to do more action roles in his late fifties.  However, Washington claims that the only difficulty he had with his action scenes is… jumping? 

He says, “I’ve been boxing for 20 years and I’ve always been an athlete. The most difficult part is I’ve had three surgeries on my knee so the toughest part was the scenes where I have to jump off roofs.  Because I box, I’m used to fights and we had lots of martial arts training. We were doing it three days a week so I was in good shape. I was ready for a nice bath and a massage at the end of the day. When you’re younger, you get drunk all night and go back to work on two hours’ sleep. These days I have a nice meal and put my feet up.”

Washington’s undertaking of more action-oriented roles isn’t the only change: Washington says that the entire studio system that was in place when he began his career has completely changed.  He says, “Studios are now owned by big corporations, so all the decisions are made in a completely different way. The mid-majors, places like Summit, are like what studios used to be. The big studios are more interested in their big tent pole movies and farm out the rest of it and take distribution deals.”

However, Washington understands why the major studios rely on such formulaic films and why he has to go to smaller studios to do more personal projects.  He explains, “You can’t rely on the studios, you have to know where to go to find it. This was a studio picture, though. I just filmed Flight, a tough story about an alcoholic airline pilot. It’s not a tent-pole movie so we got $30million to make it. It meant [director] Bob Zemeckis and I took one-tenth of our usual salary but almost 40 per cent of the back end – so if it hits, ker-ching. If not, we still made the movie we wanted. It’s called ‘showbusiness’. I don’t have a problem with that. Five years ago we might have got $70million to make it – now they’re looking for Mission: Impossible 6 or Twilight 4. Studios will take the credit for smaller movies if they get Oscars but I get it, we’re in tough economic times. If I loan someone $50million, I want my money back, I don’t want to hear: ‘We blew it but had a nice time making the movie.’”

Of course, the Hollywood culture has its perks. For example, Washington noticed that winning his two Academy Award gave gave his career a major boost.  He reveals, “My agent got me a lot more money after winning them. With Training Day, it was the first time I’d played a bad guy so I got more bad guy scripts. Plus the film made money so people thought I was good for business. It changed more the first time I won.  I went from being somewhat of an  unknown to being on people’s radar.”

So does Washington aspire to win a third Oscar like Walter Brennan, Jack Nicholson, Ingrid Bergman, and now Meryl Streep?  Actually he does, but he says he’d rather win his third for directing.  He explains, “I’ve already got two for acting. Either way, it beats a sharp stick in the eye.”

I’m pretty sure all of Sunday’s Oscar winners will agree with Washington on that point!

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