Washington, Denzel: How the Oscar-Winner Chooses Roles

“Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” directed by Tony Scott and starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta, is released June 12 by Columbia.

Playing an Ordinary Man

Denzel Washington says that he was attracted to the role by finding a most unusual character at the center of the action-thriller.  “He’s not a cop, he is a civil servant,” the actor explains. “When he’s confronted with Ryder’s demands, he’s like, ‘Look, where’s the hostage negotiator? This is not what I do.’ Walter Garber is not a superhero. He’s scared.”

In a sense, Washington had spent many years preparing for the role.  “I grew up in New York and I took the 2 train from 241st and White Plains Road every day,” he says.  “When I was a kid, I’d go between cars, between stations, sneak down the side of the train.  You never went too far.  It was interesting, after 30 years, to be on the subway.”

Shooting in the Tunnels

Shooting in the tunnels can be a harrowing experience, with 400 tons of train roaring past only inches away, while the train’s “third rail shoes,” or electrical conductors, speed by even closer, with 600 volts of electricity coursing through them. “You don’t realize how big the trains are when you’re on the platform,” Washington explains. “But when you’re down on the tracks, those things are monsters, rolling at 40, 50 miles an hour. The wind can whip you around, so you’ve got to brace yourself.”

“Passengers tend to get panicky, especially in the tunnels,” says Jackson, who served as a technical advisor on the film. “Plus, there are only two crew members aboard each train to help. You don’t want people trying to get off the trains in between stations.”  In this case, the dispatcher can be the critical liaison that smooths out an emergency situation.

Working with Familiar Faces

Nor did it hurt that Washington had a long history with Scott, starring in three of the director’s films, Déjà Vu, Man on Fire, and Crimson Tide. “He’s the best, he has a good heart,” Washington says about Scott. “Tony works harder than anybody, so whenever he calls I come running.”

Washington also had a strong professional relationship with the screenwriter and the producer who courted him. Helgeland had written Man on Fire that starred Washington, while Black produced the actor’s two acclaimed directorial efforts, Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters. Washington was eager to work with Black again. “Todd Black knows what he’s doing,” says Washington. “He’s the consummate professional producer, one of the biggest in Hollywood.”

Preparing for the Role

 

For the role, Washington talked to veteran subway workers, including one who just retired after 60 years. He also befriended Joseph Jackson, a train dispatcher in the Rail Control Center. Like Washington’s character, Jackson began his career driving a subway train. Responsible each day for the safety of the five million passengers that traverse an underground system as large as the city itself, a dispatcher’s most critical skill is staying cool during an emergency. “Passengers tend to get panicky, especially in the tunnels,” says Jackson, who served as a technical advisor on the film. “Plus, there are only two crew members aboard each train to help. You don’t want people trying to get off the trains in between stations.”  In this case, the dispatcher can be the critical liaison that smooths out an emergency situation.

 

Observing the dispatcher, Washington seemed “like a computer, taking it all in,” remembers producer Todd Black.  Denzel would watch silently, then ask questions. He knows how to embody real people, to capture their gestures, things they would say. There’s no one better at that.”

 

Bunch of New York Guys

 

Washington says that when he got together with John Turturro and James Gandolfini, he would experience another transformation.  “John, Gandolfini and myself, we’re a bunch of New York guys, so it was a lot of fun. All I had to do was sit in a room with them and before you know it, I’m Italian.”