Working in an industry that chews up and spits out marquee names with alarming regularity, Denzel Washington has been a star for roughly 20 years, but when a reporter asked him if his turn in the new remake of "The Taking of Pelham 123" was more of a character turn, Washington bristled at the need to define or clarify such things.
"These are all categories," Washington says. "Leading man is something that someone calls you when you do press junkets. I’m not a leading man, I’m an actor, and so you get the part and interpret it."
In "Pelham," Washington plays Walter Garber, who shares a name and a few traits with the role played by Walter Matthau in Joseph Sargent's 1974 original. In the new version, directed by Tony Scott, Garber is a mid-level subway dispatcher called into uncharacteristic action when armed men, led by John Travolta's Ryder, hijack a train.
It's amusing to reflect that at 54, Washington is the same age Matthau was in the original, but it's doubtful that reporters needed to ask Matthau what he had to do to turn down his sex appeal to play a regular guy. And relatively regular he is, as Washington has acquired a tiny paunch, a pair of "I'm a Nerd" spectacles and a slew of unassuming mannerisms. Where did he find the character?
"The deli," Washington cracks to reporters at the film's recent press day. "Just ate a lot and kept getting smaller and smaller sweaters to wear. I spilled coffee on myself. I was concerned a little bit about 'Inside Man' where I was a cop and a hostage negotiator. I just liked the idea of when they hand him a gun he had never held one before. He was an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation. He had a cloud over his head. He didn’t come to work knowing he was going to get an opportunity to redeem himself. He didn’t even know if he was going to redeem himself. It was something he felt like he needed to do. "
So Washington doesn't like being called a leading man and he also isn't so comfortable with the idea of "The Taking of Pelham 123" as a remake. After all, this isn't the first time Washington has played a lead role in an updated version of a classic thriller. Nobody really confuses the 2004 version of "The Manchurian Candidate," though "Crimson Tide" holds up perfectly well if you think of it as a heavily reimagined and unacknowledged remake of "The Caine Mutiny."
"I think it’s basically the story of a hostage situation on a train in New York City. I think that is what the two films have in common, and the fact that it’s New York City," Washington insists. "I don’t know that my character and the character that Walter Matthau played are that similar necessarily. I don’t know why anybody would remake a film, I mean, literally the translation or definition of the word. Why would you redo it the same way?"
As with the original, the hero and his antagonist communicate only by phone for the majority of the film, teasing viewers as they get closer and closer to an inevitable showdown. On the remake, Washington shot his scenes first, with Travolta providing off-screen line-readings, followed by several weeks of the reverse. It allowed the two A-listers to develop a different and unusual sort of rapport.
"It didn’t just happen once we got on screen together," Washington says. "We have five senses. The other four were heightened. Yes, we didn’t see each other. It’s like an old courtship over the phone. It’s a long distance relationship. You get to know a person. We would sing songs, tell jokes, and do Broadway tunes. ‘Good morning, Mr. Travolta.’ ‘Good morning, Mr. Washington.' And we would just go. That was the nature of the relationship."
While he had to slowly develop his relationship with his human co-star, Washington had no trouble adapting to working with his other co-star, the New York City subway system.
"I grew up in New York so I was born in the subway," says the Mount Vernon-born actor. "I rode it almost everyday for many years."
He adds, "If you can do it on a subway then I’ve seen it. From robbery to parenting."
"The Taking of Pelham 123" hopes wide on Friday, June 12.