Saint Denzel tries a little sin

Film

September 16, 2001|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,Special to the Sun

TORONTO -- "I've been blessed," Denzel Washington says during the recent Toronto International Film Festival. "I'm in a great position. I make tons of money."

There's a "but" there, and we'll get to that. It might be instructive to first give context to Washington's role in Training Day, which had its premiere at the festival and opens in theaters on Oct. 5.

The man who won an Academy Award in 1989 for his soldier in Glory, who imbued righteous indignation with sweat and muscle in The Hurricane and who rallied his divided team in Remember the Titans is taking a turn toward evil. Alonzo Harris, the L.A.P.D. narcotics enforcer he plays in Training Day, is beyond redemption and beyond recognition of the do-gooders Washington has portrayed. Those heroes have earned him popularity surpassed by few in Hollywood.

"But you can still get bored," Washington continues in an empty meeting room. "I got bored with acting, maybe getting tired of playing the good guy."

His 180-degree turn carries risk. Fans sometimes cannot accept their leading men with hardened hearts. Washington wants to let his next movie, the thriller John Q, in which he plays a more traditional role, be the apology. He isn't making one.

"I didn't worry about it," he says. "You can't play a part that way. You've got to go for it. People have a right not to like it, and I've always said I do what I like. I've never really done what I think the people might like."

Antoine Fuqua, the director, says Washington was having such a good time, he kept on Alonzo's leather jacket and gold necklaces at Los Angeles Lakers basketball games. He even stayed in character at home with his wife, Pauletta, and their three children. When Pauletta called Fuqua to tell him, "I don't like this guy," the director knew he was hitting the right note.

"I wanted to make him as bad as possible," Fuqua says. "He wasn't bad just for the sake of being bad. The guy's a victim. He's sad. He's a guy who never reached his potential and became the monster he was chasing."

Oscar talk at debut

The movie covers one day on the detective's South Central L.A. beat. A rookie, played by Ethan Hawke, rides along. At first, Alonzo seems to have the trappings of a renegade good cop.

But soon enough we see that he fortifies himself with booze and drugs. He has a woman on the side. And he drives through the streets like a despot touring his kingdom.

His shades of gray turn darker with every case the two investigate and every dirty cop they encounter. The gang members in the film have their own code of justice, but they are far from good also. That leaves Hawke's Jake Hoyt as the moral center.

"I figured if I did my job right, Denzel will get an Oscar," Hawke said.

The movie made its debut in Toronto with Oscar talk. Washington says the hype beats a sharp stick in the eye. Outside of his Glory victory for best supporting actor, he has been nominated twice for best actor (The Hurricane, Malcolm X) and one other time for best supporting actor (Cry Freedom).

A Mount Vernon, N.Y., native, Washington, 46, began to study acting at Fordham University in the Bronx and polished his craft at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. Acclaimed performances in New York plays led him to television's St. Elsewhere, playing Dr. Philip Chandler. His feature debut in A Soldier's Story (1984) followed. Over the last decade he has risen to the top 10 or so actors whose names pop up when a major studio wants to make a so-called important movie. He insists he does not use his eight-figure salary per movie as a barometer of success.

"I got a $39 watch that's paid for," he says. "My Adidas sneakers are paid for. I got free socks, no stain on my T-shirt. I'm OK. I'm good."

'It is the unknown'

Washington's relaxed mood is reflected in his mid-morning ensemble: a gray T-shirt and black sweatpants. An assistant asks him what he would like. "A million dollars in unmarked bills," he answers. He settles for coffee.

He is arm's-length friendly, confident, a little cocky. He has reason to be. Washington has control of his career and seems to be a content family man, with four children. When he isn't shooting a movie near his Los Angeles home, he commutes back there on weekends.

He has said in the past of his personal life, "I have been less than perfect," but in this 30-minute chat we never pinpoint what he means. After he senses the implication is infidelity, he cracks, "Maybe that says something about you," and erupts into laughter.

Washington once played a saint in The Preacher's Wife and found satisfaction in playing a sinner in Training Day. Now he will test his ability behind the camera. In his biggest move to stave off boredom, Washington is directing an untitled project about a sailor and his psychiatrist based on Antwone Fisher's memoir Finding Fish.

"It is the unknown," he says. "You just don't know if you can do it. To do something new is exciting and I look forward to the challenge."

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