NEW YORK: Seven-time Oscar nominee Denzel Washington is trying to get better. In Dan Gilroy’s “Roman J. Israel, Esq,” the 62-year-old actor has challenged himself with one of his most complicated and singular roles. The title character is a veteran activist attorney. After decades spent as a brilliant behind-the-scenes legal mind, the death of his more-renowned partner brings Israel out into the open.
For an actor whose most powerful performances have been monuments of power and strength, Israel is an oddity – a loping, rumpled, anti-social loner who Gilroy and Washington say has Asperger’s Syndrome.
He’s also of a part with many of Washington’s more recent roles that have stretched the actor in new directions. “I’m looking at the guy in the mirror,” Washington says. “That’s who I’m challenging.”
Speaking with AP in Manhattan, his affection for Israel was obvious. It’s the only movie where he’s found himself quietly pleading to his character to make better choices.
AP: Did you have a feeling of starting a new chapter after “Fences?” You spent years performing that on Broadway and directing the film adaptation.
DW: Increasingly, I’m only going to do what I want to do, professionally. So I don’t know what I’m going to do next, film-wise. I do on the stage – Washington will headline a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” on Broadway – and that’s okay ... The time I have left and the opportunities that I have left, I understand that that’s finite. How can I be the best that I can be?
AP: Troy from “Fences” and Israel both share a disconnect with younger generations. Has that been on your mind?
DW: It’s a fact, whether it’s on your mind or not. It may be on my mind, but I don’t remember! (Laughs)
AP: This year marks the 25th anniversary of “Malcolm X.” Like him, you’re the son of a preacher. Do you feel as though you’ve followed in your father’s footsteps at all?
DW: For a time, it sent me in another direction. That can be a pattern for preacher’s son. I had to go to church, so it wasn’t fun ... Being a minister’s son, having grown up in the church and learned the cadence, it was probably easier to play that part.
AP: You’d be good at the pulpit.
DW: Well, it’s not performance-based if you mean what you say and you better mean what you say. My father ... believed it with every fiber of his being ... My father was a minister and my mother owned a beauty shop. So that seems like perfect breeding ground for an actor.
AP: Is there a film you saw at a young age that changed your life?
DW: “Super Fly!” And “Shaft.” When I was 14, 15, “Shaft” especially. Here was a guy ... he walked around and he had his own theme music. He had a leather jacket on. He seemed to be in control and he was sticking it to the man. I remember seeing those movies and you were picking who you wanted to be: Super Fly or Shaft. I wanted to be Shaft.