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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Killer instincts

“Bunting today,” Denzel Washington groans theatrically. “We been buntin’.” The afternoon is grinding to a close on the Sony Studios lot in Los Angeles, and Washington hasn’t made any grand advances in editing “The Great Debaters,” a 1930s period piece that marks his second effort behind the camera and the follow-up to 2002’s widely admired “Antwone Fisher.” Instead, he’s spent eight hours slogging away in a beige, windowless room littered with spent water bottles and a sad plate of muffins. Dressed in dad-casual workout clothes, the 52-year-old star swivels contemplatively in an office chair, absorbed by his work in progress.

Seeing him like this presents a Hollywood kind of paradox. One of the prime pleasures of watching Washington over the past two decades — the years since his breakout performance as the anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko in 1987’s “Cry Freedom” and his Oscar-winning turn in “Glory” — has been marveling at his self-possession. The key to his superstardom, more important than his send-the-ladies-swooning looks, is his restraint in revealing only the subtlest shades of what’s on his characters’ minds. So it’s an odd sensation to watch him in that familiar situation — lost in thought — but with his charm on pause. He almost appears to be a regular guy.

Almost. “It’s a very tedious process, as you see,” Washington tells me, as if loving the tedium. Then he unleashes a laugh that suggests he knows how to amuse himself and enjoys the abrupt flourish of his charisma. You know the laugh well, a quick explosion followed by a warm and swaying cackle, his easy demeanor enveloping the righteous core of someone raised by a Pentecostal minister.

We head down the stairs and into his black Land Rover for a ride over to Beverly Hills. (You know the stride, too: an unstoppable swagger with a hint of military bearing and nothing to prove.) A rich suite by the late composer R. Nathaniel Dett — possible music for the film — is on his stereo, and the future’s on his mind. For starters, Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster,” hitting theaters now, stars Washington as Frank Lucas, a Southern country bumpkin turned urban drug lord, and the role ranks among the most electric of his high-voltage career.

“American Gangster” — a kaleidoscopic, “Departed”-esque game of chase between Lucas and the incorruptible cop who ultimately nails him, played by Russell Crowe — began seven years ago in the pages of New York magazine. As the biggest drug dealer in Harlem in the early seventies, Lucas found himself targeted by none other than U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani. The dope du jour was Blue Magic, a strain of heroin with an unusually low price and uncommonly high purity. Cutting mafioso middlemen out of the equation, Lucas bought opium at its source in Southeast Asia and smuggled it Stateside in the coffins of Vietnam War casualties. The article was begging to be adapted for the movies.

Washington shelved his own memories of 116th Street in Frank Lucas’s heyday — “My mother was raised in Harlem,” he says, “and I remember Frank’s block, those four corners” — and disappeared into “American Gangster’s” Cadillac cruise through questions of family and honor. As a result, friend and producer Brian Grazer had the eye-opening experience of being on Washington’s business end. “I’ve known him for 16 or 17 years, and we made “Inside Man,” but when we started the first day on “American Gangster,” it was just like starting over,” the producer says. “I said hi to him, and I’m not sure he even saw me. His concentration was as intense as I’ve ever seen in an actor.”

There might be a deeper meaning in Washington’s old longing to play the villain. Who wouldn’t want to sink his teeth into a dastardly criminal role after playing the slew of heroes that he has? His résumé already overflowed with upright cops and steady soldiers—not to mention a tremendous Malcolm X—and the following years brought more martyrs (“The Hurricane”) and noble pioneers (“Remember the Titans”). It’s easy to imagine that Washington’s singular position — with its expectation that his persona ought to shine with as much goodness as Sidney Poitier’s did during the Civil Rights era — might feel like a virtuous burden. But Washington plays down the idea that his vicious roles in “Training Day” and “American Gangster” represent a conscious shift, and he discourages the notion that he’s felt a professional responsibility to uplift the race. “Without making light of it, it ain’t that complicated,” he says of his calculus in choosing roles. “Is it a good script? It’s not about the black experience. It’s more specific and selfish than that. It’s what I feel like doing, not what I feel like people need.”

Cut back to Washington in the editing room, his posture again resembling a supersize pretzel. After eight hours of patient struggle, he calls an end to the workday — “You don’t want to start getting bad ideas” — and cues up one of his scenes. “The Great Debaters’s” Melvin Tolson, an educator who also wielded influence as a columnist and politician, stands as another in Washington’s long line of steely motivators, but the actor brings a good deal of his dashing friskiness to the character. Dapper and intellectually meticulous, Tolson is a little Mr. Chips and a lot Mr. Know-It-All. “Sit down,” he orders a simpering charge at debate practice, and proceeds to ask fiendishly, “Who’s next?” Seeing this—for perhaps the fiftieth time — Washington can’t help but savor his pungency. Bouncing from his chair and swinging an arm at the screen, he releases himself from mute concentration, the day of bunting suddenly far behind. “That ain’t too bad,” he says, and delivers a grinning echo: “Who’s next?”

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