Denzel holds the lead

Oscar-winning actor dishes on hero status, reworking 'The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3'


“I think it’s hard to generalize,” says actor Denzel Washington about movie remakes. He and John Travolta — as the villain — costar in a remake of the 1974 “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” which starred Walter Matthau and was much noted for its powerful score by David Shire. Comparisons between the two versions are invariably being made, generally in favor of the original, which also had an impressive supporting cast.

“You gotta remember that remakes go back to movies and the beginning,” says Washington of the film industry’s history. “They’d make a movie in the 1930s and then do a remake in the 1940s. If you read some of the movie books, you’ll find out they didn’t wait near as long as we do now to remake a movie. With this one, what? . . . 20 years, 30 years? (actually, it’s 35 years). So it wasn’t for greed or just to shock people ’cause Johnny’s playing nasty this time out,” he chuckles, referring to Travolta in bad-guy role.

“Pelham” has become a hot topic of conversation in New York City, where the story is set. In 1974 the movie didn’t create a big stir because it seemed too implausible — but that was before 9/11. The plot concerns the hijacking of a subway train, whose passengers are held for ransom. Manhattan and its infrastructure, political and mechanical, are scrutinized, and some critics have said it’s too stressful a film for New York to handle in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Others say it could give bad guys, including terrorists, ideas (ideas that ostensibly it didn’t give anyone in the 1970s, ’80s or ’90s).

Washington feels, “You gotta remember, this is fiction, man. It goes back to a novel (by John Godey). And hijacking can happen anywhere, any time. It can be on an airplane or a bus (as in “Speed”) or a car. Or in a subway system in New York City. You can’t pin down how many ideas the bad guys have gotten from movies over the years. You can’t know that, can’t even guess it. And you can’t stop creating story lines and books and movies ’cause somebody might go and copy what they have seen.

“Mostly, it’s just something everyone involved in this was thinking might interest a lot of people. If you live in a city, you can probably relate to this. It’s just one . . . example of what could happen, . . . but in the end, the bad guys get their punishment, ’cause that’s how it usually goes in movies, and you just wish that’s how it would go out in real life.”

The original “Pelham” was written by renowned scriptwriter Peter Stone; this adaptation of Godey’s novel is by Brian Helgeland and is directed by screen veteran Tony Scott.

Washington, who plays a subway dispatcher, was born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., in 1954, the son of a minister and a beautician and the middle child of three. He and his wife Pauletta, who wed in 1983, have four children. The two-time Oscar-winner (one for Best Actor, one for Best Supporting Actor) had his first major screen role in the 1981 racial comedy “Carbon Copy.” He’s since made relatively few comedies, and when asked why, he replies, “Beats me. ‘Cause most people (that) know me, they swear I got a great sense of humor. So I don’t know.”

Of late, he’s done action-type roles (he next costars in the action-adventure movie, “The Book of Eli” with Gary Oldman and Mila Kunis due out Jan. 2010). How does he choose a role or script? “The story, mostly. Do you wanna know what happens next? Say, in this (“The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3”), when they hold up the subway and the people in it, wouldn’t you want to know what happens next? ‘Cause you know it could happen, it could be real. Especially nowadays. And you’d be, like, curious . . . to know what happens next in the subway — all those people — and what the guys working in the subway are gonna do next, and the city’s politicians, and what goes right or wrong.

“This one was a no-brainer. You read this story, you want to know the outcome and you want to play the hero, the guy who helps make it all come out OK.”

Washington often plays roles not intended for any particular race. This wasn’t always the case, as with “Carbon Copy.” Why is it now possible for Washington to avoid racial stereotyping? “It’s taken time. It’s taken the time it needs for writers and the guys who make movies to kind of just see people as people. You know, to not think of them as a color first. Of course, if the lead’s like me (black), I get considered practically first off. But this time out, they could’ve cast anyone. Even,” he again chuckles, “John Travolta.”

Does Washington avoid playing the villain, and if so, is there a reason? “I . . . would just rather play the good guy,” he says after a lengthy pause. One wonders whether, with blacks now so prominent on the screen, he feels a need to avoid portraying a villain? “I sort of had to work my way up into this traditional leading man position,” he says slowly and carefully.

“It took me some time. There wasn’t no guarantee I was gonna get there. But now I am, I like playing the lead, someone who can set things right. I’d rather have an optimistic outlook than, say, a pessimistic one.”

How about a realistic one, which combines the two? He laughs, “Movies, you know, they still go more for the A or Z outlook. You know, black or white, not gray — no racial pun intended.”

Do comedies come his way at all? “You know what? The thinking in Hollywood’s more stereotyped where comedy’s concerned. If it’s a brother (a black man) and it’s funny, they think of Eddie Murphy first. Or maybe Will (Smith). And that’s another thing. Will’s younger than me, and this is a real age-conscious business, man. I’m the age I am, and it ain’t young, and maybe I look OK for my age, but they’re not gonna keep giving me leads and real action roles and all those silvered platters for the next 15, 20 years.

“Once I’m like 60, I’ll be fitting into a new category, like it or not. So that’s another reason I’m sticking with the groove of a traditional leading man, doing this while I can. When I’m older and older-looking, I can probably get to do more comedies. But I can probably also get to do some nasty guy — you know, villains. And most of the time a villain role is a supporting role, so I can hold off on fitting into that there groove.”

Unlike Murphy or Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington is never in gossip columns and has never been touched by scandal. Is this a very deliberate part of a minister’s son’s plan? He laughs “I’m careful, man. I don’t put myself into temptation’s way. I keep it in mind that I’m a married man and if I land in some scandal situation, it doesn’t just involve only me, it’s them (his family) too.”

What’s the closest he’s come to controversy or scandal? “I’ve said a few things in my time I wasn’t supposed to say. I’ve never actually done anything — I’ve just opened my big mouth.”

For instance?

“Well, . . . I don’t judge anyone, and if someone wants to go the interracial romance route or marry outside their race, that is fine. Today it’s not unusual. It’s just not what I did. But back then, you had to be careful what you said, ’cause other people who went that route could take it personal(ly).

“Or when Will (Smith) came to me for advice. He was playing someone gay in a movie. He asked me if I thought he should kiss another guy in it (which the script required). I said ‘no,’ and somebody must’ve heard, ’cause it got reported, and it came out like I was antigay. But I thought for Will, early on in his career in the movies, it was a bit of a risky thing to do. Now, of course, you can win an Academy Award (playing a gay role) and it’s not a risk anymore.

“So that’s one reason I try not to talk politics or religion or other stuff in interviews. I’d rather speak my lines, being an actor, and give you a happy ending than speak my mind and land in hot water.”

Critic Giovanni Fazio reviews “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” on today’s Film page.