Safe House Interviews: Denzel Washington & Daniel Espinoza
Safe House is a new thriller starring Ryan Reynolds as Matt Weston, the “caretaker” of a CIA safe house in Cape Town. But when he gets an unexpected guest in the shape of the notorious Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) and the facility is raided, he’s forced to take to the streets with Frost in tow. We attended the press conference where Denzel and the director Daniel Espinoza talked about bringing the film to life.
The film seems to be so contemporary, what with the WikiLeaks angle and also the elements of waterboarding. Was all that there in the screenplay you both saw initially, or was that added through further research that you all did?
Daniel Espinosa: No that was in the script. That was part of the whole vibe when I read it; it had like a real base in our reality. We also used different experts that had actually worked in safe houses and operatives to be able to base this in some kind of reality, something that’s close to our society and our world right now.
Denzel does this make it a very controversial film back home because it’s not clear who the good guys and the bad guys are as we move through the film until we get a clearer perspective at the end? There are rogue elements of the CIA running through the film as well as guys who perhaps do the right thing for the wrong reasons and all of that muddies the waters over who is on the side of good and who isn’t.
Denzel Washington: Yeah. But who knows – what is it over here? MI5, MI6? Who knows that they do? We don’t know what they do. We know that we want to be protected then we claim we want them to be fair and to not torture people, but I think that on 9/11 and 9/12 in New York everybody was for torture, they wanted to get to bottom of whoever it was, and the further away you get from that then you want your country to play fair or something. I don’t think it would have made sense for President Obama to come on the air and say ‘next Tuesday we’re gonna shoot Bin Laden’, they’re gonna do it the way they’re gonna do it and that’s their own business.
Given that these guys are in a world of secrecy, was it quite straight-forward finding out some of the stuff you found out, and getting people to talk to you – such as the consultant on set?
Daniel Espinosa: What moved me about our consultant was not so much the practical expertise, but when shooting certain scenes I could see that he was emotionally moved sometimes and when we started talking we talked a lot about how this work that he had done had affected his personal life and how it affects you as a human-being. Because these people that get into this line of business, they go there out of ethical reasons as the beginning, but what they are supposed to do for their country or what they believe in, is sometimes unethical acts and how does that affect you as a human-being? That’s nothing political, that’s something that’s human. How do we live without compromising our own ethics? For me that is the core of the movie.
And Denzel you had a particular book you relied on?
Denzel Washington: Yep – The Sociopath Next Door. I just took it from the opposite angle, as I just think that Frost was a sociopath. When I thought of sociopaths I just thought of violence but they say 85% of sociopaths aren’t violent they’re manipulative. They’ll lie; they’ll use charm, wit and pity. I took the opposite sort of attack to what Daniel was just saying. I think that Tobin Frost had the skill set that the CIA appreciated. They didn’t know to what degree, they didn’t know he was a sociopath, I think his blood pressure goes down when there’s murder and mayhem, I think he was interested in winning. Every day I wrote in my script or journal, ‘how am I going to win today, and what am I going to win?’ So when the guys talk about water boarding I talk about not having the right towels. Sometimes I use charm; there is that scene in the soccer stadium where I started screaming like a little girl. And as soon as I get away, I kill. I think that he was such a sociopath and such a manipulator – and it’s a movie – that he chose not to even kill the young kid there, but to play with him, and it’s a movie. I should have just shot him.
Daniel Espinosa: We stood there and Denzel just said “I feel like shooting him” and I said “I don’t think that’s such a good idea, we got half the movie to go”.
Denzel I know you’ve been to South Africa before, and as executive producer how much say did you have in getting this film shot in Cape Town?
Denzel Washington: None. Originally it was supposed to be in Rio, but we had talked about the fact of not wanting it to be too similar to Man On Fire, but Daniel went to South Africa and he liked South Africa, and that was it, I think it was the right choice. And I think just practically, I mean aside from the look and all that, from my characters perspective it was going to be easier for me to blend in at a black country than in a brown country.
Brendan Gleeson puts in an impressive performance. How did you go about casting him in that role Daniel? And Denzel, what was it like working with him for the first time?
Denzel Washington: I think it was a tough scene, because it was the first day of shooting and we went back and visited some of my side of the scene anyway, But it was tough because you’re still kinda working out who you are and we had to jump to it, and that was the first day of shooting…
Daniel Espinosa: No, no, no. We’re talking about Brendan Gleeson.
Denzel Washington: Oh. Who am I talking about?
Daniel Espinosa: Liam Cunningham.
Denzel Washington: Oh. But I didn’t do anything with Gleeson.
Daniel Espinosa: No, nothing.
Denzel Washington: So then you answer it.
Daniel Espinosa: I actually always saw Gleeson in front of me for this character. I’ve always loved him – I loved him in Harry Potter and Green Zone. He’s a great actor and I have a deep respect for the British acting tradition [Brendan Gleeson is actually Irish], they are very well-prepared, they have a deep sensation of soul into what they do and they come with a vision of the chat.
Action movies nowadays are very big and very loud and certainly there’s a major action element here, but there’s also some wonderful quieter moments, a lot more internalised. Which were the most challenging and fun to do?
Denzel Washington: I didn’t think this was an action movie, at least it didn’t read like one. I don’t even know what an action movie is; I don’t know what that means. I think it’s a testament to Daniel’s vision, I think it’s intense and it plays more intense than it read and it’s piece by piece when looking back over it, and how Daniel was putting it together. One thing he talked about right from the start was how funky and dirty and raw he wanted these fights to be, so when I saw that fight between Ryan (Reynolds) and Joel (Kinnaman) at the end, I was like ‘Damn’. They were really going at it, and I don’t know if that’s an action movie, or just that it was a little uncomfortable as to how real it was, they were cutting each other up y’know.
Daniel Espinosa: I don’t think you can direct a movie like an action movie. You can make a movie, and when it comes to the fighting I never saw it as fighting, I saw it as struggling. So I think that’s how you should perceive something if you’re trying to do another set-piece scene, I think that all scenes in the movie move the character and if you perceive that as an action movie maybe that’s a testament that you think it’s intense, and I’m happy. But I did everything I could to get the right people around it, we had a fight coordinator that did A Prophet, which also had very intense, struggling fight scenes, and he also did Taken. So I tried to gather round us people that were striving to do a movie, not an action piece.
Denzel you chose to do your own stunts and as a result you got yourself a black eye. Why did you choose to do your own stunts, and has that put you off doing your own stunts in further movies?
Denzel Washington: It has to be us, otherwise you have to be so far back to hide us. In one scene there was a guy driving from the top of the car, so we weren’t in control of where the car was moving. In this scene I’m handcuffed and I’m supposed to jump up and put the handcuffs up over Ryan’s neck to choke him and bring him towards me. So the guy is up there driving and we’re really not in control, and we’re going fast and swerving around, so it just so happens that I got whipped forward, and he got whipped back and our heads collided, and the back of his head is harder than the front of mine. It actually happened twice, but it just so happens that the second time my eye just closed up.
Denzel as an actor as well as producer in this film, what was it that made you want to become so involved in this project?
Denzel Washington: I can’t do it any other way. When I saw Snabba Cash I was fascinated by this young filmmaker, and when I met Daniel and he talked about his life and how he grew up, what his father did and where he lived, I was in as far as Daniel was concerned, but I wasn’t in as far as the script was concerned, I didn’t think it was good enough. So I’ve been in the habit of developing and helping to develop material for a long time, for twenty years or more.
So my agent said “Hey, you’re doing all this work, you should get credit for it.” So he got me a producer credit, I don’t think I got any money for it, well maybe a couple extra dollars, but I enjoyed helping to develop material, it’s a way for me to get into the part. I’m a logic monster, if things don’t make sense I gotta make sense of them. So we would all sit in the room each and every day with maybe two or three writers for five months, it took us a long time, and that’s also a way for me to figure out my character.
How do you feel your careers have developed as you’ve got older, and how do you think your career choices differ now to when you were younger?
Denzel Washington: How old are you Daniel?
Daniel Espinosa: I’m 34.
Denzel Washington: I’ve got shoes older than you.
Daniel Espinosa: I’m not old enough to answer that question.
Denzel Washington: Me neither. I went through a phase where I was sick of acting, you know, I was tired of it, I didn’t really wanna do it anymore, I was bored of it. When I turned 50 I looked in the mirror and thought this ain’t the dress rehearsal, this is life and I don’t know how much more of it I’m gonna have.
In the last three of four years especially after doing this play on Broadway with the great Viola Davis, it reminded me of how I started which was in the theatre and how I worked in the theatre and I’ve made a commitment and recommitted myself to being feral as an actor. I want to do good work and I wanna do good work with people that I wanna work with. That’s why I said the first thing that drew me in wasn’t the screenplay, I wasn’t that impressed with the screenplay, if I hadn’t met Daniel I probably wouldn’t have done this movie because it didn’t interest me that much I didn’t think it was that good, but I liked Daniel.
So when you get the chance to work with people you like who are talented, that’s rare – I don’t know how many more movies I’m gonna have the opportunity to make and I don’t wanna look back and think that I just floated through one, or just did it for the money or something like that. I want to be able to say that I worked as hard as I could and the best work I could do.
Safe House is released Friday 24th February