*In the nail biting, riveting movie, “Safe House,” opening February 10, Denzel Washington plays “the CIA’s legendary and most dangerous traitor,” Tobin Frost. Frost is also described as the “world’s most skillful assassin.” One can never say that Washington isn’t always at his level best. Like “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” Frost surfaces in South Africa, where he is remanded to a Safe House.
After the Safe House is blown to smithereens its housekeeper, Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), helps Frost to escape brutal mercenaries that are after him. Washington and Reynolds made a pit stop in New York this past weekend and took up residence at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel to discuss their latest project together. I started off by asking the two of them if they became more leery of the country’s security mechanisms being compromised after this movie, or were they always suspicious that some shenanigans were taking place.
DENZEL WASHINGTON: Why, what goes on in the government circles [Laughs]? Ryan Reynolds, who is sitting next to him, laughs also.
DW: Yeah, years ago even prior to 9/11 I did a movie called the Siege. I did a lot of research on the FBI and the CIA and I was amazed at that time. I guess we all know it now, how little information they shared with each other. So after that, I’m not surprised by anything.
RYAN REYNOLDS: It’s not what we know that’s terrifying; it’s what we don’t know. I think it’s sort of pervasive with everything in life really. But yeah, I’m sure a book or two could be written on what really goes on.
The fight scenes were really intense. Were there any mishaps?
RR: We had a couple of rounds that we went which I practically had to wear an adult diaper [Washington laughs uproarious]. I’ve seen Hurricane (referring to Washington’s role as Hurricane Carter). Great, now I have to fight him. Terrific.
Did anyone get hurt?
DW: Ryan gave me a black eye.
RR: I did.
DW: Yeah, there’s a scene where I reach over and try to choke him when I had the handcuffs on and we were flying around in the car. He wasn’t actually driving the car; it was being controlled by someone else so it just happened as I was reaching forward he was flying back and ‘Pow!’
RR: And that was the beginning of my early retirement [Washington laughs]. Ok, I have given Denzel Wahsington a black eye, so it was time to go home. That first look you gave me after it happened, I just—
DW: It was a real look.
RR: Yeah, it was definitely very real.
DW: I was like, what the— [we all can imagine what word comes next].
RR: It was weird to feel my face on fire.
DW: That was strange. I had never had a black eye in my life, you know. But can’t say that anymore.
RR: I’m glad I was your first. If it was going to be anybody, let it be an apologetic Canadian.
Denzel, can you describe the water-boarding scene?
The water boarding was close to real and I really wanted to get into it to see what it felt like. It doesn’t feel good. You’ll give up the answers.
RR: That was the most disturbing thing I had ever seen watching him do the water boarding was really disturbing.
DW: Yeah, it was a trip. I wanted to see what it really feels like and I certainly did.
Having done ‘Cry Freedom’ years ago, Denzel, could you talk about the current state of affairs in South Africa?
DW: When we shot ‘Cry Freedom’ I wasn’t even allowed in South Africa. They told me I could come but I wasn’t going to leave. I had a lot death threats at that time. So we shot in Zimbabwe. In 1995 I had the privilege and the honor to meet Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela the same day; breakfast with Desmond Tutu and lunch with Nelson Mandela. Then, I had the good fortune to have Mr. Mandela actually come to my house in California. There is a whole new generation from what was there in ’89, ’91 so you got twenty year-olds that only heard about it. I saw this show on television and they were talking about South Africa now and it had kids with Valley accents because of the Internet and the information age that we’re in. They are exposed to so much more.
At the same time I still saw a lot of psychological damage. I met a woman there, a very, very fair-skinned woman who was studying psychology. She lived in an area over by the coast, Seacrest, and her mother was Black. Her father was Jewish but in order for her mother to live in that neighborhood, she had to act like she was the maid. They kept the charade up for twenty years. Now imagine the psychological damage it did not only to the mother but also to the daughter. So, there will continue to be psychological scars for years to come.
However, Cape Town is like Santa Monica on steroids. It’s one of the most beautiful towns you’ve ever seen but it’s still set up the old way. You go ten miles inland where the townships are and they are still there. They are helping to build some of them up. It was also interesting talking to an elderly man who built a nice house for himself in the township. So it was like, ‘Why are you living here in the township? Why not move towards the beach?’ He said, ‘Oh no, I don’t trust these people. They might change their minds.’ He was more comfortable there because that was where he grew up. I was quite surprised about Langa. You would think that it’s all just slums, but they had three and four bedroom homes on an acre of land. It’s an area an area they were allowed to live so people decided to stay there.
RR: Langa is one of the oldest townships in South Africa but it’s just teeming with joy. The people there are just incredibly happy given the horrendous circumstances in which they are living. If you’re from the United and you go over there, you can’t believe what you’re seeing.
DW: Langa is so big, it’s not like you can call 911 and the police show up. So they police themselves. We were driving back from the set to the base camp and the women were making all these sounds while these men were walking around this one guy. A man had a big stick and he was whipping the guy. I asked my driver, Jack, ‘What are they doing?’ He said, ‘They’re putting him in his place.’ I said, ‘Whoa! What do you think he did?’ He said it was something related to the women and I said, ‘Well, why doesn’t he run?’ He said, ‘They will kill him if he tries to run. They will stone him.’ So, that still exists, but you can get Direct TV.
RR: Yeah, you get ‘Everybody Loves Raymond.’
DW: Yeah, that’s the weirdest thing seeing the Kardashians in Langa [he and Ryan have a big laugh].
Ryan, what drew you to this story?
Obviously, the reason I really wanted to do the film was to work with, what I think is the greatest actor working in Hollywood today, Denzel. That was a huge impetus. I just love the idea that my character is sort of slowly disillusioned with everything that he believes in. It’s the slow disintegration of God and country for him and that’s sort of what means everything to this guy and watching that be peeled away slowly, measure by measure by Tobin Frost, who Denzel is playing, goes back to what you asked earlier. It’s what we don’t know that is more terrifying than what we do know. So much goes on behind the scenes that we’ll never, ever know about and I like investigating that world.
Denzel, can you answer the proverbial question of whether or not it’s more fun to play a bad guy??
The next picture I make that’s coming out the beginning of next year is called ‘Flight’ and I play an alcoholic, drug-addicted pilot who crashes a plan but saved a lot of lives. It was the most intense film I’ve done probably in 20 years. It’s clichéd to say that a bad guy is more fun ‘cause you can say anything, you can get away with anything. Sometimes when you’re the good guy, you’re sort of trapped. ‘Oh, he can’t say that. And even when you’re playing a real person like a Steven Bilko, you’re sort of stuck within those confines. So, yeah, bad guys do have more fun.