I was BORN for this

More than 25 years af­ter play­ing free­dom fighter Steve Biko in Cry Free­dom, Den­zel Washington has been busy un­leash­ing his in­ner ac­tion hero in South Africa, writes Marie- Chris­tine Sour­ris

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PLAY­ING Los An­ge­les po­lice de­tec­tive Alonzo Har­ris in 2001’ s Train­ing Day was the role of a life­time for Den­zel Washington.

Not only did it fi­nally hand him that elu­sive best ac­tor Os­car, it also opened Hol­ly­wood’s eyes to a whole new Den­zel.

Gone was the hand­some, vir­tu­ous star of The Pel­i­can Brief, Mal­colm X, Philadel­phia, The Hur­ri­cane and Re­mem­ber the Ti­tans.

In his place stood a tough, mean and evil bad- arse.

‘‘ I don’t think that Hol­ly­wood, quote un­quote, had looked at me in that light,’’ says Washington, who picked up his first Os­car in 1990, a best sup­port­ing ac­tor gong for Amer­i­can Civil War drama Glory.

‘‘ I re­mem­ber when I was of­fered the script for Train­ing Day. I gave it to my son to read, he was a teenager then, about 16. He was like ‘ Oh yeah Dad, you gotta do this, this is a good one. Au­di­ences haven’t seen you like this’. ‘‘ So I took it to heart.’’ In the decade to fol­low since, Washington has been of­fered scripts ‘‘ left and right’’ that chal­lenged his good guy im­age.

In ad­di­tion to his re­spected di­rec­to­rial ef­forts Ant­wone Fisher ( 2002) and The Great De­baters ( 2007), Washington has played a washed- up for­mer se­cu­rity agent ( Man on Fire ), a des­per­ate fa­ther who holds a hospi­tal’s ER as hostage ( John Q) and Har­lem heroin king­pin Frank Lu­cas in Amer­i­can Gang­ster, an­other one he signed up for at his son’s in­sis­tence.

But it’s not just the moral com­pass of Washington’s char­ac­ters that has shifted.

While most ac­tors ap­proach­ing 60 would be think­ing about slow­ing down on the ac­tion front, Washington ( pic­tured) seems to be step­ping harder on the ac­cel­er­a­tor.

His lat­est role as a rogue CIA agent on the loose in South Africa in­volved Washington tack­ling nu­mer­ous as­sas­sins in hand- to­hand combat, trap­ping co- star Ryan Reynolds in a vi­cious choke­hold dur­ing a high- speed car chase and stag­ing a shoot out at Cape Town’s Green Point Sta­dium.

It has more than a touch of the Bourne tril­ogy to it, and well it might.

Not only do the sto­ries share a com­mon theme – rene­gade se­cret agents be­ing hunted down – they also share the thrilling, fast- paced vis­ual style of cin­e­matog­ra­pher Oliver Wood.

While Washington’s reg­u­lar fit­ness rou­tine al­ready in­cludes box­ing at the gym five times a week, he trained in South Africa for four months for the film, di­rected by Daniel Espinosa and ex­ec­u­tive pro­duced by Washington among oth­ers.

‘‘ I had vis­ited Cape Town in the ’ 90s – it had changed in a big way. It seemed a lot more mod­ern than I re­mem­bered.

‘‘ I imag­ine [ do­ing the big sta­dium crowd scenes] were more of a nightmare for the di­rec­tor, hav­ing to move thou­sands of peo­ple around. [ But] it was fine for me.’’

Es­pe­cially since it was Reynolds who at­tracted most of the heat, Washington says.

‘‘ He’s quite a star over there. He was get­ting a lot of cat calls from the ladies,’’ he says of his co- star, who is ‘‘ a re­ally good kid and a fine ac­tor’’.

Cer­tainly the ladies threw a few calls Washington’s way as well?

‘‘ Yeah, but it was [ mainly] him, he was get­ting his fair share,’’ he laughs.

Wolf whis­tles or not, Washington is idolised by mil­lions all around the world.

But grow­ing up in and around New York, he never con­sid­ered be­com­ing an ac­tor.

‘‘ I think [ my he­roes] were more the peo­ple that were in my neigh­bour­hood, the Boys Club that I grew up in. You kind of looked up to the dif­fer­ent guys who were in charge there.

‘‘ And then some of the guys I grew up with be­came re­ally prom­i­nent, pro­fes­sional bas­ket­ball play­ers. We were all proud to be friends of theirs, to know them.’’

Later, it was Sid­ney Poitier and James Earl Jones who he would start look­ing up to, while also watch­ing the likes of Robert De Niro, Al Pa­cino and Dustin Hoffman.

But it wasn’t un­til his third year at Ford­ham Univer­sity that Washington, who now re­port­edly com­mands $ 20 mil­lion a movie, signed up for his first act­ing class ‘‘ on a fluke’’.

‘‘ And then I just kept go­ing. When I got my first job I said ‘ Hey, they pay pretty good, I’ll see if I can keep this go­ing’,’’ he says with a laugh.

Meet­ing di­rec­tor Richard At­ten­bor­ough sealed the deal.

‘‘ I was right here, up the block in New York, and he was cast­ing the movie

Cry Free­dom,’’ says Washington, who now lives in Los An­ge­les with his wife of al­most 30 years, Pauletta.

‘‘ He said ‘ I’m re­ally look­ing for an African to play the part, but if I don’t find one then I want you to play the part’. And I was like, ‘ Wow’. I was re­ally flat­tered.’’

It cer­tainly worked out ‘‘ all right’’, as he puts it. Just 33 at the time and mak­ing waves as hunky Dr Phillip on ’ 80s tele­vi­sion se­ries St Else­where, it was Cry Free­dom that put Washington on the movie map.

But peek be­hind all the fame and ac­co­lades – in­clud­ing his first Tony Award in 2010 for Broad­way play Fences – and it is Washington’s four chil­dren who are his proud­est achieve­ments.

His daugh­ter Ka­tia, a Yale grad­u­ate, is now work­ing with Quentin Tarantino in his pro­duc­tion of­fices. His son Mal­colm is a young film­maker study­ing film at the Univer­sity of Penn, while twin sis­ter Olivia is an ac­tress study­ing in New York.

Even Washington’s el­dest son John David, a star foot­baller, has crossed into film, work­ing with di­rec­tor Allen Hughes on the Mark Wahlberg flick Bro­ken City.

‘‘ They all seem to be get­ting into the fam­ily busi­ness,’’ Washington says.

‘‘ They watch all the movies, all the time. Grow­ing up in LA, I guess it was a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion for them.’’

If it came down to it, who would win movie trivia night in their house? The five- time Os­car- nom­i­nated ac­tor or his movie- buff chil­dren? ‘‘ I’d lose,’’ he cack­les.

‘‘ I know the least about ’ em.’’

So Washington could soon be turn­ing to them for a job?

‘‘ Yeah, it might turn out that way,’’ laughs Washington, who has churned out 14 flicks in the past decade, in­clud­ing Un­stop­pable, The Tak­ing of Pel­ham 123, Deja Vu and In­side Man.

‘‘ I con­stantly re­mind them the old man’s go­ing to need a pen­sion.’’

Un­til then, the eter­nally youth­ful look­ing

I don’t look at them like ‘ Oh, this is an Os­car- wor­thy part’. I just try to do good work. And the work will speak for it­self

57- year- old (‘‘ it just runs in the genes’’) has plenty to keep him busy.

Washington has just fin­ished film­ing Robert Ze­meckis’ re­demp­tion tale Flight, in which he plays an al­co­holic pi­lot, and there is also a loose plan to per­haps di­rect

Fences on the big screen. Then there’s his long- stand­ing de­sire to re­turn to Shake­speare. It’s some­thing Washington first got a taste for cin­e­mat­i­cally with Much Ado About

Noth­ing and, most re­cently, on Broad­way five years ago as Bru­tus in Julius Cae­sar.

‘‘ They’ve been kick­ing it around, me and Al Pa­cino pos­si­bly do­ing Othello, but we’ll see,’’ he ad­mits.

What about adding to his golden statue col­lec­tion? ‘‘ I’ve never chased them,’’ he says. ‘‘ I don’t look at them like ‘ Oh, this is an Os­car- wor­thy part’. I just try to do good work. And the work will speak for it­self.’’

SAFE HOUSE

Now show­ing Vil­lage Cine­mas

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