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'Flight' Takes On Questions Of Accountability.

The Robert Zemeckis film, out now on DVD, stars Denzel Washington as a pilot with a secret substance-abuse problem who successfully crash-lands an airplane while high on drugs and alcohol. He must then ask himself tough questions about whether his heroism is undermined by his addiction.

This interview was originally broadcast on Nov. 29, 2012. This interview features highlights from the original.

20:44

Other segments from the episode on March 1, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 1, 2013: Interview with Robert Zemeckis; Interview with Denzel Washington; Review of film "Stoker."

Transcript

March 1, 2013

Guests: Robert Zemeckis – Denzel Washington

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies; Terry Gross returns Monday. Our first guest, Robert Zemeckis, is a Hollywood veteran who directed the film "Flight," which earned two Oscar nominations. His other films include "Romancing the Stone," three "Back to the Future" films, "Forest Gump," "Contact" and "Castaway."

He also directed the innovative cartoon and live-action movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and has recently worked with cutting-edge motion-capture technology in the films "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf." "Flight," which is now out on DVD, stars Denzel Washington as an airline pilot with substance abuse problems who performs brilliantly in a mid-air emergency to save scores of airline passengers, though six people die in the plane's crash landing.

Afterward the pilot struggles with his addiction and faces the threat that he'll be held accountable for his drinking and drug abuse and blamed for the crash despite his heroic landing. I spoke with Zemeckis in November, and we began with a clip from "Flight" in which the pilot and his co-pilot are fighting to regain control of their plane as it plunges toward the ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FLIGHT")

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (as Whip) This is South Jet 227. We're in an uncontrolled dive and we've got a jammed stabilizer or something.

BRIAN GERAGHTY: (as Ken) Oh, lord. We're going on 7,000. I see nothing but (unintelligible).

WASHINGTON: (as Whip) When I say I want you to retract the flaps, retract the gear, trim us nose down. OK?

GERAGHTY: (as Ken) Turn down? What are you going to do?

WASHINGTON: (as Whip) When I tell you, I want you to push these forward full throttle. Can you do that?

GERAGHTY: (as Ken) Yeah.

WASHINGTON: (as Whip) OK. When I tell you.

GERAGHTY: (as Ken) Wait, wait, sir. What are we doing? Why would I turn down?

WASHINGTON: (as Whip) We're going to roll it. OK?

GERAGHTY: (as Ken) What? What do you mean, roll it?

WASHINGTON: (as Whip) We've got to do something to stop this dive. Here we go. I've got control.

GERAGHTY: (as Ken) Oh, lord!

WASHINGTON: (as Whip) All right. Now flaps.

GERAGHTY: (as Ken) Flaps.

WASHINGTON: (as Whip) Speed brakes.

GERAGHTY: (as Ken) Speed brakes. Oh!

WASHINGTON: (as Whip) Forward power.

DAVIES: Well, Robert Zemeckis, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, I think the thought of air crashes holds a special terror for everybody who's been in an airplane, which is most of us these days. You are a pilot yourself. There's this kind of calm that pilots seem to have, or at least that I imagine them having. Right, when I read Tom Wolfe's book "The Right Stuff" about military pilots, never a moment's panic. You're just always focused on the task at hand.

ROBERT ZEMECKIS: Yeah. And what it is that I think that you're taught to do is to, you know, just work the problem. And I think when situations happen that are irregular, what does happen is that your training sort of just automatically kicks in, and you start to go through those checklists and start doing all those things that you've been, you know, going over and over in your head. And you just start to go into that mode.

DAVIES: Did you or Denzel Washington listen to, you know, cockpit recordings of, you know, of pilots that were in crises and jams up in the air?

ZEMECKIS: You know, I don't know if Denzel did, but I certainly did because I know that you can go online and hear any of the sort of what they call the black box recordings from airline incidents. And you can actually go online, I guess, and listen to, you know, pilots talking to controllers live, all day long.

But, yes, I listened to some incidents in the cockpit data recorders just to get a sense of what the sort of the tone of the pilot's voice would be. Some of them were pretty calm but then some of them, you know, you could hear the panic in their voice, that's for sure.

DAVIES: The effects on this are pretty amazing. I mean, you completely buy that this is happening and you see it from many angles. And you did this on a relatively small budget for this kind of thing at, what, $31 million bucks?

ZEMECKIS: Yeah. It was $31 million.

DAVIES: I'm sure there's a long complicated answer here but how do you make it so real?

(LAUGHTER)

ZEMECKIS: The short answer is I really pay a lot of attention to keeping the point of view of all this action coming from the place of character, keeping the audience with the main character. So we've set up basically these four people, these two flight attendants and the pilot and the copilot. We see this incident, basically, from their point of view and, you know, not try to start introducing panicking passengers and that sort of thing and keep them basically as atmosphere, keep the drama with the main characters.

DAVIES: It's not a spoiler to note that the pilot, Denzel Washington, whose name is Whip Whitaker, has problems. I mean, he's a substance abuser. He drinks alcohol and takes other drugs. We see this in the opening scene, and that sets up the story. I thought we'd listen to a clip here, where this is after the crash, and six people died: two crew members and four passengers.

But everybody else survived, which was, you know, due to this captain's remarkable maneuver in the air to bring the plane down. And this is a meeting where he's sitting down at a restaurant and kind of discovering what a serious situation he might be in.

He's meeting with an old friend, a union representative and an old navy buddy who is played by Bruce Greenwood and he has brought an attorney, who is played by Don Cheadle. And they're talking about what these guys are going to be facing. We'll hear Denzel Washington, the pilot, speaking first.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FLIGHT")

WASHINGTON: (as Whip) So why do we need a lawyer from Chicago?

BRUCE GREENWOOD: (as Charlie) He specializes in criminal negligence.

WASHINGTON: (as Whip) Criminal negligence?

GREENWOOD: (as Charlie) Mm-hmm.

DON CHEADLE: (as Hugh Lang) Death demands responsibility. Six dead on that plane. Someone has to pay.

WASHINGTON: (as Whip) I flew the plane inverted. That means upside down. You have any idea what that's like?

CHEADLE: (as Hugh Lang) I do. I heard the black box recordings last night.

WASHINGTON: (as Whip) Oh, you heard the - oh, are you a pilot?

CHEADLE: (as Hugh Lang) No, I'm not.

WASHINGTON: (as Whip) Then you don't know what you're talking about. All right. Let's cut to the chase. What - what - just tell me what it is I need to know, Charlie.

CHEADLE: (as Hugh Lang) The NTSB go team also collects blood, hair, and skin samples. And initial report shows that you had alcohol in your system.

WASHINGTON: (as Whip) Hmm.

GREENWOOD: (as Charlie) So that was the...

WASHINGTON: (as Whip) Doesn't mean anything. I had a couple of beers the night before the flight.

CHEADLE: (as Hugh Lang) This toxicology report states that you were drunk, and if it is proven that your intoxication was the cause of the death of the four passengers now we're going to look at four counts of manslaughter. That could be life in prison.

DAVIES: And that's Don Cheadle speaking with Denzel Washington and Bruce Greenwood in the film "Flight," directed by our guest, Robert Zemeckis. How did Denzel Washington prepare for that role? Or how did you help him?

ZEMECKIS: Well, you know, Denzel has - he's very, very focused and he's very prepared, and the only thing that we spoke about as far as levels of intoxication were, you know, he kind of had his own guide of what he was going to do, and he never really was specific, you know, with me about it.

But he kind of gave me a sense of where he was going to be, like, you know, performing like when he's really, really drunk or he's just got sort a slight buzz on kind of a thing. One thing he did tell me that he did do, though, is he watched a lot of YouTube videos of drunks. And I guess you can go online and just watch drunks.

(LAUGHTER)

ZEMECKIS: But he would come to me and say, you know, I watched this one where this guy was trying to put his shoe on and he was working on this for like, you know, 10 minutes to get this shoe on. He was out there on the street, and he couldn't get his foot in his shoe. And so he was - you know, he was looking at the physicality of what it is he was going to do.

But I think basically what he and I spoke about were the characters' level of denial. That's what I think you're ultimately seeing in this performance, and that's what I think he did so brilliantly in his portrayal.

DAVIES: You grew up on the south side of Chicago in a working class family, right?

ZEMECKIS: That's correct.

DAVIES: I read that you heard on the Johnny Carson show that there was such a thing as film school and decided to apply?

ZEMECKIS: That's true. That's true. That's very true. Well, right because I had no - I mean the story is, I was watching the Johnny Carson show, and his guest that night was Jerry Lewis. And I remember Johnny saying: So Jerry, I understand you're teaching school. And Jerry said that's right, I'm teaching cinema at the USC School of Cinema.

And I heard School of Cinema. I never thought anything like that even existed. And I remember, you know, literally jumping up to my feet in the living room and thinking, my God, a school to learn how to make movies. And so then I went on this kind of quest to get into the USC film school, which I ultimately was fortunate enough to do.

DAVIES: Was it hard to get in?

ZEMECKIS: Well, it was very hard to get in. You know, it was hard. I mean, you know, USC is a very, very, very, very, you know, academically driven school. You have to have, like, a 5.0 grade point average to get in. It always was that way. And I was in a strange situation because you also had to submit work to the film school.

So I had been making these small films and I sent a portfolio of my work to the film school, and I got this letter that accepted me into the film school, but I wasn't accepted into the university because my grades weren't good enough. So - and in an impassioned phone call I got on the phone with my evaluator and promised that I would go to summer school, and I'd get the grades up, and I would do everything I needed to do.

And I think I - you know, and I think she heard all the sort of passion in my voice and she said, oh, OK. I'll let you in. I'll accept you.

(LAUGHTER)

ZEMECKIS: But you've got to go to summer school, and you've got to get these grades up. And I did do that.

DAVIES: You made a couple of early films, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," which is about some young women trying to get into see the Beatles; and "Used Cars," which were critical, but not commercial successes. And the big breakout film, I guess, for you was "Back to the Future," which you wrote with your friend Bob Gale.

You know, it's a fun film, because it's about time travel, but it's really about these relationships, right, about this guy going and meeting his parents when they were teenagers.

ZEMECKIS: Right. Bob and I were kicking around the idea, and Bob said one day: I wonder if I would have been my father's friend if I were in high school with him? And we were thinking about our relationships with our fathers, and he said that. And he said, yeah, and he started to think, yeah, wouldn't it be interesting if a teenage kid went back in time and met his parents as teenagers. And that was the germ of the idea.

DAVIES: I read that studios were nervous about it, because it was a little too soft for some studios that were doing, you know, a lot of racy stuff - except for Disney, who thought it was a little too hardcore because a guy kisses his mom.

(LAUGHTER)

ZEMECKIS: Right. They were worried about the Oedipal implications. Yeah, that's true. I mean, I have a - you know, a very, very, very wonderful file of rejection letters from every studio passing on "Back to the Future." I kept them all.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: And the amazing thing is you get it funded, and you shoot five weeks with Eric Stoltz in the lead role, right, and then had to reverse course. What happened?

ZEMECKIS: Well, it was a, you know, it's being an inexperienced director. Eric is a magnificent actor, but the comedy sensibilities of what I was doing and his sensibility as an actor just weren't working. He wasn't understanding what - where the humor was that I was seeing in the piece.

Now, you know, it's my responsibility, because I cast Eric, and I didn't do it for the right reasons, if you know what I - and I'm about to explain what that is. And that is, is that I was ordered by the studio to start the movie on a specific day, and if I - and basically, I was told if you don't start it on this day, we're not going to make the movie because we want it out for the summer.

And the actor I really wanted was Michael J. Fox, but he wasn't available So I thought, OK, I can make this movie work with Eric. And, you know, it had nothing to do with Eric's ability, but I wasn't seeing the movie working. And so I assembled all the film that I had and I ran it for Steven, and I said, you know, I don't think this is working.

And he said, you're right. It's not working. And so we went to the studio and said we want to reshoot. The head of the studio at the time literally said to me, sir, he said, you are insane. He said you are insane. And I guess I just sort of shrugged.

(LAUGHTER)

ZEMECKIS: But, you know, they backed my decision and allowed me to go and reshoot those five weeks and cast Michael J. And he worked literally 24 hours a day, working all day on his TV series, and we shot everything with him at night, And he never slept, and we went back and reshot all those weeks of shooting.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Robert Zemeckis. He directed the new film "Flight," starring Denzel Washington. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Robert Zemeckis. He's directed the new film "Flight," starring Denzel Washington. We can't talk about all of your films, or we'd be here all day. But I did want to bring up this other memory from one that's a memorable film. And rather than introduce it, let's just play it. Let's us hear this moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?")

MAE QUESTEL: (as Betty Boop) Cigars? Cigarettes? Eddie Valiant.

BOB HOSKINS: (as Eddie Valiant) Betty?

QUESTEL: (as Betty Boop) Long time, no see.

HOSKINS: (as Eddie Valiant) What are you doing here?

QUESTEL: (as Betty Boop) Work's been kind of slow since cartoons went to color. But I still got it, Eddie. Boop-boop-be-doop-boop.

HOSKINS: (as Eddie Valiant) Yeah. You still got it.

DAVIES: Bring back a memory?

(LAUGHTER)

ZEMECKIS: Yeah. Yeah. That's Betty Boop, you know, in glorious black and white.

DAVIES: That, of course, is from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." Mae Questel played Betty Boop, and the detective, Eddie Valiant, is played by Bob Hoskins. I mean, this was a really remarkable film and, you know, a lot of people remember it, I bet, as being amazing. And, probably, it's long enough ago that they don't remember it so well.

I mean, this is where we have these cartoon characters, who are toons, people who are - these creatures in 1947 Los Angeles, kind of live in a seedy part of town, and interact in live-action with real characters. This was the first time anybody had done this. And I know there's probably a long, complicated answer to this, too, but how did you make it look so real in 1988?

ZEMECKIS: Well, there were two artists, I guess, and one rule that we violated. One, I had a magnificent director of animation, Richard Williams, who was a very rebellious, expatriate Canadian who lived in London, and he was just a great animator. And Ken Rolston, who was the effects supervisor at ILM.

And what Ken Rolston was able to do is he was able to come up and devise a way to put, like, this three-dimensional painting on each cell of animation that would match the lighting that we did in the set to give the cartoon characters the same sort of feel of the actual practical lighting that were on the human characters.

And then Richard Williams was, you know, I said to him, I said, well, you know, what's never been done in these animation-live action movies is that they never move the camera. I mean, if you look at the scenes in "Mary Poppins" or in "Pete's Dragon" or any of those, they always lock the camera off.

And he said yeah, well, that - you know, it would be so difficult to draw the different changes of perspective. And would they feel like they're floating? And all these rules about you can never move the camera. And he said, but let's do it anyway. Let's move the camera.

And so, you know, all of these scenes with the cartoon characters, I just shot the movie like I would any live-action movie. And the animators actually found that it worked better by having the camera moving, that they were able to actually give more life to the cartoon characters, and have them feel like they're more integrated into the actual two-dimensional set.

So it was that. It was like doing something that no one had ever done before, which gives it that sort of ability to suspend your disbelief about this whole kind of weird thing that you're looking at.

DAVIES: So you'd shoot the live-action scenes first.

ZEMECKIS: Yes.

DAVIES: And if he had a cartoon that would later be throwing something in the real world, like a plate or a cup, he'd have to figure out a way to make the plate or cup move.

ZEMECKIS: Right. And then later we would go back and animate the - and back the animation into the live-action, we call the background plate.

DAVIES: But Bob Hoskins had to imagine who he was talking to. There was - it was a voice, but he had to just, what, hallucinate a rabbit?

ZEMECKIS: Right. Well, Charlie Fleischer was the voice of Roger Rabbit, and then I had these rubber dolls made to scale of the cartoon characters, and then I would place them in the set, and we would rehearse the scene. And I would walk around holding the rabbit by its ears, bouncing it around the set.

And Bob would find places in the set where I would move the rabbit. And he would then move his eyes to those areas, and remember where they were, and then he would focus them on a point in space because he couldn't look at the wall, or a target out of frame because then the camera would see that he would be looking through the cartoon character, and it would destroy the illusion.

So it was a lot of work, and - but the secret, the secret to the blend between animation and live-action working was the performances of the live-action characters. They're the one that make the illusion work.

That's why it worked so much, so well in this movie, as opposed to, say, watching a Frosted Flakes commercial with Tony the Tiger and some kid actors. And you kind of look at it and go, OK, I get the gimmick, but it doesn't really look true.

DAVIES: You've always been interested in changing movie technology. I mean, you did a lot of stuff with motion capture, "Polar Express," "Beowulf." Do you think digital technology has sort of fundamentally changed moviemaking, I mean, even in films that really don't involve special effects?

ZEMECKIS: Oh, yeah, but that's because every new - everything always did, from day one. I mean, you know, you can go back and see how, you know, we - they - in the final years of the silent cinema, where the art of cinema, of storytelling was so magnificent.

And then when they invented the microphone and sound, everything got really static, and it all had to be reinvented again, and the same when color came in. And when the invented the steady cam, every movie had a chase up and down a staircase, you know.

So what we do with these technologies is we overuse them, and we call attention to them, because they're just so much fun to have. And then we learn how to use them in the way that all tools of cinema should be used, which is to make them invisible.

So now I don't think you can even tell when a director is using a steady cam. If he's really good at his job, the camera movement won't call attention to itself. So, yeah, I think that, you know, some of the digital stuff that we're doing now, especially in editing, I find that we're - there's editing for what I call no reason.

You know, we just edit to edit. And I think we do that in films now because we can. But we'll get that out of our system and, you know, and then something else will be there that'll be the new technology of the month.

DAVIES: Well, Robert Zemeckis, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

ZEMECKIS: I appreciate it. Thank you very much.

DAVIES: Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis. His film "Flight" is now out on DVD. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Terry Gross returns Monday. Denzel Washington earned a sixth Academy award nomination for his portrayal of an airline pilot with substance abuse problems in the film "Flight," which is now out on DVD. He's taken the Oscar home twice for his starring role in "Malcolm X" and for his supporting role in "Cry Freedom."

Terry interviewed Washington a few years back after the release of "The Great Debaters," which he both directed and starred in. Set in the early '30s, it's about a debating team at a small African-American college in the segregated South, preparing to break the color line by taking on an Ivy League debating team. It's based on a true story. One of the members of that team was James Farmer Jr., who helped organize the Freedom Riders and co-founded CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. Washington played a debating team coach and mentor, a contrast to some other characters he's played, like the corrupt cop in "Training Day," or the drug kingpin in "American Gangster," bad guys who are anything but role models. Terry asked him about that.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Does it affect you differently when you're off the set if you're playing, you know, a drug kingpin who will willingly kill somebody if he thinks it's necessary, versus, you know, a professor whose like mission is training his students to be winning debaters? I mean that such two different kinds of personalities. Does it change what you take home with you at night?

DENZEL WASHINGTON: You know, I read a book years ago, "Cagney by Cagney" written by James Cagney, and he talked about, you know, it's his job. You're at the studio, you do your job, you know, you shut your door and you go in your car and go home. I guess it does. I couldn't tell you what it is because I'm not thinking about it. But basically, well, it's different in the case of directing because you don't ever turn off the, you're working all the time. But when I finished "American Gangster" I was done with it. I didn't, you know, think about going into the drug business. I don't know. You know, it's a job and I've been at it a long time and I know how to do my job, I think. But, no. I don't think I carry it around too much. I hope.

GROSS: Well, we should hear a clip from "American Gangster." And you play a drug kingpin in Harlem in this, and you brought up your family from the South and you've basically made, your brothers into foot soldiers for your operation. And one of your brothers played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is kind of so kind of taken by like the money and what he can do with it. So he's wearing this outfit with, you know, like the early '70s with a big collar and a big hat and you think it's like much too flashy. And in this scene you're explaining why that's a problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AMERICAN GANGSTER")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) What is that you got on?

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) What's what, man?

WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) Yeah, that. What you got on.

EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) This is a very, very, very nice suit.

WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) That's a very, very, very nice suit, huh?

(LAUGHTER)

WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) That's a clown suit. That's a costume...

EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) Come on, man.

WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) ...with a big sign on it that says arrest me. You understand? You're too loud. You're making too much noise. Look at me. The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room. I told you that. All right? What you trying to be like Nicky Barnes, now?

EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) What's your problem with Nicky, man? I like Nicky.

WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) I ain't got no problem with Nicky. Oh, you like Nicky?

EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) Yeah.

WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) You want to be like Nicky? You want to be superfly? You want to work for him? Share a jail cell with him? Maybe cook for him?

EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) He wants to talk to you.

WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) Oh, so now you talking to him about me?

EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) What? You...

WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) About what? What is it about?

EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) It ain't like that.

WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) Then what is it like?

EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) We were talking, your name came up.

WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) About what?

EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) I don't know, man. I told him I'd tell you.

WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) You know, boy, you.

EJIOFOR: (as Huey Lucas) Come on. man.

WASHINGTON: (as Frank Lucas) You, know, if you wasn't my brother, I'd kill you. You know that, don't you? I'm taking you shopping this week.

GROSS: That's my guest Denzel Washington, with Chiwetel Ejiofor in a scene from "American Gangster." I remember when I interviewed Michael Caine, he talked about how when you're playing somebody who's very powerful you shouldn't like move around and fidget a lot, gesture a lot because powerful people don't have to do all that because the people underneath them are hanging on the powerful person's every word and looking for every clue that they can about what his mood is and what's he going to do next and how he's reacting to things. And it seems to me like you're that kind of person in "American Gangster," you don't move around a lot. You don't gesture a lot. You've got a lot of power and you know you do. You met Frank Lucas, the person who your role is based on. Was he like that when you met him?

WASHINGTON: Well, I mean, you know, Gotti moved around a lot.

(LAUGHTER)

WASHINGTON: He had a lot of power. I don't know. I personally wouldn't hold any hard fast rule about who moves around a lot or who doesn't.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WASHINGTON: I never thought of it that way. The perception of power is power. I think the perception is established by his violence right at the top of the movie.

GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

WASHINGTON: So you see a guy who is this violent who could walk down the street, shoot somebody in the head, come back inside and forget. His only question was what was I talking about before I was interrupted, you know, that's a sociopath.

GROSS: I really like "American Gangster" and your performance in it.

WASHINGTON: Thank you.

GROSS: Does it ever bother you to play people who aren't role models? Like in life so many people see you as a role model. Does it bother you? Like in the "The Great Debaters" you are very role model, you know, you're very ethical...

WASHINGTON: No, it doesn't bother me. I mean I'm selfish, I think. I think an artist has to be. I'm not worried about what people think. I'm going to play the parts that I find interesting.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WASHINGTON: That's what - it'd bother me more to be just pigeonholed into doing what people think is ethical or, you know, that's boring to me. I don't pick parts with that in mind and I just find interesting stories. If it's interesting to me then I do it.

GROSS: One of your most non-role model performances is in "Training Day," for which you won an Oscar.

WASHINGTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I'd like to play a short scene from that. And in this scene you're a cop who is really brutal when he wants to be and really nasty. And you're initiating this new rookie cop who is your partner played by Ethan Hawke. And in this scene Ethan Hawke has been trying to apprehend two suspects, probably like crack addicts. They've beaten him up. He's finally gotten them handcuffed. You haven't helped him at all. You've basically just been watching. And then after you get some handcuffed you kind of moved in, insult them, take $60 out of one of their pockets and you decide not to arrest them. You just leave them there. And Ethan Hawke is mystified. And here's the conversation in the car afterwards.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TRAINING DAY")

WASHINGTON: (as Detective Alonzo Harris) Want to book that $60, huh? Here, go ahead, book it into evidence. Where the suspects, dog? Go back and get the suspects get them.

ETHAN HAWKE: (as Jake Hoyt) I don't know where they are. You let them go.

WASHINGTON: (as Detective Alonzo Harris) Oh, I let them go?

HAWKE: (as Jake Hoyt) Yeah. You let them go.

WASHINGTON: (as Detective Alonzo Harris) You want to run and gun, man? Stay in Patrol. OK. This is investigations. All right? Let the garbage men handle the garbage. We're professional anglers, OK? We go after the big fish. Chasing them monkey strong crackheads (bleep) anyway. You know they kill you without hesitating.

HAWKE: (as Jake Hoyt) That's why they belong in prison.

WASHINGTON: (as Detective Alonzo Harris) For what? They got beat down. They lost their rock. They lost their money. Them esses from Hillside probably going to smoke them. I mean Jesus, what more do you want?

HAWKE: (as Jake Hoyt) I want justice, right?

WASHINGTON: (as Detective Alonzo Harris) Is that not justice?

HAWKE: (as Jake Hoyt) That's street justice.

WASHINGTON: (as Detective Alonzo Harris) What's wrong with street justice?

HAWKE: (as Jake Hoyt) Oh what, just let the animals wipe themselves out, right?

WASHINGTON: (as Detective Alonzo Harris) God willing. (Bleep) Everybody who looks like them. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. The good guys, they die first, right? The school kids and moms, family men, they don't want to catch the stray bullets and the noodle. To protect the sheep you've got to catch the wolf and it takes a wolf to catch a wolf, you understand?

HAWKE: (as Jake Hoyt) What?

WASHINGTON: (as Detective Alonzo Harris) I said you protect the sheep while you're killing the (bleep) wolf. No, you didn't hear me. You're listening but you didn't hear me.

HAWKE: (as Jake Hoyt) All right. Whatever.

WASHINGTON: (as Detective Alonzo Harris) Yeah, whatever. Whatever the (bleep).

HAWKE: (as Jake Hoyt) Let me ask you this, when do you lock anybody up? I mean it seems like you're pretty busy keeping people out.

WASHINGTON: (as Detective Alonzo Harris) What the (bleep) you talking about? You know what you're talking about Betty Boop. Got nothing but (bleep) between your ears. They build jails because of me. Judges have handed out over 15,00 man years of incarceration time based on my investigations, OK? My record speaks for itself. How many felons have you collared? Huh? Yeah, I rest my case.

GROSS: That's my guest Denzel Washington with Ethan Hawke in a scene from "Training Day." And Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his performance in this film. And, of course, after what we just heard, since you've said it takes a wolf to catch a wolf, you teach Ethan Hawke how to howl...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Like a wolf. You make and howl.

(LAUGHTER)

WASHINGTON: Right.

GROSS: Now I read that you wanted to make sure that this cop, you're, you know, the character you played was killed at the end or that there were real consequences for his behavior.

WASHINGTON: Exactly.

GROSS: Was that not the case when you first saw the script?

WASHINGTON: No. Not to the degree that was satisfying to me. Like I told the director I couldn't justify him living in the worst way unless he died in the worst way, that the community turns their back on him, he's slapped around, crawling around on the ground like a snake and basically gets filled full of lead. So we just made it a violent awful ending for him.

GROSS: And why did you insist on that?

WASHINGTON: I just thought that's what he deserved. There was a bit of a copout the way the script was and it smelled like they were looking to do a part two or something.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: There is a scene in this where you're holding two guns on someone and you kind of scrape the guns against each other as if there two knives that you're sharpening.

WASHINGTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Was that a bit of business that you came up with when you were holding the guns?

WASHINGTON: Of course. I mean, you know, it's just rhythm. You know, acting is like music, you know, and you improvise and you, it's like jazz, you know, there's no rhyme or reason to it. It's not a plan. I just did it. You know, it's just rhythm. To me it's just a rhythm. It's like you do - Stanislavski said, you know, you cut 90 percent. You do all your research and you prepare and then you let it rip, you know, and that's how it is. You know, you practice to music and you just play it.

GROSS: Well, let's talk about another film that's very important in your career, and that's again quote "Malcom X," which was directed by Spike Lee. Let's hear a scene from it. And this is a scene in which you're making a speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MALCOLM X")

WASHINGTON: (as Malcolm X) I must emphasize at the out start that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is not a politician.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #: (as character) That's right.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as character) That's right.

WASHINGTON: (as Malcolm X) So I'm not here this afternoon as a Republican, nor as a Democrat.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (as character) Tell them, brother.

WASHINGTON: (as Malcolm X) Not as a Mason, nor as an Elk.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Tell them brother, what you here for.

WASHINGTON: (as Malcolm X) Not as a Protestant, nor a Catholic; not as a Christian, nor a Jew; not as a Baptist, nor a Methodist. In fact, not even as an American, because if I was an American, the problem that confronts our people today wouldn't even exist.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Now we in America, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: What you trying to say, brother?

(APPLAUSE)

WASHINGTON: (as Malcolm X) So I have to stand here today as what I was when I was born: a black man.

(APPLAUSE)

WASHINGTON: (as Malcolm X) Before there was any such thing as a Republican or a Democrat, we were black. Before there was any such thing as a Mason or an Elk, we were black. Before there was any such thing as a Jew or a Christian, we were black people. In fact, before there was any such place as America, we were black. And after America has long passed from the scene, there will still be black people.

(APPLAUSE)

WASHINGTON: (as Malcolm X) I'm going to tell you like it really is. Every election year these politicians are sent up here to pacify us. They're sent here and setup here by the White Man. This is what they do. They send drugs in Harlem down here to pacify us. They send alcohol down here to pacify us. They send prostitution down here to pacify us. Why you can't even get drugs in Harlem without the White Man's permission. You can't get prostitution in Harlem without the White Man's permission. You can't get gambling in Harlem without the White Man's permission. Every time you break the seal on that liquor bottle, that's a Government seal that you're breaking. Oh, I say and I say it again, ya been had. Ya been took. Ya been hoodwinked. Bamboozled. Led astray. Run amok.! This is what He does.

(APPLAUSE)

GROSS: That's Denzel Washington in a scene from "Malcolm X" for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. When did Malcolm X first enter your consciousness?

WASHINGTON: I hadn't heard that in about 15 years.

GROSS: Yeah, what did you think listening back?

WASHINGTON: It's interesting. I hadn't heard in a long time. I hadn't heard it since I seen the movie, I guess. It sounded pretty good.

GROSS: Yeah.

WASHINGTON: I believed him.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So...

WASHINGTON: When did I what now you said - and I'm?

GROSS: So when did Malcolm X enter your consciousness?

WASHINGTON: I did a play about Malcolm X actually, about 10, 11 years before that down at the New Federal Theater in New York City, Henry Street Settlement, a fictional meeting between the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. So that's when I really began to dig deep and listen to all the speeches and read his books and study the man. I mean I knew who he was but I didn't, I didn't know who he was until about 1981.

GROSS: So was there any like particular footage, an archival footage of Malcolm X that had the biggest impact on how you played him?

WASHINGTON: No. I don't know. I mean I couldn't say there's one thing that had the biggest impact but, you know, I looked at all the footage that there was. I will say that the Schaumburg Library, when I first started working on the part, was just the best place. It became my home away from home and it's a great resource library up in Harlem, 135th Street. And I can't say enough about the work that I did, not just on Malcolm X, but other parts over the years I would always visit the Schaumburg.

DAVIES: Denzel Washington speaking with Terry Gross recorded in 2008. We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's 2008 interview with Denzel Washington, who earned an Oscar nomination for his role in the film "Flight."

GROSS: Let's go to the very early Denzel era. And let's see if our listeners recognize you in this scene. And hint: it's the pilot for a series, a TV series that ran a long time, and you co-starred throughout the run, and it helped make you a star. So here we go, the very early Denzel.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ST. ELSEWHERE")

WASHINGTON: (as Dr. Philip Chandler) Forty-two-year-old white obese female, four day history of (unintelligible) of quadrant pain, no history of cholelithiasis or peptic ulcer disease.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Mm-hmm. Has the pain changed with time or position?

WASHINGTON: (as Dr. Philip Chandler) No. Physical examination temperature was 39.5 degrees Centigrade, blood pressure 130 over 80. No jaundice present.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Is the abdomen distended?

WASHINGTON: (as Dr. Philip Chandler) No. There's a plus two over four tenderness in the right upper quadrant. The liver is 10 centimeters in breadth, two centimeters below the right costal margin. There is a probable mass just below the liver...

GROSS: That's your first scene.

WASHINGTON: I think I mispronounced that. I think it's cholelithiasis. It sounds like I said choelithisis. I believe, any doctors out there, if they call in, let me know. I believe it's cholelithiasis.

GROSS: Well, that's your in your first scene in the pilot of "St. Elsewhere."

WASHINGTON: Twenty-five years ago.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

WASHINGTON: But I remember that cholelithiasis. That's interesting.

GROSS: That is. I hope you ever had it, whatever the heck it is.

WASHINGTON: Yeah. I couldn't tell you what it is.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: How did you get the part on "St. Elsewhere"?

WASHINGTON: I was doing a great play - and I say that because it was - called "The Soldier's Play" which went on to become "A Soldier's Story," you know, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982.

GROSS: Right. The movie version was "A Soldier's Story."

WASHINGTON: Yeah. The movie version was "A Soldiers' Story." The play was an off-Broadway play in New York. And they came to New York reading actors. I never really wanted to do television. I wanted to do plays and movies. And I didn't want to become well known for television. But this was an interesting script with many characters. So my agent thought, well, you know, you could get lost amongst the other characters.

And so to make a long story long, they chose two actors, I believe, from New York - myself and David Morse.

GROSS: What was the audition like?

WASHINGTON: Shoot, that was 25 years ago. I don't remember. I guess it was good. I got the part.

GROSS: You don't remember what you had to do?

WASHINGTON: Oh, no. Actually I don't. I imagine I - maybe I read that scene. Maybe that's what I had to do, you know. And did you say that was from the pilot?

GROSS: That's from the pilot.

WASHINGTON: That was from? So that's probably what I had to read. That's a perfect example of where your speech training and training in the classics, you know, Shakespearian training comes in. To be able to say those lines.

GROSS: And to rattle off all those...

WASHINGTON: To rattle off all the - yeah, all that...

GROSS: All those medical conditions most people don't know.

WASHINGTON: ...techno-speak. Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: Yeah.

WASHINGTON: I don't know. Cholelithiasis. I do remember that, though.

GROSS: So straighten me out on something. When I say your name, should it be Den-zel, equal beats on both syllables? Or Den-ZEL, more emphasis on the second syllable?

WASHINGTON: The doctor who delivered my father was named Dr. DEN-zel. And he had 11 or 12 brothers and sisters so maybe they were running out of names and they just named him after the doctor. So his name was pronounced DEN-zel Hayes Washington, Sr. I'm Denzel Hayes Washington, Jr. My mother would say Denzel and both of us would show up.

(LAUGHTER)

WASHINGTON: She said all right, from now on - she said this is not true but this is the way I remember it - but she said from now on you're Den-ZEL. So I was named Den - I was called Den-ZEL so we would know who she was screaming at.

GROSS: Now, when you were growing up, your mother owned a hair salon?

WASHINGTON: Yeah.

GROSS: And your father was a Pentecostal minister who also worked for the water department.

WASHINGTON: And S. Klein's on the Square.

GROSS: Oh.

WASHINGTON: He was the night watchman for Klein's up in Yonkers.

GROSS: Kleins Department Store? Oh, I see. This is different.

WASHINGTON: On Central Avenue in - yeah, well, the original one was on the Square at 14th Street, I believe.

GROSS: On Union Square.

WASHINGTON: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

WASHINGTON: And because it used to be called S. Klein's on the Square.

GROSS: Oh.

WASHINGTON: And so they had one up in Yonkers on Central Avenue and he was the night man there. And he was a minister.

GROSS: Did you go to his church?

WASHINGTON: No. Of course not. Yeah. Are you kidding me? All the time. More than I wanted to.

(LAUGHTER)

WASHINGTON: Trust me. I used to try to sneak out. Had to go to church.

GROSS: How often? Once a week or more?

WASHINGTON: Once - shoot. All day Sunday and then we - not that - because he worked so much, you know, we didn't have so many services during the week. But I was there all day on Sunday. In Mamaroneck.

GROSS: One last question. Is there a particular movie that meant a lot to you when you were growing up that you watched many times?

WASHINGTON: Yup.

GROSS: What would that be?

WASHINGTON: "Wizard of Oz."

GROSS: Really?

WASHINGTON: I loved that movie. That was the big - that was the event of the year. To watch - are you kidding me? The Wizard. I was like turn "Bonanza" off. "The Wizard of Oz" is coming on.

(LAUGHTER)

WASHINGTON: You know? "Bonanza" was huge. I mean, you know, when I was a kid "Bonanza" was huge.

GROSS: Yes.

WASHINGTON: That was it.

GROSS: Yeah.

WASHINGTON: That's what we got to watch. Sunday night, "Bonanza." "Ed Sullivan Show," back then, then "Bonanza." When I sign an autograph now, I always write God Bless and I put my name. And I got that from Red Skelton because at the end of "The Red Skelton Show" he would say good night and God bless. And I was like - I always liked that.

So I said, you know, I didn't say when I get famous, because I wasn't even thinking about it then, but when I did sign my first autograph, for whatever reason I thought about that. And so thank you, Red Skelton.

GROSS: Oh.

WASHINGTON: And thank you, "Bonanza" and thank you, Auntie Em.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did you love the songs? Did you love the songs from "Wizard of Oz"?

WASHINGTON: Are you kidding me? (Singing) Follow the yellow brick road.

(LAUGHTER)

WASHINGTON: (singing) If ever a wiz there was. Follow the yellow brick road. (speaking) I mean, that was - you've got to remember, they only showed that, like, once a year. What was the guy's name? Danny Kaye.

GROSS: Oh, Danny Kaye. Oh, OK.

WASHINGTON: Danny Kaye would introduce it. Right. Danny Kaye would introduce it. I mean, we couldn't wait. That was huge. Huge. And then, of course, "King Kong."

GROSS: Oh.

WASHINGTON: Yeah. 'Cause Million Dollar Movie would show...

GROSS: Million Dollar Movie. Yes.

WASHINGTON: ...the same movie, like, 90 times the same week.

GROSS: "King Kong." "Godzilla," "Godzilla."

WASHINGTON: "King Kong," "Godzilla."

GROSS: "Hunchback of Notre Dame."

WASHINGTON: I didn't watch that one. You're asking me, this is what I remember.

GROSS: Great. It's been so much fun to talk with you. Thank you very much.

WASHINGTON: Bye. All right. (Singing) Because, because, because...

DAVIES: That is Denzel Washington speaking with Terry in 2008. Washington's won two Oscars and earned six nominations, the latest for his film "Flight," which is now out on DVD. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "Stoker." This is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: The South Korean director Park Chan-wook became famous among violent film aficionados for what's known as his vengeance trilogy, beginning in 2002 with "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" followed by "Oldboy" and "Lady Vengeance." He makes his English language debut with "Stoker," the story of an 18-year-old girl coping with the death of her father and the sudden arrival of an uncle she never knew. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "Stoker" has a ripely decadent, creepy-crawly feel that would have gotten under my skin if the tone weren't so arch and the people so ghoulishly remote. It's like a bad Strindberg play with added splatter. But director Park Chan-wook certainly works to make you uncomfortable.

Take the early shot in which the teenage girl protagonist, India Stoker, played by Mia Wasikowska, sits in a meadow and muses in voiceover on the subject of free will versus destiny. She says: Just as a flower doesn't choose its color, so we don't choose what we are going to be - while draining a blister, in close-up. Which you don't often see, at least onscreen. Park clearly likes the symbolism. He's saying India has poisons that must be discharged.

Wentworth Miller's script has a good, tricky premise, a clear play on the Alfred Hitchcock-Thornton Wilder thriller "Shadow of a Doubt." In that one, a psycho impersonates a girl's never-before-seen Uncle Charlie and nearly finishes the breathless ingenue off. In "Stoker," the unnerving visitor, played by Matthew Goode, really is her Uncle Charlie. And he and his niece have deeper ties than are first apparent.

Uncle Charlie arrives on the day of her beloved father's funeral. He was killed in a mysterious car accident on India's 18th birthday and promptly he makes eyes at both the girl and her brittle mother, Evie, played by Nicole Kidman. And he has some big eyes to make.

He's like Dwight Frye's bug-eating mental patient in the original "Dracula." I don't think he blinks in the movie. A long, fairly tedious stretch features Charlie and Evie whispering and wandering off while India stares balefully, the atmosphere pregnant with suppressed violence and eroticism. Then Charlie sits opposite India and passes her a goblet of red wine, from which she drinks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STOKER")

MIA WASIKOWSKA: (as India) What do you want from me?

MATTHEW GOODE: (as Uncle Charlie) To be friends.

WASIKOWSKA: (as India) We don't need to be friends. We're family.

EDELSTEIN: Family is a loaded term in "Stoker." Just what does Charlie see in India? And why do people like the longtime servant and a visiting aunt played by Jacki Weaver keep disappearing? You can see the ending limping toward you from a mile away, like a particularly slow zombie.

Director Park Chan-wook made a big noise at film festivals over the last decade with "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" and "Oldboy," but they weren't mainstream hits; they were too cruel.

For Park, vengeance is, as you can imagine, fraught with peril, the drive for retribution turning even good people inside-out, so by the time the revenge comes it's too ghastly to be satisfying. I used to think he was getting at something serious, but in retrospect wonder if he wasn't just bludgeoning us into submission. The vile little chamber horror "Stoker" certainly has nothing on its mind.

That said, there always seems like something's going on in Mia Wasikowska's mind. Her eyes usher you into India's inner world, with its battle between girlish longing and the impatience to move on and be what she really is, whatever that might be.

It's a richer performance than the movie deserves. As her mother, Nicole Kidman doesn't rise above the material in the same way; her face is too tight a mask. Matthew Goode has a more interesting mask, so squarely on the border between angelic and satanic he makes you remember that Satan was an angel. But it's a long time to stare at a guy with only one expression.

We wait around for the inevitable violence, listening to faux classical piano duets provided by Philip Glass and wallowing in the movie's malignant elegance. "Stoker" has nothing to do with the author of "Dracula," Bram, but the name is meant to evoke him. And the undead would be the movie's best audience.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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