Mr. Washington goes to town in nasty way with 'Training Day'

Posted: Thursday, October 04, 2001

TORONTO -- No more Mr. Nice Guy for Denzel Washington.

He's taken a sharp turn to the dark side with his role as a corrupt and flashy detective in the police thriller ''Training Day.'' Washing-ton's character, Alonzo Harris, is about as far removed as imaginable from his sternly paternal football coach in last year's ''Remember the Titans'' or the tough but upright heroes he's played in ''The Siege'' and ''Crimson Tide.''

Alonzo lies, cheats, steals, bullies, fornicates and indiscriminately shoots his way through a single day on the narcotics squad in Los Angeles, paired with an idealistic rookie detective (Ethan Hawke) who hopes to join his team.

If audiences ever typecast Washington as someone who only plays the sweetest of men, ''Well, this will take care of that, won't it?'' he said with a huge laugh during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where ''Training Day'' premiered.

''You're always looking to do different things,'' Washington said. ''Quite frankly, I'd never been offered anything like this before. Maybe I have been stereotyped in Hollywood. Maybe they think, no, he can't pull that off or he's not that type, or maybe they think, he won't want to do it. But I've done it now. It'll be interesting to see if I get offered any more like it.''

Washington, 46, grew up in New York and attended Fordham University, where he started off in a pre-med program, switched to political science and later to journalism. He then took a drama class figuring it would be an easy way to get a B, and by the next summer he was working as a camp counselor and helped put on a talent show.

''One of the counselors said, 'Man, you're really good on stage. You ever thought about acting?' Ding. The little bell goes off in my head,'' Washington said. ''So I went back to school that fall and changed into the theater program.''

After college, Washington did stage productions, including Shakespeare in the Park in New York City, and moved into television movies and a long stint on the series ''St. Elsewhere.'' During ''St. Elsewhere,'' Washington and his wife moved to Los Angeles, where they live with their four children.

Washington made his feature-film debut with ''A Soldier's Story'' in 1982, reprising a role he had created on stage. He won a supporting-actor Oscar for 1989 with ''Glory'' and earned Academy Award nominations for ''Cry Freedom,'' ''Malcolm X'' and ''The Hurricane.''

While many of Washington's characters have had rough edges, they've generally been the good guys -- decent, respectable, classy figures. He began realizing it might be fun to try his hand at the villain's role while shooting ''Devil in a Blue Dress'' in the mid-1990s, as he watched co-star Don Cheadle steal the show as the heavy.

''I'm the quote-unquote lead, and I'm going, 'I'm just the set-up man for the bad guy,''' Washington said. ''The guy walks into the picture, he's not in the picture 38 seconds before he shoots somebody, and he's got all the best lines. I just set him up. I set the pins up, he knocks them down. I was like, I've got the wrong part here. That's when I really got to see firsthand the fun you can have playing the bad guy.''

''Training Day'' co-star Hawke said it was a bold move for Washington to break with audience expectations and take on such a despicable character.

''It's the kind of part the Jack Nicholsons and Robert De Niros have gotten to play their whole career,'' Hawke said. ''I think Denzel kind of gets pushed into that sort of role model position where he's not expected to do roles like this. It was such a ball watching him tackle such a complex figure.''

Next up, Washington will appear in the drama ''John Q,'' in which he plays a father so desperate to secure an organ transplant for his son that he holds an emergency room hostage. The film was shot before ''Training Day,'' though it does not hit theaters till early next year.

''John Q'' is a ''four-hanky kind of a movie,'' with his character evoking great sympathy from audiences, Washington said.

''I'm kind of glad 'Training Day' came out first just to change things up, because 'Titans' was sort of a good guy, good story, working with the kids. And now, just this awful guy,'' Washington said. A friend told him: ''Well, if your fans hate you for doing 'Training Day,' 'John Q' can be your apology.''

Washington also is set to make his directing debut with a drama tentatively called ''Fish,'' inspired by a true story in which he stars as a psychiatrist counseling a troubled young man who turns his life around in the Navy. The film is due out next year.

''I think directing's just a natural progression, wanting to be challenged in a new way. It's sure been invigorating. I'm enjoying the process, I'm alive and awake and up and ready in the morning. And I'm thinking ahead that if I'm any good at it and find I like it, it's sort of a segue. You look at guys like Mel Gibson and Clint Eastwood going into directing. I figured I'd throw my hat in the ring and see what happens.''

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