Early on in “The Book of Eli,” which hits theaters January 15th, Denzel Washington’s character, Eli, is seen to be listening to an Al Green track on his iPod. However, Washington admitted to listening to a different song when filming the scene. “My son had picked Incubus. If you see in the movie, my head is bopping to a different beat than the music because we were actually playing a song from Incubus,” said the actor. After attempting to recall the song, Washington laughed. “I guess I’ll hear from Incubus.”
The iPod is one of the details that binds the post-apocalyptic world of “Book of Eli” to modern society. “If it happened today, you’d have what you have on…’Today,'” Washington explained. “You don’t see it, but I wear a pair of LeBrons too. The first pair of sneakers I have [in the movie] are LeBron’s.” In the film, the shoes are well worn and Eli soon trades them out.
Despite the presence of various religious elements in the film, Washington does not expect it to find controversy. “Why’s that controversial?” he asked. “I think there’s nothing wrong with debate, conversation/argument, whatever. Good. Imagine that: an idea, a thought, a point of view.”
Over the course of the development and filming of the movie, Washington became deeply involved in shaping Eli. “[There were] a lot of sessions with Allen [Hughes, the director] and myself and my son and the writer [Gary Whitta]. I walked through a lot of the [script]. Page by page, we did a lot of rewrites.” These writing sessions saw Washington not only editing but also acting out all the parts in the script. “Coming off of directing and how I work as a director, I really want to flesh out the characters, [so] I played all the parts,” he explained. “One day, in one of the sessions, I just came up with the idea of Gary’s character saying, ‘Pray for me. I mean it.’ That wasn’t in the original script, but it just made sense to me that this guy, at that moment, when it seems like he’s got everything and he’s the most evil, or whatever you want to call him, he says, ‘Pray for me.’ Does that make him more twisted? It just felt right.”
The actor went on to discuss how much he enjoyed working with Oldman. “Gary’s one of the best. We had a lot of fun. [On some takes,] we would do the whole thing as this sort of British [mannered performance].” Affecting a pastiche of a British accent, Washington mimicked the style of these goof-offs: “Well, sir. I’ll need that book from you now.” He went on to praise Oldman. “Obviously, he’s one of the best of his generation – of our generation. So it was real joy when he signed on. I was really excited about it.”
Over the course of the developmental process, Washington became used to the style in which directors Allen and Albert Hughes operate. “Alan is more the casting people kind of guy. Albert was in New Mexico. He’s the guy with the room full of graphic designers; all that geek stuff. He likes all that. He’s not the communicator,” the actor explained. “Obviously, they know each other pretty well. So, they didn’t seem to step on each other’s toes. So once you get the rhythm of it, once you knew who was responsible for what, it was not that hard.”
When asked how Eli was different from roles he has taken on in the past, Washington replied, “Most of the characters I play, there’s been some kind of evolution – spiritual evolution. Even Malcolm X, who went from hatred to a complete different doctrine.” The personal journey of the character is key to the decisions Washington has made in his choice of characters over his career. “Even something as dark as ‘Training Day,’ the first thing I wrote on my script was, ‘the wages of sin is death.’ So, in the original version of ‘Training Day,’ they had him dying in the smallest way – you heard about it on TV. I said no. In order for me to justify living in the worst way, I had to die in the worst way. So there was still, in my mind, a lesson to be learned or an evolution.” He continued this line of thinking by moving on to discuss “Man on Fire.” “Same thing; a very dark man meets this young angel who awakens him and he gives his life for her.”
From there, Washington made the connection to Eli. “He has this mission, and this mission has turned him into this violent killing machine. There’s coincidence that, at the moment when he’s about to chop whoever with this hatchet, this axe, this young girl says ‘Stop.’ Why was he sent through this town right before he makes it to where he’s supposed to go? He could’ve gone around and it [would have] been a whole different story, but in his spiritual evolution, this was a part of the process. He had to go down through the valley of the shadow of death.”
During the course of the shaping the movie’s scripted material, Washington made it a point not to seek out other films or stories set in post-apocalyptic environments. “I usually take that approach, not to look at [similar films], so whatever I come up with, at least in my mind, I came up with it on my own,” said the actor of his process. “I don’t want to start looking at other films and go, ‘I can’t do that.’ I don’t want to be hemmed in by the possibility of doing exactly what somebody else did. Maybe I have, I don’t know. I didn’t look.”
In order to shoot “Eli’s” fight sequences, Washington trained with Jeff Imada and Danny Inosanto, practitioners of Jeet Kune Do; the discipline developed by Bruce Lee. “What I learned from these masters, like Danny Inasanto, is he lets that energy come toward him and he goes through it. He’s like seventy-some-odd years old and so fluid and just a great fighter. I said I didn’t want to be karate man, but just moving through people,” he explained.
“I worked with Danny a bit. Four or five months out, we started stretching and moving…just getting into the whole vibe. When you get older, stretching is good. I don’t do it enough, but it helps a lot,” Washington recalled. The training included work with swords, and when asked if he has kept up with swordplay, the actor answered, “There’s a part of me that definitely wants to continue [the discipline], but then there’s the actor part that also says I got to put that down, I’m not that guy now. I’ve got to play another guy.”
After all that work, Washington was keen to make sure he could be seen in the action takes. One scene had been mapped out with Eli in silhouette. “I’m thinking, ‘Silhouette? Hard as I’m working, you’re not even going show me after all of that?’ Get closer or something. Make sure they know it’s me,” he joked. And while the finished scene does feature Eli in silhouette, a subsequent scene shows off the work Washington put into training.
Returning to the religious elements in the film, Washington said that he prefers to let audiences make up their own minds. “I always say, ‘what people will take depends on what they bring to it.’ It’s not for me to say,” he stated. “It shouldn’t be as narrow as just the way that I think. I know what my character wants from scene to scene. If I start thinking result terms, that I want you to get ‘this’ from it, then I might start showing you something so that I’ll get the result I want, and maybe I’m not right.”
Warner Bros.’ “The Book of Eli” hits theaters on January 15.