Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe were all smiles during the press conference for American Gangster. Both men were at ease and had a great time playing off each other and the press. You could sense that they knew this film was going to be huge, and represented some of the best work either of them had done. It was kind of like a kickoff party for a business that everyone knew was going to make money. Russell had his son on his shoulders. He was taking him by the glass windows to show him the tremendous view of Central Park from New York City's ultra-ritzy Mandarin Hotel. The press conference ran long, but to my surprise, was pretty much devoid of any stupid questions. Here are some of the standouts that showed off the great repoire between these two titans of cinema.
Can you talk about playing the delicate balance between good and evil?
Denzel Washington: Who was the good guy and who was the evil guy? That's the delicate balance.
Russell Crowe: I think that's one of the fascinating things about the two characters and about the story itself. There's not a clear singular morality. And when you get the opportunity to play that sort of thing, which is nothing more than reality and the sort of humanity as it exists, it's just a bit of fun. Richie's an honest guy, but as his wife pays him out in the court: you're only honest in one area - you try and buy yourself favorites for all the shit that you do. I just think that's an honest appraisal of who he was at that time. But it also leaks into that area of discussing why people go bad in the first place, or what the process of Frank Lucas was to become a drug dealer. If Frank Lucas had been befriended by somebody else and educated in a different area, he might get in a situation where a university's named after him. He's a very smart guy and he uses things that he's learned to the best of his ability to change his life and change the life of his family at that time. But it just happened to be that Bumpy Johnson was his teacher.
There are a few rappers that act in this film. Why is it that rappers are chastised for rapping about the gangster life, but praised as performers when the play gangsters on film?
Denzel Washington: What do you mean? What's the difference?
Al Sharpton and Oprah Winfrey crusade against the kind of violence in hip-hop albums, but in gangster movies, the actors are praised. I was just wondering if you had any thoughts on why there's a difference?
Denzel Washington: I did Julius Caesar, so whenever any rapper's ready to do some Shakespeare, I'll be there. I can do both. So there is a difference. This is just one movie. It's not the only movie I've made.
Russell Crowe: I think what he was actually getting to, which is really pretty cool, is that he's saying that a guy comes out and he sings a song about his lot as a gangster. He puts it on a record, and people get down on him. But you and me, we make a movie about you being a gangster, and we get praised for it from a creative point of view.
Denzel Washington: Some rappers who have made gangster albums have gotten praise for it too. "America's Most Wanted" is still one of my favorite albums.
Russell Crowe: Is it the criminality that people are getting upset about with the music? Or is it sort of like the male-female attitude? I mean you're literally singing the praises of gun worship, as opposed to a movie that plays out in front of you and a story that's being told. There's definitely a difference there.
Denzel Washington: Well, I can say for one, of all those films you mentioned, there's no black people in any of them. This is a Harlem story. This is about a guy who was a kingpin, but a different kingpin. I think the situation is basically the same. They were obviously different movies, but the business was the same, if it was based on the heroin business. There are certain things that are similar in those kinds of films, but this one in particular, is dealing with a guy from uptown.
Ridley Scott [director] has described Frank Lucas as a sociopath. Would you agree with that assessment of his character?
Denzel Washington: I wouldn't say that about Frank. I didn't find that to be true. I think that as Russell was saying earlier, he's a man without a formal education. He's a man who at the age of six witnessed his cousin get murdered by sociopaths...
Russell Crowe: In uniform...
Denzel Washington: In uniform, elected officials, and that changed his life. From a very young age, he began to steal and he worked his way up the line. He came to New York and the most notorious gangster in Harlem recognized the talent, if you will, in this young kid, and he continued to train him. He was on the wrong side of the tracks, but he was a brilliant student, and became a master of the business that he was in. It's a dirty business. And he's definitely a criminal. He's responsible for the death of many people. So I don't want to just say that he's a product of his environment, but I guess to a degree we all are, and as Russell said, I think had he got a formal education, had he gone in another direction, had he had different influences, I think he still would have been a leader or a very successful man. You know he has a ten or twelve-year-old son now who's brilliant.
You have both achieved tremendous acting success and received numerous accolades as such. What motivates you to continue acting?
Denzel Washington: Good question. I've started to head in another direction, getting behind the camera. I'm sure that's my new career. I was just watching Russell with his little boy and that's part of the reason. I got up every morning. I had to go to work so we could eat, but there's a lot of joy in that, just watching his face, playing with his son and his son just looking at dad. What we do is make a living. Acting, it's not my life, my children and my family, that's life. I'll get up every morning, God willing, for that.
Russell Crowe: I've always seen it to be a privilege to make movies. It's a really expensive, creative medium. There's things that I can do as an actor that I couldn't do in any other form of life and I've got a strange personality. But film requires strange people, so I've got a nice comfy home. That's what I do and I'm really happy with that. And when I know I'm getting up to go to work with Ridley and I know the time and effort he would have put into whatever it is that we're about to shoot that day, to me it's just a great privilege. Every day I kind of look around and thank the lord that it's still going on.
When you two worked together on "Virtuosity", did you ever discuss working together again?
Russell Crowe: We didn't talk about this. We didn't talk about it at all. I heard that Denzel was happy with the idea of doing it with me and obviously I was happy that I was doing it with him, so we didn't talk about it until we were on the set. Hello mate. How you doing? Good to see you again. And we were shooting that day. "Virtuosity", wonderful movie, we were both young then; young and innocent.
Denzel Washington: Not after that movie.
As a New Yorker, were you familiar with Bumpy Johnson, Frank Lucas, Nicky Barnes, all these famous gangsters?
Denzel Washington: Yeah, I think everybody heard about Nicky Barnes, and again it's a testament to Frank's business sense. You never heard about Frank Lucas. Nicky Barnes bought his dope from Frank Lucas, a lot of it. Some people were more interested in being in front of the camera. Frank was many layers removed from the streets.
Were you hesitant about playing another dark character?
Denzel Washington: I wasn't hesitant at all. A good story is a good story. I just think that before Training Day, I hadn't really been offered that kind of role. After Training Day, that was all I was offered (laughs). No, that's not true, but I was offered more of that kind of thing. But it just comes down to good material, great actor to work with and great filmmaker. It wasn't that complicated.
New York City is much safer today. Do you think Richie Roberts was instrumental in this change by weeding out police corruption?
Russell Crowe: There's always got to be room for what you might call benign corruption. Nobody blames a man who steals food to feed his starving children, but on the other hand, somebody who picks up a badge and takes an oath to serve and protect; we do expect a certain level of essential honesty. Taking the money from drug operations and all that sort of stuff is something that goes past what most of us in society would expect a policeman should do. That temptation hits the police force at the same time as the temptation to take those drugs that are readily available hits the people on the streets. So no doubt, there is always going to be that kind of situation where that happened, where the money was just too strong. And greed overtook a lot of people. But that's one of the by products of Frank Lucas's life, a lot of stuff got cleaned up because of Frank Lucas. Frank Lucas turned state's evidence and seventy-five percent of the people in the Special Investigations Unit got busted. So I think that therein is the key for the friendship that still existed between Richie and Frank. They did a thing together post Frank's arrest which bonded them together as men. That bond still exists today.
What can you tell us about your second directorial effort, The Great Debaters?
Denzel Washington: It's an entirely different story. We tested the film up in the Bay area last week, and it tested through the roof. People loved it and it had a great ovation at the end of the film. It's a wonderful film for great young actors . . .a young man named Denzel Whittaker, if you can believe that. Forrest Whittaker and myself are in the film as well. So I'm very happy about that film.
American Gangster is in theaters this Friday and is rated 'R' for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality.