American Gangster : Crowe vs. Washington

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Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe are two very different actors whose career paths have crossed a number of times over the years from their first appearance together in the 1995 sci-fi thriller Virtuosity to their competitive race for the Oscar in 2002 when Washington won for Training Day, preventing Crowe from taking his second Oscar.

The two of them have been reteamed for Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, which tells the story of Frank Lucas, Harlem’s notorious crime kingpin who ran the heroin trade during the early ’70s, and Richie Roberts, the detective in charge of the city’s drug task force who is trying to put a stop to the amount of drugs on the street, only to discover that much of it can be blamed on police corruption in the NYPD.

In terms of interview subjects, Crowe is always willing to answer questions intelligently, while Washington tends to be somewhat more reticent and flip, so when he’s paired with Crowe, like he was at the New York press conference for the film, he gladly handed some of the tougher questions over to his nemesis in the movie.

ComingSoon.net: Can you talk about the delicate balance between good versus evil we see between your two characters?
Washington: (laughs for a long time) Now, who was the good guy and who was the evil guy? That’s the delicate balance.

CS: One could say that the cord runs parallel to both.
Washington: Right, and there you have it. (laughter) The cord runs parallel to both. Jump in there, Russell. (laughs)
Crowe: Well, I think that’s one of the fascinating things about the two characters and about the story itself. That none of that’s clear. 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. You know, Richie’s an honest guy and all that sort of thing, but as his wife calls him out in the court: you’re only honest in one area — you try and buy yourself favorites for all the sh*t 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. We were joking yesterday about doing his sort of course work on the street, PhD in criminality under Bumpy Johnson.
Washington: Yeah. (laughter)

CS: Denzel, as a New Yorker, were you familiar with the story of Bumpy Johnson and Nicky Barnes? Did you learn anything while playing this character?
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. So people were more interested in being in front of the camera and some more in just being behind, and Frank was many layers removed from the streets.

CS: Were you at all hesitant about playing another dark character?
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.

CS: You two worked together before, so what was different this time around and did the two of you talk about old times or what had changed since then?
Crowe: “Virtuosity,” yes. Wonderful movie. (Washington laughs) Just a momentary lapse, wasn’t it? (To Washington) I know it’s one of your favorites. (Washington keeps laughing) We were both young then, young and innocent.
Washington: Not after that movie. (Laughter)
Crowe: We didn’t talk about this. We didn’t talk about it at all. Brian was talking to me about it and saying there was a chance we could put it back together if we got X amount of people interested in it, so that’s how the pursuit was begun, and 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.

CS: There’s a strong tradition of New York crime films from “Naked City” to “The Godfather” and “Prince of the City.” Where do you think “American Gangster” fits into that?
Washington: Well, I can say for one, of all those films you mentioned, there’s no black people in any of them. So for one, 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. As we were talking earlier, I guess to a degree, it’s a genre. There are certain things that are similar in those kinds of films, but this one in particular, dealing with a guy from uptown.

CS: Crime is supposedly down in New York, but this movie shows a period of corruption in terms of the police and gangster. What insights did you bring to this?
Washington: (to Crowe) You know more about the police.
Crowe: I get all the sh*tty ones… (laughter)
Washington: Maybe it’s cliché, but I think there was more honor among thieves in those days. There was a sort of cult of ethics. We didn’t hear about Frank killing kids and that kind of thing… and drive-bys and all of that. He’s a very interesting man. He was very much a family man, and believed in sitting down at Thanksgiving with the family and all of that. He was in the drug business. I don’t think he looked at himself as a killer or even a criminal. He was in a business, he sold the product, and he did a good job at it.
Crowe: I don’t think anybody wants zealotry in their police force. 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 level of essential honesty. I mean you’re going to be put in situations as a policeman that require you to function and observe without necessarily getting involved, and 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. And the particular time we’re talking about, and this has happened in most countries around the world, most western countries where drugs just suddenly became a gigantic thing, and suddenly the money you’re talking about wasn’t small, it was gigantic, and you went from talking in terms of tens of thousands to hundreds of millions. 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 — that we’ve got to look at as well. A lot of stuff got cleaned up because of Frank Lucas. Frank Lucas turned state’s evidence and 75 per cent of the people in the Special Investigations Unit got busted, because they were on the take. 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 and that bond still exists today.

CS: Ridley Scott said that Frank Lucas was on the set all of the time and that he thought he was a disturbed man, possibly even a “sociopath.” Did you feel the same way?
Washington: “Sociopath”, 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 6 witnessed his cousin get murdered by sociopaths…
Crowe: …in uniform.
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. You know, 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 10 or 12-year-old son now who’s brilliant.
Crowe: That’s a sort of easy one to take head-on because quite frankly, large parts of Frank Lucas’s life were very glamorous. The nightclubs, hanging out with Wilt Chamberlain, sports figures and celebrities of the time. His public persona as such was the guy that ran this nightclub. Everything else that fell down from that was not known. Wilt Chamberlain or any of these celebrities that were hanging out with him wouldn’t have known that Frank was turning over a couple of hundred keys every month in heroin, you know what I mean?
Washington: And they may have known that he still had the club where the chicks were. (laughter)

CS: Why do you think that people like Oprah and Al Sharpton react negatively towards a rapper making a “gangsta” album but it’s okay that you’re making a gangster movie?
Washington: What do you mean? What’s the difference? 2005, I did “Julius Caesar,” so whenever any rapper’s ready to do some Shakespeare, I’ll be there. I can do both. So can they… if they can. So there is a difference. This is just one movie. It’s not the only movie I’ve made. I’m not knocking rappers but…
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 or what his experience was. 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.
Washington: Yeah, some rappers who have made gangster albums have gotten praise for it, too. Some real good ones. Real good ones. “America’s Most Wanted” is still one of my favorite albums.
Crowe: Is it the criminality that people are getting upset about with the music or is it the male-female attitude kind of thing? I mean there’s some of that sort of stuff, and you know you’re actually 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. This is how something actually really happened.
Washington: And these are the consequences.
Crowe: There’s definitely a difference there.

CS: Who do you think is the new “American Gangster”?
Crowe: Over to you.
Washington: (laughing) Who is the new American gangster? Oh man. They get voted in now (laughter)… Next question.

CS: Both of you have received accolades for your work. What inspires you to get up every day and do the work you do?
Washington: Good question. Professionally now, I’ve sort of started to head in another direction. Getting behind the camera — the second film I’ve directed now — and I’m sure that’s my new career, but on a more basic level, I was just watching Russell with his little boy up front and that’s part of the reason. 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. Acting for me is making a living–it’s not my life, you know? My children and my family, that’s life. The miracle of life. I’ll get up every morning, God willing, for that.
Crowe: I’ve always seen it to be a privilege to make movies. It’s a really expensive, creative medium and people around me to do it. 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, and every day I kind of look around and thank the lord that it’s still going on, and I just get to work and do the thing I’m doing that day.
Washington: Yeah, me too.

CS: You’ve both reached a certain plateau as actors, so do you get to the point where you might do something that your agents might not want you to do, which might blow minds if you did it?
Crowe: You are saying we occasionally do work our agents want us to do?
Washington: First of all, my agent works for me, so he does what I say, I don’t do what he says. We start there.
Crowe: If he did what Ed La Motta wanted him to do, he would have done some funky (Denzel drowns him out with laughter).
Washington: But having a very good agent, you know, will help protect you from… it will sift through a lot of stuff.

CS: Are there any TV shows that either of you would like to appear on?
Crowe: I’d like to do “Sex and the City”… and there’s a TV show I’d like to do also that’s called “Sex and the City.” (laughter) That’s my wife’s favorite show. I’d like to do that and just turn up on an episode where she wasn’t expecting me to be there, so that would be fun. (Note: Apparently, Crowe doesn’t realize the show ended years ago.)
Washington: I’d like to do “Lockdown,” the prison documentary, that’s one of my favorite shows. I don’t watch TV. Unless I’m throwing a ball, I don’t really watch any of these series shows. I couldn’t tell you.
Crowe: (asking the person who asked the question) What do you think we should be on? What should we be fishing for?

CS: Maybe the two of you could be the new “Odd Couple”?
Washington: You’ve got a future in this business. That’s a good idea.
Crowe: You’d have to be Tony Randall though.
Washington: I’d have to be Tony Randall. I have to be the neat one?
Crowe: Yeah, you do.
Washington: And you expect me to be the neat one? Am I the neat one in this movie?
Crowe: Yeah.

CS: Can you talk about your next movie, “The Great Debaters”?
Washington: 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 like a young man named Denzel Whitaker, if you can believe that… and Forrest Whitaker and myself are in the film as well. So I’m very happy about that film. It’s a completely different film from this and I’m proud of it.

CS: Did you learn anything from “Antwone Fischer” and the problems you had with its marketing that you might do differently with this one?
Washington: That had a problem with marketing? To be quite frank with you, one of the things I’ve learned from that first go-round is that I’m popular, so if you do the Oprah Winfrey show or The Today Show or The Tonight Show, and you tell people the film’s coming out on Friday, but in fact it’s platformed and only coming out in two theatres, it’s a mistake. So we’re not coming out in two theatres, we’re coming out in 2,000 or something right away. Not to knock the marketing guys or whoever, because I was as much a part of that as they were, but I think that’s something we’ll do differently this time. My mother was calling me–everybody’s calling me—”You said the movie’s coming out, well where is it?” “Well, it’s in New York and one theatre in L.A.” Folks don’t understand that. “You told them it was coming out tomorrow!” “Alright, Ma.”

American Gangster opens everywhere on November 2. Also, check out the press conference with Ridley Scott and check back later this week for our exclusive interview with rapper Common.