Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington are American Gangsters – The Interviews, by Tim Nasson
Wild About Movies recently caught up with Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in NYC at the “American Gangster” junket. “American Gangster” opened at #1 at the box office – weekend of November 2-4, 2007 – which makes it the biggest opening weekend ever for a Denzel Washington OR Russell Crowe picture. “American Gangster” was expected to do very well at the box office, especially on opening weekend, but no one expected it to sting “Bee Movie” – the Dreamworks animated film – that opened on nearly 1000 more screens and clocks in at over one hour shorter than “American Gangster.” In its first three days in theaters, “American Gangster” took in just over $41 million, compared to roughly $39 million for “Bee Movie.”
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.
Ridley Scott (Oscar winning director of “Gladiator” and of “American Gangster”) 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.
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 say about your second directorial effort, The Great Debaters? (In theaters this Christmas).
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.