Emmanuel Itier: Great film. My one question is: Can you talk about the delicate balance between good versus evil that we see so clearly in both of your characters? Because it was played so well.
Denzel Washington: [Extended laugh] Now, who was the good guy and who was the evil guy? That’s the delicate balance.
EI: The cord runs parallel to both.
DW. Right, and there you have it. [Laughter] The cord runs parallel to both. Jump in there, Russell. [Laughs]
Russell 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 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…” And 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. Bumpy Johnson—we were joking yesterday about doing his sort of course work on the street—PhD in criminality under Bumpy Johnson.
DW. Yeah. [Laughs]
EI: There are a few rappers in this movie, and I had a question: Why do you think there’s a difference in the reaction to a rapper making a gangster album and an actor making a gangster movie?
DW: What do you mean—what’s the difference?
EI: Well, lately, over the past year, people like Al Sharpton and Oprah—they’re kind of going against the violence in hip hop albums and language, so the rappers kind of give a certain approach. But in gangster movies, the actors are praised, and I was just wondering if you had your thoughts on why there’s a difference.
DW: Thank you. In 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…
RC: 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, saying 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 I say, “Whoa,” and we get praised for it from a creative point of view.
DW: 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.
RC: Is it the criminality that people are getting upset about with the music, or is it sort of like attitude—male/female attitude kind of thing, you know? 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.
DW: And these are the consequences.
RC: There’s definitely a difference there.
EI: I think there are some implications with the Vietnam War and parallels with the Iraqi War–that we’re going to bring in soldiers now and they’re going to have mental problems. What is your take on new means of basic transportation of drugs and the revenue, and who’s going to be the new American Gangster in this society?
RC: Over to you.
DW: [Laughing uproariously] Who is the new American Gangster? Oh man. They get voted in now. Next question.
EI: Although, way back to Naked City, Godfather, Prince of the City, there’s a strong tradition of New York City crime–really atmospheric. Where do you think American Gangster fits in in that lineage?
DW: 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 is dealing with a guy from uptown.
EI: Ridley said that Frank is a very disturbed man. He was on the set all the time. He said it would be fair to describe him as a sociopath. Can you talk about your interpretation of him? Did you think there was something missing there?
EI: That’s one of the worst things you can say about someone.
DW: 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.
RC: …In uniform.
DW: 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.
RC: That’s a sort of an easy one to take head-on because, quite frankly, large parts of Frank Lucas’s life were very glamorous. The night clubs, 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?
DW: And they may have known, but he still had the club where the chicks were. [Laughs]
EI: You gentlemen have both won accolades for your work and done a lot cinematically. What inspires you still to get up every day and do the work that you do?
DW: 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, so… But on a more basic level, I was just watching Russell with his little boy up front, and that’s part of the reason—not that 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…like, 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.
RC: I’ve always seen it to be a privilege to make movies. It’s a really expensive, creative medium, and people around me do it. There are 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.
DW: Yeah, me too.
EI: When the two of you first worked together, did you discuss working together again? And how was it this time around, with both of you having Oscars?
RC: He kept bringing it to the set every day. [Washington laughs. Lots of laughing back and forth between them.] 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.
EI: What about the earlier movie?
RC: Virtuosity, yes. Wonderful movie. [More laughter from Washington] Just a momentary lapse, wasn’t it? [And more laughter.] I know it’s one of your favorites. We were both young then. Young and innocent.
DW: Not after that movie. [Laughs]
EI: As a New Yorker, were you familiar with the story of Bumpy Johnson and Nicky Barnes, and did you learn anything in actually playing this character?
DW: 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 and hid 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.
EI: When you reach a certain plateau as an actor and you have accolades and all that stuff, you become a celebrated talent who doesn’t necessarily always do what they want to do. If you could defy the agents and do some project that would kind of blow our minds, which would you choose and why?
RC: You are saying we occasionally do work our agents want us to do?
DW: First of all, my agent works for me, so he does what I say. I don’t do what he says. We start there.
RC: If he did what Ed wanted him to do, he would have done some funky… [Denzel drowns him out with laughter.]
DW: But having a very good agent, you know, will help protect you from…it will sift through a lot of stuff.
EI: But is there anything you’d like to do that would blow our minds?
RC: You watch a TV show you just might want to be a guest on. I’d like to do Sex and the City. 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.
DW: I’d like to do Lockdown, the prison documentary. I don’t know—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.
RC: Something about…what do you think we should be on?
DW: There’s a good point. What should we be…
RC: What should we be fishing for?
EI: You could be the new Odd Couple.
DW: You’ve got a future in this business. Now I know why you’re here. That’s a good idea.
RC: You’d have to be Tony Randall, though.
DW: I have to be Tony Randall? I have to be the neat one?
RC: Yeah, you do.
DW: And you expect me to be the neat one? Well, am I the neat one in this movie?
EI: Mr. Washington, were you hesitant about playing another dark character…
DW: 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. And Great Debaters—yes, 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 and a young man named Denzel Whittaker, if you can believe that, and Forrest Whittaker 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.
EI: New York today seems to be a lot less corrupt… I won’t say less corrupt, but certainly corrupt in other ways.
DW: You don’t live here. [Laughs]
EI: Let me just put it another way. Crime is supposedly down a lot more, but this was a definite period of corruption and a heightened period of problems in terms of the police and the gangsters. What were your insights into the gangsters and police of the day?
DW [To Crowe]: You know more about the police…
RC: I get all the shitty ones.
DW: Maybe it’s cliché, but I think there was more honor among thieves in those days. There was a sort of code 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.
RC: 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 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 byproducts 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% of the people in the Special Investigations Unit got busted because they were on the take. 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, and that bond still exists today.
EI: Regarding Great Debaters, Antwone Fisher suffered from bad marketing. What did they do differently here?
DW: That I 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 this or that…Johnny–Johnny Carson! [Laughs] 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 2000 or something right away, and I think that’s —not to knock the marketing guys or whoever, because I was as much a part of that as they were. I think that’s something we’ll do differently this time. Because 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…” so folks don’t understand that. “You told them it was coming out tomorrow…” “Alright, ma.”