Despite the Internet’s insistence, Denzel Washington’s Roman J. Israel, Esq. wasn’t inspired by Questlove.
“All I had to do was look at my own pictures from the ’70s — long before Questlove was born, probably,” teases Washington, whose Afroed, bespectacled legal savant bears an uncanny resemblance to The Roots drummer.
But it’s hard to imagine the two-time Oscar winner ever looking quite as ungainly as his encyclopedic character in Roman J. Israel, Esq. (in theaters now in New York and Los Angeles, goes nationwide Wednesday), who plods about in an oversized three-piece suit, toting a bulky briefcase and a click-wheel iPod loaded with jazz standards.
They were all hyperspecific details that Washington, 62, personally devised for his character: an inconspicuous attorney who’s hinted to be on the autism spectrum and doggedly fights for justice in present-day Los Angeles. When Roman’s law partner dies, he’s forced to take a job at a high-profile firm run by a legal shark (Colin Farrell), where he finds his values tested when the chance to earn a sizable sum of money would also mean betraying his client’s confidence.
Reading writer/director Dan Gilroy’s script, “I was like, why has this guy been in the backroom for 30 years?” Washington says. “Most big firms have guys like that, who do the legwork and know the law verbatim.”
Gilroy (Nightcrawler) wrote Roman with Washington in mind, intrigued by the idea of “What would someone be like if they never left the 1960s?” he says. “The character is a person who believes in something bigger than himself, and Denzel is like that in his personal life.”
Washington, by his own admission, never aspired to be an activist. After choosing not to follow in his preacher father’s footsteps, the New York native enrolled at Fordham University in the Bronx, where he tried his hand at pre-med, pre-law and journalism.
He discovered acting during his third year of college, performing in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, which he’ll bring full circle next spring starring in the playwright’s The Iceman Cometh — his third time on Broadway this decade, after A Raisin in the Sun and Fences. He directed the latter’s film adaptation last year, which earned a best supporting actress Oscar for Viola Davis, and nominations for best picture and actor (Washington).
Despite mixed reviews for Roman (57% positive on aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes), critics have praised Washington’s performance, with some prognosticators on awards site Gold Derby predicting he could earn his eighth Oscar nod as an actor.
Although there are concerns this year’s race could be another #OscarsSoWhite, Washington is optimistic about strides being made in diversity in Hollywood.
“I’ve been at the awards show when I’ve been the only (person of color) there,” Washington says. “Not lately, so that’s a good thing.”
He’s writing a script that he hopes to direct, but “that’s years away.” In the meantime, he’d like to continue choosing his projects selectively, pointing to the five-year gap Daniel Day-Lewis took between Lincoln and next month’s Phantom Thread.
“You don’t have to be everywhere,” Washington says. “It’s not how many ‘likes’ you’ve got — it’s about the work. Do the work, let the work speak for you, and disappear.”
source: usa today
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