American Gangster Interview: Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe
by Alex Billington
November 6, 2007
These two fine actors are two of the most well-known in the world. Not only are they recognizable but they have both brought some of the greatest Oscar winning performances ever to the big screen. In American Gangster they play two individuals who are fighting against each other without evening knowing. Denzel Washington is Frank Lucas, a heroin kingpin who is higher than even the mafia. Russell Crowe is Richie Roberts, a detective who is bent on bringing down Lucas' drug empire. A few weeks back we had the chance to listen in on a press conference interview with the two of them. Not only where they exuberant and hilarious, but this is an interview that just must be heard!
For your convenience and to better enjoy the interview, we're presenting the full uncut audio to listen to below. Denzel and Russell talk about all things American Gangster and even venture into the world of Antwone Fisher, Training Day, and Virtuosity.
Time: 22:37 | Size: 15.5MB
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Great film -- my one question is can you talk about the balance between good versus evil that we see so clearly in both of your characters?
Denzel: Now, who was the good guy and who was the evil guy? That's the delicate balance.
The cord runs parallel to both.
Denzel: Right. And there you have it. The cord runs parallel to both. Jump in there, Russell.
Russell: 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.
There are a few rappers in this movie -- why do you think there's a different reaction to a rapper making a gangster album and an actor making a ganster movie?
Denzel: What do you mean?
Well, over the past year people like Al Sharpton and Oprah have been going against the violent hip hop. With gangster movies, the actors are praised.
Denzel: 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 --
Russell: 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 and we get praised for it from a creative point of view.
Denzel: 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.
Russell: Is it the criminality that people are getting upset about with the music or is it sort of like… attitude, 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.
Denzel: And these are the consequences.
Russell: There's definitely a difference there.
Who do you think are the new American gangster in today's society?
Russell: Over to you…
Denzel: Who is the new American gangster? Oh, man. They get voted in now. Next question…
The Godfather, Naked City… there's a strong tradition of New York crime. Where does this film fall into that?
Denzel: 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.
Ridley Scott has said that Frank Lucas is a very disturbed man. He said it would be fair to describe him as a sociopath. What was your interpretation of him?
Denzel: 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: In uniform.
Denzel: 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.
Russell: 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?
Denzel: And they may have known, but he still had the club where the chicks were.
You gentlemen have both won a lot of accolades for your work -- what still inspires you to get up every day and work?
Denzel: 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 upfront 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. 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.
Russell: 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, 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.
Denzel: Yeah, me too.
When the two of you first worked together, was it different than this time?
Russell: 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. Virtuosity, yes. Wonderful movie. I know it's one of your favorites. We were both young then. Young and innocent.
Denzel: Not after that movie!
As a New Yorker, were you already familiar with these characters?
Denzel: Yeah, I think everybody heard about Nicky Barnes, and again it's a testament to Frank's business sense that 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.
If you could do some project that totally defied your agents and was really out of left field, what would it be?
Russell: You are saying we occasionally do work our agents want us to do.
Denzel: First of all, my agent works for me. So he does what I say, I don't do what he says. We start there. But having a very good agent, you know, will help protect you from… it will sift through a lot of stuff
Russell: 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.
Denzel: I'd like to do Lockdown, that's one of my favorite shows
You two could be the new odd couple.
Denzel: You've got a future in this business. Now I know why you're here. That's a good idea.
Russell: You'd have to be Tony Randall though.
Denzel: Have to be Tony Randall. Have to be the neat one?
Russell: Yeah. You do.
Denzel: And you expect me to be the neat one? Well, am I the neat one in this movie?
Mr. Washington, were you hesitant about playing another dark character?
Denzel: 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… 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. I'm very happy about that film.
New York today seems less corrupt than back then.
Denzel: You don't live here.
This was a period of heightened problems, in terms of police versus gangsters.
Denzel: 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 -- 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.
Russell: 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. 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.
Mr. Washington, did Antwone Fisher suffer from bad marketing?
Denzel: 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 theaters, it's a mistake. So we're not coming out in two theaters. 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 theater in LA… so folks don't understand that.
Thanks to Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe and everyone at Universal Pictures for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! I strongly suggest you go out to see American Gangster if you haven't already. If you need some inspiration, check out what our readers have been saying about American Gangster over at What Did You Think?