Denzel Washington talks about being Eli 

You might expect Denzel Washington to seem intimidating. At 55, he’s a two-time Oscar winner, star of “Glory” and “Training Day,” who commands the screen with unforced authority. He can disappear into a role with ease, but at the end of the day he remains one of Hollywood’s most recognizable leading men. Introductions are unnecessary.

He offers one anyway. “Call me Eli,” he says, flashing the 1,000-watt smile that inspired People to name him Sexiest Man Alive in 1996.

Washington is referring to the Bible-toting road warrior he plays in “Book of Eli,” a post-apocalyptic thriller opening today.

Unlike Eli, who often quotes scripture when he’s not smiting anyone foolish enough to impede his mysterious odyssey, the actor is perfectly approachable.

The confidence you see in his performances is there — it’s in his natural poise, his talent for effortlessly carrying a conversation. He knows how to connect with his audience, whether he’s addressing a packed theater (as he will next spring, when he returns to Broadway for a revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fences”) or a cramped hotel suite teeming with quizzical reporters.

The topic today? Eli, the righteous avenger driven to spread the good word in a futuristic wasteland populated by cannibals, crooks and a sinister Gary Oldman. Can Washington relate?

“I understand being spiritual, but it was my son who got most involved with the material,” he says of John David Washington, 25, who co-produced. “He told me, ‘Dad, you have to do this, it’s something different.’ He worked on it from beginning to end, and he really dug the evolution of Eli’s journey.

“That’s not the only reason I made the movie, but it certainly kept me interested.”

He was also intrigued by the character, whom directors Albert and Allen Hughes envisioned as an enigmatic loner.

Eli is a hard man, impeccably preserved despite his age, who takes on all comers. That his past remains in the past merely adds to his myth.

“Eli is a man on a mission he’s been pursuing for a long time,” Washington says. “There was a speech in the script that shed light on what’s happened to him, but I just got rid of it. We didn’t need it.

“Usually you don’t talk explicitly about a character’s back story, and sometimes it’s best implied. A great [example] is in ‘Man on Fire.’ I say to Christopher Walken, ‘Do you think God will forgive us for what we’ve done?’ He just says no, and right there you realize these are some bad, bad people. Eli’s not like that, but he’s pretty handy with a weapon.”


IF YOU GO
Book of Eli
 
Starring Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals
Written by Gary Whitta
Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes
Rated R
Running time 1 hour 58 minutes

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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