It would appear that we’re in Paris to talk about the action movie Déjà Vu simply because the movie has a French title, although when it comes to the phenomenon itself, that unsettling sensation of recall that almost everybody gets now and again, Washington hasn’t much in the way of personal insights to share. “I can’t give you a specific example, you know, but to me that uncanny feeling comes when I hear something or see something that strikes me as familiar, somehow. It’s difficult to describe, but you know they say we only use ten percent of our brains. I think that instinct and intuition, this is my own little theory, come from an old part of our minds that we don’t use anymore, like a muscle that’s not used all the time will weaken, will fade away. I believe there’s an echo of that in it”.
In the film Washington plays Doug Carlin, a smart, intuitive agent for the US bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (and, the movie tells us, the newly added ‘Explosives’), who is called to post-Katrina New Orleans to investigating a terrorist bombing on a ferry loaded with military personnel. Assisting him in his investigation is a shadowy government spook, played by Val Kilmer, and a team of fast-talking boffins, led by Adam Goldberg, who are using a top secret time-travelling machine which allows them to ‘see’ four days into the past. The only clue Washington has is the body of a recently dead, innocent young woman (played by relative newcomer Paula Patton), whose death holds the key to catching the bomber (played with religious-inspired zeal by Jim Caveizel). Washington figures out that the only way to solve the case, and get the girl, is to use the secret machine to physically travel back in time. It’s a wild mix of a love story, pseudo factual sci-fi and gritty police procedural, as spectacular as it is preposterous, that marks the double-Oscar winning actor’s third collaboration with the master of breakneck pyrotechnics, director Tony Scott and his blockbuster producer, Jerry Bruckheimer.
Washington prepared for the role like he does every other role, he thought about it long and hard, and spent face-to-face time with the professionals. Tony Scott thinks the actor is almost unique in his methods, saying that “many actors talk about doing research, but in fact very few of them do. When you put their feet to the fire, they’re lazy. Whatever Denzel does, audiences trust that he is giving an honest representation of the man he’s putting on the screen. Also, and this never hurts, he’s sexy and charming and he’s got all of those movie star elements as well.” Scott’s six-time producer Jerry Bruckheimer is just as complimentary, saying that the actor “reeks of intelligence. He is just a very smart man and I think audiences love that about him. The sense of authority he brings to a role is an extension of that – he is a very powerful actor and a powerful human being”.
Washington deflects the not altogether unexpected compliments with a wave of his hand and seems reluctant to analyse his approach to his work. “I’m just me, and what you see is what you get. I’m not the kind of guy who just works all the time. For me, this work is simply how I make a living. When they call ‘wrap!’ - he claps his hands – I’m gone. Zoom.” He does pay homage to the real-life detective the writers, Bill Marsilli and Terry Rossio, based his character around. “His name is Jerry Rudin, and he’s a 20 year veteran of the ATF. He was the first investigator on the scene of the Oklahoma bombing back in 1995 (the film references that atrocity a number of times) and what I took from his is that he is the kind of a guy who likes to sneak up on a situation. He doesn’t wear a uniform; he prefers to blend in and walk around and work quietly and unobtrusively but still has this tremendous sense of authority.”
The film had just started shooting in and around New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck in late August 2005; an event that the actor admits took on a special resonance. “It was important to me that we stuck it out, and returned to New Orleans to continue filming as soon as we could. Three months after the water receded, we were filming in the 9th Ward (the area of the city most devastated by the flooding) and we did that intentionally, to show the people that big projects like ours were not going to abandon them when they needed us the most. Think about a big movie production, the amount of people employed and all the others services that depend on it, from catering to hotels or what have you. I thought our presence sent an important signal, but I’ll say this on the whole thing; Spike Lee made a brilliant movie called When The Levees Broke, and that puts the Katrina story into perspective far better than I could, in the time we have now”.
I don’t get the sense that Washington is being deliberately evasive, but since the film makes pointed references to the War in Iraq, 9/11 and the earlier Oklahoma bombing as well as Katrina, all still issues very much at the forefront of the American consciousness, he is perhaps choosing his words carefully. Regardless of the real-life events the film includes in its story, Washington doesn’t believe Déjà Vu has any overt political message. “This wasn’t, for me personally, a political film, even if we touch on those issues. The movie wasn’t shaped like that in the first draft of the script, but it became that with what was happening around us, the research that Tony did, the input from a guy like Jerry Rudin, who was on set a lot during filming, but its not meant as a political film, no”. Before Washington arrived, I had asked the same question of Bruckheimer, specifically if he saw the film’s incorporating real-life tragedy as a deliberate effort to remind Americans that their problems are not all coming from overseas. The ultra-smooth producer was having none of it. “I don’t think that was out intent, really, I think we were just trying to make an entertaining and exciting story, and that was the way it was written. I like verisimilitude and I know the audience can spot baloney, but there’s no specific message."
Bruckheimer didn’t bite and for his part, Washington doesn’t either. Not that there was much chance of my line of questioning getting past the actor, who has a BA in Journalism from Fordham University and twenty five years of celebrity behind him. I’m not really getting anywhere, so move the discussion on from the sad realities of the modern world to the realms of science fiction and the film’s central notion of travelling through time. I ask him if he needs to have a concrete, philosophical belief in a script before he accepts it, particularly when it relies on a babble of science double-speak to get over the humps in the plotting. He stops me before I can finish the question, with a wry smile. “Well, you’re assuming that I know what philosophically sound is, you know. But, it hasn’t been proven that man can travel through time, but it hasn’t been proven that we can’t. So, I ask you, why not?” (Earlier, while trying to explain the story, Tony Scott told me, rather redundantly, that he ‘isn’t a quantum physicist, but…’). “I personally don’t think it’s that far fetched. You know, thirty years ago nobody would have said this (he reaches into his pocket and extracts his swanky, slimline mobile) that this was a telephone. For me to bring everything down to my level of understanding is limited thinking. Just because we as humans can’t figure something out, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If that was the case, then the world would be flat and the human mind wouldn’t be inquisitive and able to make connections and remain thirsty for knowledge".
The science of moving through time and the Theory of General Relativity aside, the film is also a more prosaic love story, albeit one constrained by the early death of the female lead. When Washington’s character, rather cleverly, discovers the woman is still alive, albeit in another timeline that he must visit, he sets out through a specially opened wormhole to save her and stop the attack taking place. The actor says he always saw the film as being a romance first, and was at pains to point that out to the director and producer before they started filming. “When they talked to me about the script the guys were like, ‘it’s a love story told in reverse’, and my response was, no it’s not – she might be dead when he first meets her, on a slab in the mortuary, but as the story evolves into something else, so does their relationship, which I found to be very real. I take elements like that one step at a time in a movie. I don’t like to get ahead of myself, because I think it will affect the performance. Paula’s character and my character have strange journeys in and out of the timeline in this movie, so I didn’t even want to get into thinking through all of that. I think it is better, sometimes, if I don’t know, or at least haven’t thought about, where this guy’s emotions are likely to bring him at any given point”.