Daniel Espinosa, director of Safe House, starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, took 20 minutes out of his busy morning (the movie opened in theaters today) to chat about his career, the film, and most importantly, our mutual adoration of Denzel Washington.
You’re from Sweden. How did you get attached to this film?
Well, I made Swedish movie before called Snabba Cash — Easy Money in English — and when that movie was released in Sweden, that was in Avatar times, you know when Avatar was number one in box office worldwide …
Didn’t it beat out Avatar in Sweden?
Yeah, exactly. So that caught the interest of the Americans — they saw it and thought it might maybe being adaptable and so they called me up. I was in Sweden back then and people started calling me from the States, wanting to send me scripts and that was like … strange. I thought it was my buddies doing, you know, crank calls to me. I think the first time, I actually hung up.
That’s awesome. So I also read that they’re going to be doing an American version of Easy Money, is that true? Are you part of that?
Yeah, yeah, they’re working on the script now, but I’m not very involved with it. For me, as a director, I already did the movie, so I think it will be cool to see another director do it and for me to sort of let it go.
Switching the focus to Safe House, how was it working with Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, and how did they work together?
You know, I had two decisions to make when I started making the movie. One was overcoming the pure star power of Denzel.
Because, you know, we grew up with that guy. He’s more of those characters than he his a human being. Once we sat down, he became more of a person, but every time I went away and didn’t see him for a while, he became that semi-god again. So the way to deal with that was to sit down and go over the script, just me and him, sitting down for three months, eight hours every day and for me, that was a way for us to become buddies and a way to learn how we worked and how we liked to communicate with each other. Because as a director, you need to be in charge. You can’t really do your work without being in charge. So that was the first step.
The second one was figuring out how they [Ryan and Denzel] should interact with each other. You can leave it to the actors, but it’s good for you to have a plan about how they’re going to work together and also how they’re going to socialize privately. They didn’t know each other, and I felt that master-apprentice vibe that you see in the movie almost had to exist in their private life, in a way.
In the beginning, they didn’t have so much contact with each other, but as the movie went on and as we shot the movie chronologically, I could see them forming a bond not only on screen, but also outside of the work.
Let’s talk about Ryan Reynolds for a moment. What were your expectations with him going in? He’s played different roles in his past, he’s done the comedy stuff, he’s done the summer blockbuster action thing. What was your goal with him and his character?
So, I saw this movie Buried, and when I saw that I was very impressed by Ryan’s work. Because it was pure acting. There was no flirtation with the camera, there was no kind-of “wink wink, nudge nudge” in that character. What I thought was interesting was that Ryan normally plays very verbal characters that have a lot of verbal humor and I thought it would be interesting to let him do a character that doesn’t speak so much. I mean, Ryan’s character is a very silent character and you read the situation out of his physical reactions, not so much of the lines.
You know, I looked at early movies with Robert Redford and I like how Robert, even though he had that automatic charisma and was a very verbal person, he always played those more silent characters and played within the scene and never overacted. So yeah, I thought that this role for Ryan would be a different experience for him. For me and him.
OK, going back to Denzel for a moment, one thing that I’ve always been curious to find out is how internationally known certain actors are. Was he someone you grew up watching from an early age?
Yeah, I mean the first time I saw Denzel was in Cry Freedom. My mother and father were very involved in the whole ANC [African National Congress] battle during apartheid in South Africa, and when Cry Freedom came out, I was like 10 years old and for me, it was more of a representation of a struggle that I had heard my mother and father talk about. He really became Steve Biko. And then, you know, when I became more of a teenager, he had that beautiful stride of Mississippi Masala, and then he does Malcolm X and then he does Much Ado About Nothing, then Pelican Brief, and then Crimson Tide, and I mean, those movies come like back to back.
Yeah, those were all in like a four-year run.
Yeah. Such diverse characters. Also, for us that were foreigners or refugees in Sweden, to see a Black man play a classic lawyer like he did in Pelican Brief was really something that made us stronger.
Or in Philadelphia.
Exactly. And these movies were in the core moment of when I started loving movies.
You know, two of the things I think he does best are portraying historical figures perhaps better than any actor, ever, and then the rare talent of really portraying the antihero.
He sort of had that in American Gangster. Obviously Training Day.
I mean, look at him in Glory. That kind of anger he carries around, that smugness, that kind of “fuck you” attitude that allows him to really be that character, is something that very few actors can do.
There was a point in the film where he’s supposed to be a scary, intimidating figure, but he gives a few of those smug Denzel looks and the theater, myself included, burst out in laughter. He forces you to like him, even when you aren’t supposed to.
Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
So what’s next for you?
I don’t know, man. I just finished the movie a few weeks ago. I need to go back home to Stockholm and relax and hang out with my wife and my buddies, and you know, settle down and get back to my roots.