Day in the Life of TIFF: Sunday
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Day in the Life of TIFF: Sunday

In which Denzel Washington talks loftily about acting and is insufferable.

Denzel Washington, star of The Equalizer

Denzel Washington, star of The Equalizer. Photo by Kayla Rocca.

Movie stars, for the most part, are not very smart. There’s a joke by the late comic Mitch Hedberg about how asking a comedian if they can act is like asking a cook if they can farm. Likewise, asking an actor if they can talk about acting usually comes to a dead end.

Case in point: Denzel Washington, star of the urban vigilante thriller The Equalizer, one of those movies that bows at TIFF before opening in theatres four minutes later. Yesterday, I was covering the press conference for The Equalizer.

Press conferences are weird things. Basically, media types, many of whom have not even seen the film in question (because they’re too busy covering press conferences) gather to ask boring questions of movie stars and their directors. Questions such as: “What attracted you to this script?” and “How do you choose your characters?” (God, for once I’d like someone to honestly answer: “Money.”) Then they take these sound bites home, sit on them like a mama hen nursing an egg, and release them when the movies hit theatres, with headlines like: “BREAKING! ACTOR DOESN’T CHOOSE ROLES! ROLES CHOOSE HIM!”

Anyway, whatever. The press is doing its part, I guess. It’s hard to squeeze blood from a stone. At yesterday’s Equalizer press conference, Denzel Washington not only pretended not to know what an action movie is—buddy, it’s a movie with action (hint: you star in them all the time)—but also pretended that acting itself is a kind of high-level fleece. Whenever he was asked about choices in the film, Washington would get on a dumbass track about how he isn’t actually doing anything and how he’s just playing a character. It was like that scene in Extras where Sir Ian McKellan lays out the fundaments of acting as if they’re some big secret (“How do I act so well? What I do is: I pretend to be the person I’m portraying in the film or play”).

For whatever set of reasons, we want actors to lay bare their whole process. Do you run through scenes with your partner in bed? Do you eat a banana every morning? Do you spend months shadowing an Equalizer in order to play an Equalizer? These are all attempts to peek behind the curtain. But the curtain’s the thing. A movie is sort of ruined when you remind yourself that everyone on screen is just an actor reading lines that someone wrote for them to say, that they don’t actually mean any of it. Explaining it can kind of be like spoiling a magic trick.

But then, maybe the issue with someone like Washington is precisely that he thinks of acting as too magical. He talked about playing a “character”—his favourite word, as if one of the fundamental constituent elements of fiction had some way loftier implications, a chaaaaaraaaaccccctuuuurrrrrrr—like that old Looney Tunes cartoon where Bugs Bunny happens across a box of hats and then mystically assumes the persona connoted by each hat when he puts it on (so: military helmet = barking, Patton-esque general, and so on). It’s exactly because Washington goes on about acting being some trick that he’s so annoying. Maybe acting is less like sorcery and more just like a humming lawnmower engine. We want to crack it open to see how it works, to pick it apart and put it together again in order to better understand it. Why would someone take part in a press conference about their method just to deny that there is one?

But I’ll play ball. Okay, Mr. Serious Actor, your facility to play basically the same role in every movie is some divine gift, unasked-for, inexplicable. You are truly… A TALENT.

Psych! You starred in Ricochet, literally one of the dumber ever movies.