We can only hope that before they started their work on director Daniel Espinosa's intense action thriller "Safe House," Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds took the time to watch the Swedish director's crime thriller "Easy Money." That way, both actors would have gotten a clear sense that they would be the ones kicking each other's butts throughout the film -- and not some stunt performers who resemble them.
"I never talked to them about doing their own stunts because I just assumed that they just would," Espinosa told me with a laugh in an interview this week. "I told them that I didn't want to be force to use those big, wide shots where you can't tell who's who and if it's the real actor or not, I wanted it to be them. That way, we can really see that the actors are worried and thrilled at the same time, because they are."
Opening in theaters Friday, "Safe House" is set in Johannesburg, South Africa, where a low-level CIA operative, Matt Weston (Reynolds) has become increasingly frustrated with the mundane job of maintaining a safe house that rarely sees any use. That all changes quickly, though, when the CIA's most-wanted traitor, former intelligence operative Tobin Frost (Washington), turns himself in to authorities without warning after nine years on the lam.
But shortly after Frost is brought to the safe house for interrogation, the facility is breached by a heavily-armed band of mercenaries who want to kill over some sensitive information he might be carrying. Sworn to protect his charge, Weston escapes the precarious situation with his charge, only to be challenged by the Frost's methods of psychological manipulation and deadly combat skills.
In addition to the fight scenes, everything physical you see in "Safe House" was shot as realistically as possible. Whether it be car chase scenes, footraces across roof tops or even a terrifying water-boarding scene, Espinosa insisted upon filming the scenes with an old-school approach.
"I've become a bit sick and tired watching things where you can clearly see that stunts are done with green screen, and you can see that there is no real sensational fear in the actors when they're doing things like hanging from an airplane," Espinosa said. "I wanted all the stunts to be real, with no green screen and no modern digital effects. I thought if I did things that were real basic, like a fight in a car that one of the people is driving, I want that car being driven. It creates a completely different synergy when you shoot it because the actors are really scared out of their minds."
Of course, with as much action going on as there is in "Safe House," it was inevitable that there would be a point where Washington and Reynolds were accidentally going to connect. And when they did, it was a real doozy.
"Ryan gave Denzel a black eye at one point," Espinosa said. "It was during the car sequence when Denzel was trying to choke Ryan from behind with his handcuffs. That's when Ryan head-butted Denzel and gave him the black eye."
The great thing is, Espinosa added, was the Washington took the missive all in stride. After all, even though Washington is 57, he's still pretty put-together for a guy his age.
"When those things happen, you never know how they are going to react," Espinosa said. "Are they going to blow up? Are we going to have to stop shooting? There were some intense seconds before we realized that we were good to go. He's as strong as a bull as has the willpower that's almost otherworldly. I never considered his age as a factor, but at one point I thought, 'Denzel is not much younger than my father, and I would never, ever ask my father to do the things I'm asking Denzel to do.' But Denzel just has an amazing inner-strength."
Apart from the physicality and determination Washington brought to the role, Espinosa was impressed with the two-time Oscar-winning actor's willingness to take risks and play unsavory characters.
"He's not afraid to go places that are dark and horrendous," Espinosa said. "Deep down, he's a very, very good-hearted father of four, but we all have those dark spots. I think he enjoys playing those characters because they can let the beast inside of you out."
While Washington effectively wore two hats on the film -- one as the star and the second as an executive producer -- Espinosa said he was impressed in the way Washington was hands-off when it came to letting the director do his job.
"Denzel is primarily an actor, and to have a functional relationship between and actor and a director, an actor can't wear the producer hat when they're working," Espinosa observed. "You have to have a captain on the ship and if you don't want that, you shouldn't be there. Denzel was always very kind and supportive, and would only put on his producer hat if I asked him to. He'd only put it on if I needed back up, and he would back me up on whatever it was. He's a very good buddy and an actor. And an actor in his core base wants to be directed."
While Espinosa complimented the complexities Washington brings to his role, he was equally as impressed to the simplicities that Reynolds brings to his to give "Safe House" its balance.
"Ryan's an actor that just plays the scene," Espinosa explained. "He just makes a character who's not flirting with the camera, but more like the characters of the movies of the '70s like Gene Hackman in 'The French Connection' and Robert Redford in 'Three Days of the Condor,' who just play the scene. There's no f------ around. That gives the role a very nice realism."
Denzel Washington and Daniel Espinosa on the set of "Safe House."