Denzel Washington is embracing his inner slob.
It’s something the two-time Oscar winner had to play up for his role as a sartorially and socially awkward attorney in the new drama, Roman J. Israel, Esq., which opened in theaters Thanksgiving Day. But Washington, a husband and father of four known for his turns in Fences, Training Day and Malcolm X, says his character’s less-than-natty appearance is not so far from his own.
“The sloppiness with the clothes is like me but I sure ain’t as smart,” Washington, 62, told ESSENCE with a chuckle when comparing himself to the movie’s title character.
“I have an inner awkwardness. I embrace that,” he says. “I’ve been known to run into things. Roman says, ‘I don’t pay that much attention to my personal administration.’ I definitely can relate to that.”
In case you haven’t seen it yet, Washington shines in the role as a Don Quixote-esque type who suddenly realizes he’s out of touch with the modern civil rights movement and society in general. Carmen Ejogo and Colin Farrell also star in the film. Despite his shortcomings, Roman attempts to navigate the overburdened criminal court system in Los Angeles after his more extroverted law partner falls ill.
Roman is bespectacled and paunchier than Washington. And in the film, he inhales countless peanut butter and honey sandwiches all while sporting a dated and unflattering Afro and clothes. But the Mount Vernon, NY native says we’re all a little like Roman.
“It’s not the worst thing in the world to put that same pair of socks on,” Washington adds. “They’re right there by the bed. They’re in a really good spot. Just pick them up and put them back on. Who needs a suit? I like old funky Adidas pants, you know? I like those pants. What’s wrong with that?
Although the self-deprecating leading man likes to downplay his attractiveness, writer and director Dan Gilroy says he wouldn’t have made Roman J. Israel, Esq., without Washington.
“I wrote it specifically with Denzel in mind,” says Gilroy, whose 2014 film Nightcrawler earned him an Academy Award nomination. “Had he not agreed to do it, I wouldn’t have done the movie. Only Denzel could channel Don Quixote and Sancho Panza —trying to tilt those windmills. Through him, Roman is one of those activists who fights for causes and never gave up and never stops believing, even as it takes a toll.”
Ejogo (Selma and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), who plays opposite Washington as a fellow activist named Maya Alston, commends her costar and director for crafting a role and a movie with an equally captivating supporting actress part.
“Maya feels authentic and she’s not just a device to illuminate Roman,” Ejogo, 44, told ESSENCE. “She has character and a life of her own in this piece. It’s always important for me to know that that’s there. And there is real truth at the heart of this character worthy of bringing to the screen.”
Washington, who has played a lawyer in at least three other movies, once contemplated a journalism career but confesses that he’s never read Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. But he knows a thing or two.
“Dan [Gilroy] is smart,” Washington says. “If I were a good actor, I would’ve said I read it for the eighth time. I’m smart enough to know I’m not that smart because I’m quick. I remember I had a teacher. He said, ‘Denzel, you’re very clever. Not necessarily smart.’ To which I said, ‘Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.’ Punk. How about that?”