by Gill Pringle

[THIS INTERVIEW WAS COMPLETED PRIOR TO THE SAG-AFTRA/WGA STRIKE]

Antoine Fuqua has always been a fearless filmmaker, who wasn’t concerned about taking on the mafia in his third and final Equalizer action drama, starring Denzel Washington.

If Washington’s former government assassin Robert McCall has always been a defender of the oppressed, then for Fuqua, the same is true.

His bravery, he tells us, was learnt from an unlikely source.

“I guess I learned it from my grandmother,” admits the director whose films include Southpaw, Emancipation and Shooter. “I grew up in certain areas and . . . it doesn’t matter if it’s government or police or a bully on the street, I just always had an innate instinct to hate anybody that’s taking advantage of other people.

“And I’m the oldest of four – two sisters and a brother. I set the standard for them every day, so I think that’s where some of it comes from. I don’t like bullies and I don’t like authority that’s abusing its power,” he says.

In turn, those qualities have always been reflected in Washington’s gritty Equalizer portrayal, and those who know the actor best, argue that McCall is possibly the closest to who Washington is in person – minus the violence.

“Robert McCall is able to take care of good people who can’t take care of themselves,” say Equalizer producers Todd Black and Jason Blumenthal. “Denzel, as a human being, really believes in mission-oriented goals; look at his work with Boys and Girls Clubs of America? I think it’s the same thing here with McCall. He uses his powers to serve good. He, as both Denzel and as McCall, is going to make sure that the good people are protected. The fun of it, is tracking them down – he gives them all an opportunity to stop what they’re doing, and they don’t, and so he has to become the Equalizer,” says Black.

But the trouble for McCall is that he’s become a little too enamored by that idea – to his peril. “He has gotten addicted to this so-called ‘justice’ and crossed the line into unnecessary violence,” says Washington, 68.

“He pays a price. And he has to deal with himself, and rely on others, and break out of his patterns, or he will die. Through that, hopefully, he finds peace.

“He’s dealing with his demons. It’s very different than with the first two films; I think it’s much more personal. This movie is about his salvation and letting go of his past,” says Washington, who first worked with Fuqua on Training Day in 2001, going on to make The Magnificent Seven and the Equalizer trilogy together.

As a government operative, McCall has done some very bad things in his line of work, and, ever since giving up that life, he has sought to balance his moral books. Using his skills on behalf of the dispossessed, abused, beaten, exploited, and oppressed, he has become the last hope for justice for many people who cannot help themselves.

In the final Equalizer film in the trilogy, the filmmakers were eager to take McCall overseas for the first time. “I had never been to Italy, but I knew that Denzel spends a lot of time there. So, during the pandemic, I did a lot of research. I thought that Italy would be the place that McCall might end up finding a place for himself,” says screenwriter Richard Wenk who has penned all three films of the trilogy.

“He comes to this little Italian village in Amalfi to find peace, and he does. He loves the people and he loves the tranquility, and then he sees things are awry because of the mafia,” says producer Todd Black explaining how the way the mafia works in small towns in southern Italy was a perfect fit for a reluctant hero, who knows that he must sacrifice his own peace for the sake of the people he cares about.

“Americans know all about the mafia through movies. But the mafia in Italy is not like the crime families we see in the movies. They are in small groups, taking over little villages. So, when Richard came up with the idea of the mafia invading this small town, it really fit the story of Robert McCall. He is not going to have his peace and his people’s peace disturbed. And so, unfortunately, he has to go back to being the Equalizer,” says Black.

Filmed on locations around the Amalfi coast and in Naples, Fuqua adds, “what I found interesting about the Italian mafia in Naples is that they really have a stronghold obviously – but they’re young, very young. I’ve heard people call them barbarians. Even the mafia call them the barbarians, because they’re younger and a little more aggressive. And they’re in a world now where drugs are a big part of their behaviour, the pills and that sort of thing.

“So, I find them to be very, very dangerous. I don’t believe there’s any code with any of them. You know, there’s that old thing about how there used to be a code like in The Godfather – but there’s never a code. It’s just taking advantage of people is what it is,” he says.

Fuqua’s granny wouldn’t be intimidated by the mafia. “She didn’t take crap from people; she wasn’t afraid of anything, and she spoke her mind sometimes even when it was dangerous. If there were people that were doing things that they shouldn’t be doing on the street that we consider violent and dangerous. She would tell them to get away from her house. She had no problem with coming on the porch and yelling at them, and she would grab a broomstick. She would knock you out with anything she could get her hands on!” he chuckles.

“So, she was just a tough lady and I watched her. I watched her pray on her knees every morning from 4am to 6am consistently for most of her life. And I watched her stand up for herself every day. And that might be where some of that strength comes from.”

Looking back on his 23-year relationship with Washington, Fuqua says, “When I first worked with Denzel on Training Day, obviously I was younger and nervous. And it’s Denzel Washington and he had already established himself as a great actor, same with Ethan Hawke.

“But after I finished that scene in the cafe, I remember going over to Denzel and Ethan and I said, ‘Well, I’ve got what I need’. And I said to Denzel: ‘Do you want to come over and look at the monitor before I move on to see if you’re good with everything?’ And I remember Denzel saying: ‘You’re the pilot. I’m not flying this thing – you are’. And he goes ‘Call me when you’re ready’, and he walked away. Which was scary because I thought, ‘Uh oh, I can’t screw this up! Denzel Washington is trusting me to get it right and he’s not looking at the monitor’ – and he never did. And he hasn’t since then – the only time Denzel has ever come and looked at the monitor was when he was directing, and he would come and ask me about lenses or questions about directing. But, other than that, he’s never come over once after I say ‘Okay, I’m good, I’m moving on’, and he was like, ‘Okay, great’. It was a trust. I mean, obviously, I was gonna do the best job I could in the truth of the moments with him. But it made me realise that when a great actor like Denzel Washington says you’re flying this plane and walks away from you, it puts a lot of pressure on you to get it right.

“Ethan Hawke did the same thing, by the way. He didn’t want to look at the monitor either. I find actors like that really interesting. They give you their performance. They do their job at the highest level, and they expect you to do yours. That’s been our relationship.”

The Equalizer 3 is in cinemas August 31, 2023

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