Denzel Washington reunites with director Tony Scott for the fourth time with the remake of the 1974 cult classic The Taking of Pelham 123. In the film he portrays Walter Garber, a subway dispatcher whose ordinary day turns to a nightmare when audacious criminal named Ryder, played by John Travolta, hijacks one of his trains. As the tension mounts beneath his feet, Garber employs his vast knowledge of the subway system to outwit Ryder and save the hostages.
You are obviously not averse to doing remakes, since you did The Manchurian Candidate. What was it about The Taking of Taking of Pelham 123 that made you want to remake the movie?
I don’t think it is a remake. It’s basically a hostage situation on a train, I think that’s what the two films have in common – and the fact that it’s New York City. I don’t know that my character and the character that Walter Matthau played are that similar, necessarily. He played a cop and I didn’t want to be a cop. I don’t know why anybody would remake a film; the literal translation of the word is to redo it the same way.
You said you didn’t want to play a cop or an FBI agent, why did you want to play an ordinary guy?
I was concerned a little bit with Inside Man, where I was a cop and hostage negotiator, and I just liked the idea that when they hand Walter Garber, who’s a subway dispatcher, a gun, he had never held one before and that he was an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation. When you get a part, you interpret the part, so I liked the idea of him not knowing anything about how to solve this problem, and have problems of his own. I liked the fact that he spills coffee on himself, and he’s very good as a dispatcher. He’s a star in that world, but he’s taken out of his element.
Did you have John Travolta’s voice in your ear? Did the two of you come in and do your scenes separately?
No, we were always there for each other, always off camera. You actually do develop a relationship. For the first six, seven or eight weeks we didn’t shoot any scenes together on camera, but we were developing a relationship off camera, through the microphone, through the speaker. But I’d see him at lunch.
Was it like a radio play, in a way?
Yeah, I guess you could say that. And he had the luxury first of practicing, because for three weeks, I was on camera first. We shot all the command center stuff first, so from Day One, I’m on camera, there’s no like, ‘Can I change it tomorrow?’ We were moving on. He had the chance to work on his part, to develop it.
What was it like when you actually did a scene with him?
Again, it didn’t just happen once we got on screen together. We have five senses and the other four were heightened. Yes, we didn’t see each other, but it’s like a courtship over the phone, a long distance relationship, and you get to know a person – we’d talk, we would tell each other jokes and we’d sing Broadway tunes. That was the nature of the relationship.
Have you gotten the chance to talk to John Travolta since filming the movie? Did you get any sense of where he is today? (Travolta tragically lost his son, Jett, last January)
I talked with John about two-and-a-half-weeks ago, and needless to say, he’s struggling. More than talking to him, I listened to him for about two or three hours. It’s going to take time. What can you say, really? Just be there as a friend. This is such a sweet, sweet person and our prayers are with him and his wife.