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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Denzel Washington has played soldiers, gangsters and tough cops, but in crime drama "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" opening on Friday, the actor wanted to strike a more humble pose as a lowly subway dispatcher who must save passengers on a hijacked train.
Walter Garber's ordinary day turns hellish when a criminal played by John Travolta takes over a train filled with commuters, and Garber must negotiate for their freedom.
Washington told reporters recently that to play Garber, a kind of everyman, he simply went to "the deli."
"Not New Delhi, the deli," Washington joked. "Just ate a lot and kept getting smaller and smaller sweaters to wear and spilled coffee on myself."
Washington has played many standout characters in his long career. He won Oscars for his roles as a U.S. Civil War soldier in "Glory" and a corrupt cop in "Training Day." More recently, he was a drug kingpin in 2007's "American Gangster" and a police detective in 2006 film "Inside Man."
Washington said he was concerned about comparisons to "Inside Man," where his character also negotiated for the release of hostages, and he wanted this role to be different.
"I just liked the idea when they hand him a gun that he had never held one before, that he was an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation," Washington said.
"The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" is a remake of a 1974 film of the same name that starred Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw.
In the latest film, a team of armed men led by former convict Ryder (Travolta) take over a full subway car and demand a ransom. Ryder builds a rapport with Garber over the two-way transit radio, and demands that Garber negotiate for the hostages' release, instead of a police official.
As tension builds, Garber is forced to go into the subway tunnel to meet with Ryder and try to free the hostages.
Travolta's starring role in "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," which was filmed last year, is his first movie appearance since his 16-year-old son died of a seizure while the family was on vacation in the Bahamas.
Travolta has avoided interviews about the movie to spend time with his grieving family, and this week issued a statement saying the efforts of others to promote the film "have allowed my family the additional time to reconcile our loss."
"I talked with John two and a half weeks ago and he just would say that he's struggling," Washington told reporters. "So, more than talking to him, I listened to him for about two or three hours."
Tony Scott, the director of "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," said Travolta plays a "dangerous" villain, but that the actor has "a big heart."
"As a bad guy in this role he brings sort of a contradiction in terms of what you normally expect from a bad guy," Scott said.
Washington and Travolta play opposite each other, but barely appear on screen together since so much of their characters' high-stakes sparring happens over the radio.
Washington said that he and Travolta did not even shoot a scene together for nearly two months of filming.
"But we were developing a relationship together off-camera, through the microphone, so to speak," he said.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte