LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Denzel Washington’s latest role in “The Book of Eli” has him playing a wanderer in a nuclear war-ravaged America who leans on his Bible for guidance, and the actor says if he was in that situation, he’d do exactly the same.
The movie, which opens in U.S. theaters on Friday, blends elements of old-style Hollywood westerns, in the form of desolate landscapes and frontier towns, and Old Testament spirituality — a change for Hollywood studios which tend to avoid religious themes in modern, big-budget action flicks.
Washington’s character Eli likes to quote Genesis and Psalm, when he’s not slicing thugs with a sword.
In the movie, Americans have burned their Bibles as a disgusted reaction to the nuclear war, but there is one left. It belongs to Eli, who is on a mission to find people worthy of receiving it.
Two-time Oscar winner Washington said he tries to read the Bible every day, and that if he was in a post-apocalyptic world, the book is something he would “want to have.”
“I think that faith is important, to listen to that still, small voice inside you,” Washington told Reuters. “Not to be intimidated or discouraged by others and follow your life mission, to the degree that you can.
“My mother says — it’s interesting — it’s one thing to do good, but you must do good the right way,” said Washington.
As Eli, Washington wanders the desolate countryside and finally into a frontier town, where the local overlord Carnegie, played by Gary Oldman, is desperate to find a Bible so he can use it as a weapon to influence people.
When Carnegie learns Eli has one, he orders him to hand over the book or be killed. Eli fights to defend the Bible before he can finally continue his journey.
Growing up, Washington’s father was a church preacher on Sundays, and as a boy he would hang around the church for hours when his dad spoke to one service after another.
As a result, Washington said faith felt “like a duty” to him, and that he rebelled against it. He later rebelled in other ways.
When he was about 18 years-old, the police stopped him, and if they had searched his car he could have gone to jail on what he would only say was a “drug-related” offense.
“It was in a lot of ways just the grace of God, that wasn’t his plan for me to get caught,” Washington said. “Because I had done things that some of my friends have done that I could have gotten caught, and it could have changed my life completely.”
Instead, Washington became involved in sports, went on to find fame in Hollywood as an actor first on television (“St. Elsewhere”) and then in the movies.
In real life, the husband and father of four has become a role model for young men and women, and he is an ardent supporter of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
As an actor he is one of Hollywood’s highest-paid leading men, earning top dollar in films like “Eli” or “American Gangster.” He produces and even directs movies, including 2007’s “The Great Debaters.”
Washington earned a best supporting Oscar for his role in 1989 Civil War film “Glory” and a lead actor Oscar for 2001’s “Training Day,” becoming only the second African American behind legendary Sidney Poitier to win best actor.
For “The Book of Eli,” Washington worked on the script with directors Albert and Allen Hughes for weeks, playing out scenes and fine-tuning dialogue until it all sounded right to him.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in this business, anybody in that $20 million movie star (range), who puts that kind of work into it,” said Albert Hughes.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte