In “The Magnificent Seven,” Denzel Washington tips his hat to a genre film with a new-generation twist.
You would not be wrong to assume that, after being cast as the lead in “The Magnificent Seven,” one of the first things Denzel Washington did was take a close look at the 1960 classic on which his newest film is based. But it would be a bad assumption nonetheless.
“I’ve never seen ‘The Magnificent Seven,’” Washington says. “And I don’t approach a character based on past movies. I don’t know how to play ‘mythical’ — I don’t know what that means. I just look at the script and what it says about this man in these circumstances.”
That emotionally grounded, workmanlike approach has served Washington well over the course of his legendary career: He’s a two-time Oscar winner, a bankable Hollywood star, and perhaps the most respected actor of his generation. Washington plays Sam Chisolm in “The Magnificent Seven,” a role that reunites him with his “Training Day” director, Antoine Fuqua, and co-star Ethan Hawke.
“My character would tell you he’s a duly sworn warrant officer from Wichita, Kansas and a licensed peace officer in Arkansas, Indian Territory, Nebraska, and seven other states,” said Washington. “He is a black man in the frontier, in a position of authority, so he needs to let people know he has authority from the government to do this job. He’s a loner; he’s unafraid. He’s a master with his weapon but he’s not a braggart; he’s a lonely, honorable, courageous man, not especially used to dealing with people.”
The story is set in the town of Rose Creek, which is under the control of fearsome industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). Led by Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), the desperate townspeople enlist protection from a group of outlaws, bounty hunters, gamblers and hired guns organized by Chisolm. As they prepare the town for the violent showdown that they know is coming, the seven mercenaries find themselves fighting for more than money.
“When MGM asked me about making a Western, I got excited about the possibility of it, because I grew up with Westerns,” says Fuqua. “So, I asked myself, ‘Why make a Western now? Why would it be important?’ And the answer was, the idea of tyranny, happening in our world today — that’s what made it timely. You’d need a special group of people to come together to fight tyranny.”
Fuqua also has an special affinity for the genre: he remembers watching Westerns with his grandmother. “I needed something that you haven’t seen yet, a perspective that has not been on the screen with the Western,” he said. “So I said to the producing team, ‘What about Denzel Washington?’ And the room went completely silent — until there was an eruption from the team, ‘That would be amazing. You think he would do it?’ Today, as long as the character’s morals are intact, you can make a darker hero, you can make him more complex and reflect how the world is today. Denzel Washington playing the lead in a Western back then would never have happened, because Americans never saw themselves in that way—but today, the Western has to feel like the world we live in.”
Fuqua and Washington have a very strong relationship. “Antoine and I have obviously had great success,” said Washington. “We won our Academy Award with ‘Training Day’ and had great financial success with ‘The Equalizer.’ He’s a master filmmaker — he knows what he’s doing, and he allows me to do what it is I know to do. We’re a good fit.”
Naturally, Washington was drawn by the chance to play Chisolm, the leader of the titular Seven. “There are those who have been put on this Earth to protect the innocent,” he said, “and for this town, my character is the right man at the right time.”