Denzel Washington—who stars as a lone warrior in the post-apocalyptic movie The Book of Eli—poured his usual Oscar-caliber commitment into the role, which included martial-arts training as well as depth of character. Washington plays Eli, a survivor 30 years after an unnamed apocalypse, who traverses a bleak American landscape guarding an important book from violent pursuers who want to take it.
"Jeff Imada—who is a disciple of Danny Inosanto, who was a contemporary of Bruce Lee—trained me," Washington said in a group interview last month in Beverly Hills, Calif. "I worked with Danny a bit. I don't know, four, five, six months out, we started stretching and moving and doing stuff with our eyes closed and just getting into the whole vibe."
Washington wants everyone to know that's really him spinning swords and throwing punches: In some scenes, Albert and Allen Hughes—the brothers who directed the movie together—chose to shoot Washington's action scenes in silhouette. But it's him, even when you can't see him.
"I was just like, 'Make sure they know it's me. There's no stuntman, make sure,'" Washington said. "[The Hughes brothers] said, 'Well, we're going to silhouette.' I go, 'Silhouette? As hard as I'm working, you're not even going to show me after all that? Well, make sure, get close or something. It's me, make sure they know it's me.' It is me. That's me. That's me."
The Hughes brothers also shot many of Washington's fight scenes in a single take so the audience can appreciate the elaborate fight choreography and see just how quickly Eli dispatches several attackers at once.
"I think the dogma we had was we want to play the action out in real time, no slow motion," Albert Hughes said in an exclusive interview. "That was the rule: real time, and try to do it in one take if we can, so that the audience feels that there's something. Even though there are some surreal aspects to the world, there's something subconsciously that feels real to them, that they connect with."
One key fight sequence—in which Eli fends off multiple attackers in a bar—appears with several cuts, but Albert Hughes said that the scene was shot in one take. "Even the bar fight at one time was one shot," he said. "We eventually chopped it up. We're still on the fence about whether or not we should've done that, because both ways it worked great, but you were missing a lot of his emotion standing out that wide."
"What I learned from these masters like Danny Inosanto is he lets that energy come towards him, and he goes through it," Washington said. "He's like 70-some-odd years old, and so fluid, and just a great fighter. I said I didn't want to be karate man. I didn't want to finish like, 'Ha!' I didn't want to do any of that, but just moving through people."
The Book of Eli opens Jan. 15.