What lured Potter's Gambon out of Hogwarts into sci-fi

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Michael Gambon, you've just played the noble and elegant wizard Dumbledore in the latest Harry Potter film. What are you going to do now?

He's sure as heck not going to Disney World. Rather, the Irish actor headed out to Albuquerque, N.M., to play—get this—an American farmer in the upcoming Denzel Washington post-apocalyptic drama The Book of Eli.

"I just got rang up," Gambon said in an exclusive interview last week in New York, where he was promoting Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. "Me and an English actress named Frances de la Tour [also a Potter veteran], we went over and played two American farmers. So we're both living on a farm, and Denzel comes along with a girl [Mila Kunis]. He's running from something, and he has something that everyone in the world wants, the book. ... Gary Oldman, who's a bastard, comes after him to get the book." (Spoilers ahead!)

Warner Brothers describes The Book of Eli this way: Washington plays a lone warrior named Eli who fights his way across the desolate wasteland of near-future America to realize his destiny and deliver the knowledge in a book that can bring civilization back from the brink of destruction and save the future of humanity. The film's original screenplay is by Gary Whitta and Anthony Pekham.

Eli's journey is "incidental to me and my wife," Gambon says of his character. "Our lives are finished. We're two old people sitting there without food. The world has ended. There's no food. There's no water. There are no clouds, just sun. Everything is hot. And we get in a gunfight. We're protecting our property. I've got my yard filled with the dead bodies of people I've killed, who've come to try and get water from me and my wife."

The film marks the return of From Hell directors Albert and Allen Hughes after a long hiatus, and it also co-stars Jennifer Beals, Ray Stevenson and Tom Waits. Gambon said he shared some screen time with Washington and signed on for Book of Eli for that reason; well, that and a couple of others.

"I just like doing the acting," Gambon said. "Denzel was in the scenes, in my house on the set in Albuquerque, in the desert. We were shooting machine guns—ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch—through the window. My wife gets shot through the neck, and she's dead. Denzel is in a terrible state. The boys are coming after him to get him. What else can I say about it? We just did a couple of weeks' work. I just like to work. So if I get a chance to be in a film with Denzel Washington in Albuquerque, shooting a machine gun, who would say no?"

The Book of Eli will open on Jan. 15, 2010.