Denzel Washington has played some iconic cops over the years, but he doesn’t get hung up on things like that. For him, it’s all about the script.
So when John Lee Hancock came to him with “ The Little Things,” a 1990-set crime drama about law enforcement and obsession, he was intrigued. The part was for Joe Deacon, who left city duties for the country after a grueling case years ago but gets pulled back in to help with a new serial killer.
“There’s an old saying, ‘If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage,’” Washington said. “And this was on the page first.”
Then Hancock told him who he wanted for the other leads: Rami Malek for his unlikely counterpart, Sergeant Jim Baxter, and Jared Leto for the certainly suspicious but maybe not guilty loner Albert Sparma.
“I’m like, OK, let me RE-read it,” Washington laughed. ”It wasn’t hard for me at all. It’s like, ‘OK, when do we start?’”
“The Little Things,” which opens in theatres and on HBO Max on Jan. 29, is one of Malek’s first big roles after his “Bohemian Rhapsody” awards sweep, where he first crossed paths with Washington.
“Denzel and I met at the Golden Globes the year of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ He was there with John David (Washington) for ‘BlacKkKlansman,’ and I locked eyes with Denzel for a moment. He locked eyes with me… I saw him start to stand up and I thought, ‘Well, you better get up and move towards him much faster than he’s moving towards you,’” Malek said. “It was shortly thereafter that I realized he and John Lee had me in mind for the role.”
The equation was simple enough: When Denzel Washington wants you for a movie, you say yes. Hancock liked that Washington and Malek were “strange bedfellows.”
“They don’t strike me as the types that would hang out or go to a bar and watch sports,” Hancock said. “I thought that would really benefit the movie.”
The unlikely trio all had wildly different styles too. Washington was in near constant conversation with Hancock from the moment he was cast, dissecting the character, the choices (down to whether or not he needed to be wearing a coat in a certain scene) and the script. Leto, on the other hand, stayed away from his co-stars until the shoot. It wasn’t that he wasn’t taking it seriously, but he’s a method actor and wanted to meet them in costume and in character.
“You don’t want to show up and be the person who is not prepared on a set like this,” said Leto, who counts Washington as one of his personal heroes.
Hancock loved the energy it brought to their first encounter on camera.
“It was like they were smelling each other. They’re feeling each other out. It just was electric because they hadn’t been in a room together and hadn’t been buddy-buddy,” Hancock said. “It was Albert Sparma and Joe Deacon.”
Washington agreed and liked that it kept it fresh.
“At the end of the day, it is still acting,” Washington added.
Although Malek may be almost 40 and Leto almost 50, Washington, at 66, refers to them as young actors and “the next generation.” And he was just as excited to observe the two at work as they were to work with him. For one scene, where Malek’s character is interrogating Leto’s, Washington decided to sit behind the glass and watch.
“I wish I’d had some popcorn!” Washington said. “It was like I was watching a boxing match.”
His dedication, which included gaining and losing 40 pounds, astounded Malek.
“I appreciated that he was always there,” Malek said. “We got really excited after that scene in particular. We were in that moment part of a trio of something special.”
Hancock said it wasn’t about managing the three actors as much as it was just getting out of their way. All of them, he said, brought their A-game, even if their methods at arriving there were different.
Washington, a longtime boxer, lives by the logic that “you stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.” He was sure he could trust his co-stars to do the same for what would be a tough and fast-moving shoot.
“Both of these actors are Academy Award winners like myself. We’re all three world champions, if you will. So you know you’re getting in the ring with two world champions,” Washington said. “It wakes you up.”
“The Little Things” is the end of a long chapter for Hancock, who wrote it in 1993. The script was popular but never got off the ground for various reasons. Steven Spielberg, Warren Beatty and Danny DeVito were just a few big names who’d find themselves attached to direct at various points over the years.
Hancock’s producer brought it up again a few years ago. By that time, Hancock himself was an established commercial director with credits like “The Blind Side,” “The Rookie” and “Saving Mr. Banks” and they thought it was the right moment to give it another shot. Although what was once a cutting-edge look at policing in transition, 25 years on was now a period piece.
“It would have saved us a lot of money to make it contemporary,” Hancock laughed. “But I liked the idea that this was pre-DNA 1990. Investigations were harder. Everything was harder. You had to take rolls of quarters for payphones.”
And at its heart, it’s an original riff on a well-worn formula that will keep you guessing until the end.
“I wanted it to feel like it was going to be a genre movie until you realize it’s not about that at all,” Hancock said. “Instead of building towards resolution, this one kind of unravels.”
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr
Lindsey Bahr, The Associated Press