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Denzel Washington

Lead Actor: 'American Gangster'

Denzel Washington makes a point of not repeating himself in his roles, always looking for a new twist on a character.

As Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas in “American Gangster,” Washington is playing a bad guy for one of the few times in his career. Last time he played a villain, it brought him an Oscar for “Training Day.”

Washington says it wasn’t his idea to steer clear of villains.

“Nobody asked me to,” Washington says. “Maybe I just didn’t get the parts. I guess you get a little pigeon-holed or something. It wasn’t like I was turning them down.”

On set, Washington had the best research source he could ask for: the real Frank Lucas, available “all day, every day, if I wanted him.”

Washington spent hours with Lucas, riding around Harlem and listening to his stories.

He remembers Lucas saying, ” ‘I wasn’t an awful guy. I was in a dirty business and you had to operate a certain way. There’s no such thing as a nice heroin dealer.’ ”

Washington adds, “He was a rough guy and serious guy, and he paid the price.”

Still, Washington says he was able to find Lucas’ decent side, which made him a much more fully realized character to play on film.

“He was very family-oriented, very American,” explains Washington with a laugh. “Very American. It’s an odd story. It’s about a guy who one way was much more of a straight shooter in the worst business ever and a guy who was all over the place in his personal life.”

That simpler side of Lucas is reflected in his wardrobe, which eschews the more outrageous fashions of 1970s Harlem. Washington says that those images of that decade were wrong for the character.

“The movies of those days were a lot more flamboyant than the people, but it depends on which world you’re in. Frank was sort of a low-key guy. He had many layers of people between him and the streets.”

FAST FACTS

Favorite film: “I’ve always loved ‘The Godfather.’ That’s a hard one to beat. Just great performances.”

Young actor you admire: “You know, I gotta go to the movies. There are so many young kids I don’t know. Cate Blanchett is a good one; Reese Witherspoon is very good, too.”

What you want in a director: “I want to be able to trust them. A good shot? A nice close-up? A little encouragement, I guess. A good movie, that’s what I want from a director.”

Vice: “Haagen-Dazs butter pecan ice cream. A weakness.”

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