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‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’: How Jake Gyllenhaal Helped Prepare Denzel Washington for Title Role

Celebrity fans and friends — from Rev. Al Sharpton to Lee Daniels — were out Monday night in New York to watch the latest from Hollywood heavy hitter Denzel Washington, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

The film, which hits theaters Wednesday, has already generated talk for its star’s transformation from charismatic leading man to a frumpy, but brilliant lawyer on the Autism spectrum.

Washington joked he got plenty of insight into the dark worlds created on-screen by director and writer Dan Gilroy from his boxing buddy Jake Gyllenhaal, who starred in Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler.”

“Jake was training at the same gym,” said Washington, “So I got to learn a little about Dan in advance and to obviously see the great collaboration they had together. [Working with Dan] was easy and seamless and invigorating.”

Washington’s character, Roman J. Israel, is a bit of a 1970s social justice relic, with an afro, plastic aviators, giant lapels, and an old-school briefcase. The well-meaning defense attorney Israel gets sucked into the seedy side of corporate law after his longtime partner dies.

“Denzel would come in and his hair would be getting longer, his weight was growing, his clothes changed and he got this gap in his teeth – when he finally got on the set he was utterly transformed,” said Gilroy. “If you’re a Denzel fan, you’re interested in seeing him doing something different, I think it’s going to be thrilling for people to see him.”

One advantage of Washington’s new look on set, explained producer Jennifer Fox, was that it made filming on the streets and in crowds a lot easier.

“I just thought, ‘How are we ever going to put Denzel Washington on a downtown crowded street and not have people ask for his autograph?'” said Fox. “But people simply didn’t recognize him.”

Executive producer Charles King, who worked with Washington on his Oscar-nominated performance in “Fences” last year, said the studio was hopeful come awards season. “We just hope people respond to it the way we have. We hope people will see the performance and that Denzel gave it his all and it’s a role we haven’t seen him in before,” he said.

Co-star Carmen Ejogo (“Selma,” “True Detective”) said she was thrilled to have the opportunity to work on a film not just with Washington, but also on a movie with a strong message.

“He is really generous as an artist and invites you into the playpen as it were to really go toe-to-toe with him,” she said. “There’s a lot of talk about winners and losers in the air and culture right now. I think it’s really exciting that a character like Roman Israel, who in appearance and age may not seem like he’s relevant or may not have anything to offer society, but in fact those are the people we shouldn’t overlook. Those on the fringes are the ones you should have compassion for more than anybody.”

Similarly, Gilroy said the old-school activism of the character Roman Israel is something that people today can learn from. “Roman can be part of that conversation: activism through the years and how it has changed,” Gilroy explained. “I think that [young activists] can learn that if you spend time in service of others, you may not get money or recognition, but there is a tremendous inner satisfaction worth more than those.”

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