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The Foot Fist Way: Denzel Washington Finds Something Worth Fighting for in ‘Book of Eli’

You might expect Denzel Washington to seem intimidating. At 55, he’s a two-time Oscar winner, the broad-shouldered star of Glory and Training Day, an actor who commands the screen with effortless authority. Despite his iconic stature, he can disappear into a role with ease, but at the end of the day he remains one of Hollywood’s most recognizable leading men. Introductions are unnecessary.

He offers one anyway. “Call me Eli,” he says, flashing the thousand-watt smile that inspired People to name him Sexiest Man Alive in 1996.

Washington is referring to the Bible-toting road warrior he plays in Book of Eli, a post-apocalyptic thriller opening nationwide Friday. Unlike Eli, who often quotes scripture when he’s not smiting anyone foolish enough to impede his mysterious odyssey, the actor is perfectly approachable.

The confidence you see in his performances is there – it’s in his natural poise, his talent for exuberantly carrying a conversation. He knows how to connect with his audience, whether he’s addressing a packed theater (as he will next spring, when he returns to Broadway for a revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences) or a cramped hotel suite teeming with quizzical reporters.

The topic today? Eli, of course, the righteous avenger driven by faith to spread the good word in a futuristic wasteland populated by cannibals, crooks and a sinister Gary Oldman, who longs to get his hands on that Bible. Can Washington relate?

“I understand being spiritual, but it was my son who got most involved with the material,” he says of John David Washington, 25, who co-produced. “He told me, ‘Dad, you have to do this, it’s something different.’ He worked on it from beginning to end, and he really dug the evolution of Eli’s  journey.

“That’s not the only reason I made the movie, but it certainly kept me interested.”

He was also intrigued by the character, whom directors Albert and Allen Hughes (Menace II Society) envisioned as an enigmatic loner. Eli is a physical specimen, impeccably preserved despite his age, who can take on all comers. That his past remains in the past merely adds to his myth.

“Eli is a man on a mission of great importance that he’s been pursuing for a long time,” Washington says. “There was a speech in the script that shed light on what’s happened to him, but I just got rid of it. We didn’t need it.

“Usually you don’t talk explicitly about a character’s back story, and sometimes it’s best implied. A great [example] is in Man on Fire. I say to Christopher Walken, ‘Do you think God will forgive us for what we’ve done?’ He just says no, and right there you realize these are some bad, bad people. Eli’s not like that, but he’s pretty handy with a weapon.”

He’s also good with his fists, a skill Washington has worked long and hard to master. A fitness enthusiast, he has been training for 15 years as an amateur boxer. For Eli, he had to incorporate new moves into his accustomed repertoire.

“I started working with martial artists six months out,” he says. “I had to learn the whole dance of it – stretching, training, moving with your eyes closed. I applied the discipline I’ve picked up from boxing to these new techniques.

“All I asked my teachers is not to make me look ridiculous. I wanted to look like a guy who could fight, not like a crazy cartoon. And I have a great job. I get to go play karate man for a while, fighting with Gary Oldman. Gary’s a champion actor, and I wanted to be sparring with the best.”