American Ronin: Director Antoine Fuqua Teams Up with Denzel Washington for THE EQUALIZER 3

Denzel Washington stars as Robert McCall in Columbia Pictures THE EQUALIZER 3. Photo by: Stefano Montesi Photo By: Stefano Montesi Copyright: © 2023 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

There are times when the chemistry between an actor and a director is undeniable. It was immediately apparent in Training Day (2001), the first collaboration between Denzel Washington and filmmaker Antoine Fuqua. The actor’s performance, in a film that couldn’t have been further removed from the awards circuit, eventually led to Washington’s second Academy Award win, his first in the Best Actor category. Fuqua and Washington wouldn’t reunite for another big-screen project until 2014, when they came together to adapt the 1980s network TV series “The Equalizer” into a feature film. There were no ambitions at the time to develop that film into the trilogy it is today, says Fuqua. It was the audience’s reception that brought the pair back for a sequel in 2018—and a third installment scheduled to release this summer. Boxoffice Pro spoke with Fuqua about his connection to The Equalizer franchise—and what he hopes to deliver to audiences in the latest chapter of the franchise.

The Equalizer started as a TV series, was rebooted in 2021 (it stars Queen Latifah), and has been adapted into films and even novels. What was your connection to the original show?

I used to watch “The Equalizer” as a kid. It wasn’t something I intellectualized—I just saw a rich guy driving a Jaguar and helping people. There was never a real reason why I watched or what I found interesting about it. To me, it was just a man who decided to help those who couldn’t help themselves. That’s been a running theme in my life, with the TV shows and movies I’ve enjoyed watching. The Magnificent Seven, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the characters in those movies have a moral compass—a certain virtue to protect those who can’t protect themselves. I have always been attracted to characters like that.

One could argue that the protagonist of these movies, Robert McCall, as portrayed by Denzel Washington, goes beyond that simple archetype. You and Denzel have had great collaborations together, going back to his memorable performance in Training Day. Your Equalizer movies work principally on the strength of that performance in that character—the set pieces are great to look at, but there’s a stoicism in Denzel in these films that recalls the Western heroes of yesteryear. How did you work together to come up with his version of that character?

It was really just about making a grounded character. There was never any prototype, per se. The closest to him, for me, was a samurai, the ronin. We focused on the character: who he is, and how he functions. Obviously, Denzel Washington is an amazing actor, one of the greats of our time. In order to make this project interesting for both of us, we needed to build a character that we could relate to: the workingman’s hero. He’s not a fantasy hero in any way. He doesn’t really want to be involved in all the violence. It’s not something he relishes. It’s something necessary to his way of life. He always tries to give his adversaries a chance to avoid that violent confrontation.

Denzel would have to tell you himself what he focused on as an actor, but we talked a lot about the human qualities of the character. McCall is just a normal guy who’s lonely. We don’t delve into any of his internal struggles, except for his wife—you see in the films that he misses her presence. He has one friend, Susan, Melissa Leo’s character, and we don’t know much else about him—his life is a mystery to us. We only learn about him through his actions, which is something I learned from Sidney Lumet. When you have an actor like Denzel Washington, you just need to focus on the performance and let his actions guide the character.

Your Equalizer films have a distinct visual style and pacing that makes them stand apart in your filmography. Did you draw from any inspirations in crafting their look and feel?

My biggest inspirations were from the foreign films of the ’70s, really. I remember talking to [director of photography] Mauro Fiore when I did the first one. We were looking to give the film a lot of stillness, allowing it to breathe a little bit and not overcovering the scenes, except within the movement of the action scenes—that fight choreography was always designed as a sort of ballet. A lot of the films from the ’70s that inspired me took their time, didn’t rush the characters, and that’s where a lot of the inspiration came from.

When I first read the script for the first Equalizer, I thought, “If this was a foreign film, what would it feel like?” Without the big studio money behind it, if it was a movie that just focused on character—what would it feel like? That was the starting point for this project. I went back and looked at some of Sidney Lumet’s films to better understand their pacing. I looked at some of Scorsese’s early films from that era. And of course, all those Alain Delon movies, the French films in particular, like Le Samouraï (1967), with that kind of slow-burn pacing and character development as it unfolded. Those are the type of movies that inspire me. I didn’t want our films to be too fancy or fast-paced; we put a lot of time and thought into letting it be a slow burn. So when the violence does happen on-screen, it’s a lot more explosive.

It’s interesting you bring up the [Alain] Delon films. I kept thinking back to Mike Hodge’s Get Carter (1971), starring Michael Caine, in my first viewing of The Equalizer.

There’s a lot from that era in the movie. There’s a lot of the world of [Jean-Pierre] Melville, movies like Le Cercle Rouge (1970)—that’s how I envisioned the Equalizer movies. Those films took their time, and they were character driven. The action is secondary to the character. Every part of the action is based on that character, it’s not just random action for action’s sake. We have a pivotal scene in the first movie, set inside a Russian tearoom, where McCall punishes these thugs for roughing up a young girl. McCall offers this gangster money to free the girl, but the gangster declines, and he kills him in a way where the gangster would suffer more by bleeding out slowly—suffocating on his own blood, which is vicious. That’s such a leap for that character at that moment in the film, the first time you see just how violent he can be. McCall is a character that has to be driven to that level of violence. When he drives a corkscrew through someone’s chin, it’s because there’s a character that took him to that place—we don’t have those moments in the films just because they look cool. McCall has a darkness in him that comes out, but only after he tries to settle things peacefully. If you don’t take him up on his offer, if you don’t try to rectify and do the right thing, there’s a heavy price to pay for it. That’s the way we’ve always approached these movies.

I know you and Denzel are big boxing fans. That controlled violence reminds me a lot of some of my favorite fighters—Muhammad Ali and Julio Cesar Chavez—who had this mean streak that would only come out against the fighters who disrespected them. Instead of knocking them out when they had the chance, they’d keep them around for an extra couple of rounds and keep punishing them. Denzel has that quality as Robert McCall in these movies.

[Laughs.] Yeah, a hundred percent! Me and Denzel both love boxing. In fact, we always have a ring built whenever we’re together on set. We have a whole gym with a ring built for us wherever we go so we can train together. We had one in Italy for this shoot as well. McCall in these movies has the same mentality that some boxers have: In the sport of boxing, you always expect to go in there and beat up the other guy, but if a guy is especially nasty and disrespectful, you hold them on the ropes and let your hands go for a little bit longer. You don’t let them go down easy. McCall is just like that in all the Equalizer movies.

Let’s talk more about Italy, since that’s where we find McCall in The Equalizer 3, living out his version of a Marvelous Marvin Hagler retirement in a quiet Italian town—until he’s forced back into action. What did you want to bring to the latest entry in this series?

This movie is a lot more personal. The other ones are more about him in a particular place, stumbling upon a situation. In this one, you get to see how he winds up in Italy. It’s more about him trying to find his place in the world. He’s trying to find a place where he belongs and a purpose. It’s more about the character’s own journey, as opposed to the characters around him.

Neither you nor Denzel has made any sequels outside of the Equalizer series. What is it about these movies that have brought you guys back together over and over again?

It’s the people, the people keep bringing us back for these films. Denzel and I first worked together on Training Day, a movie that was so successful and that made it all the way to the Academy Awards. For years, that’s all people would say to us: “Man, Training Day! That movie was so good!” Years later, after doing The Equalizer, we never thought that film would turn into a franchise. I would go places and all of a sudden people stopped asking me about Training Day—they all wanted to talk about The Equalizer. We kept hearing from fans that they wanted to see another one; they loved Denzel’s take on the Robert McCall character. That’s what brought us back into it.

What does it mean to you to come back from the pandemic with another theatrical event movie with The Equalizer 3?

It means everything. That’s why I got into the business, to make movies for theaters. I still go to the movies. I’m a moviegoer. Every time I go, I get popcorn and Coke. There’s nothing like the experience when I’m watching a movie in the theater, nothing like it. The magic of a movie comes out when you see it with other people. As a director, you find yourself spending hours alone with your editor in the editing bay, watching the movie again and again by yourself. It’s a lonely place. That’s why it’s so special when you finally get to put your movie out in front of an audience. It’s spiritual. There’s nothing quite like it.

Films always play differently in front of an audience. Even for a filmmaker, it doesn’t matter what type of movie you intended to make, the audience will bring their own experiences to the theater. That’s the only place you can get that feeling, when you have a stranger sitting next to you, going through the same reactions and emotions you’re having. It’s great to hear the audience erupt in laughter or let out a collective gasp. Don’t get me wrong, streamers are great, too, because there are filmmakers I wouldn’t get to see without those platforms. I know how hard it can be for a new filmmaker to get an opportunity at a big studio movie that comes out in theaters. But if you have a chance to have a movie in theaters, to be able to sit there and watch it with a Coke, popcorn, and an audience—there’s nothing like it.


Moviegoing Memory

I think it was called the Regency in Pittsburgh, where I grew up. You could see two movies for the price of one sometimes, and when I was a kid, we would go see Bruce Lee or Godzilla movies. As I grew up, I eventually started seeing some James Cagney films and movies like The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai in that theater. If you look at my work, a lot of the influence from those days is still there—maybe not so much the Godzillas and Bruce Lees—but all the gangster movies or The Magnificent Seven. I remember going to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind with my dad—it was magical to sit there with him and watch that movie.

Denzel Washington stars as Robert McCall in Columbia Pictures THE EQUALIZER 3. Photo by: Stefano Montesi Photo By: Stefano Montesi Copyright: © 2023 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

News Stories