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Roman J. Israel, Esq. is set in the underbelly of the overburdened Los Angeles criminal court system. Denzel Washington stars as a driven, idealistic defense attorney whose life is upended when his mentor, a civil rights icon, dies. When he is recruited to join a firm led by one of the legendary man’ s former students – the ambitious lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell) – and begins a friendship with a young champion of equal rights (Carmen Ejogo), a turbulent series of events ensue that will put the activism that has defined Roman’s career to the test.
The Knockturnal was on the red carpet for the film’s New York premiere at the Henry R. Luce Auditorium in the Time Inc. Building. Cast Denzel Washington, Carmen Ejogo, Amanda Warren, Elisa Perry, Director Dan Gilroy, Producer Todd Black, Producer Jennifer Fox and Producer Charles King were all in attendance. Check out our exclusive red carpet interviews below:
OJ Williams: You always bring us the transformations. What was crucial for you in transforming into Roman J. Israel?
Denzel Washington: It starts with the script if you have good material. Dan Gilroy wrote a great screenplay and a wonderful character, so it’s fertile territory to find the character.
OJ Williams: In the film, there’s a scene where the young ‘uns try to school you a little bit. Why is it important for us, someone of my generation, to listen to those who are wiser?
Denzel Washington: I think it’s important to have an exchange, not just to listen. It’s good to have your opinion. It’s good to respect other opinions unless you already know everything.
OJ Williams: You always surround yourself with some of the best talent in the world. You have Carmen and Colin. What did you take away from working with them in this film?
Denzel Washington: Wow, that’s a good question. First, they’re both very talented and nice people. Decent folks.
OJ Williams: That’s a good start.
Denzel Washington: It is because we’ve all dealt with …
OJ Williams: The not so nice people.
Denzel Washington: Yeah, and I don’t care how talented you are if you’re not a decent human being … They’re good people and hard workers, so it was easy. The job was easy.
OJ Williams: Maya, she is a very fun, interesting character. What about her did you admire most?
Carmen Ejogo: I admire the fact that she’s got compassion, that she has deep empathy, that she really doesn’t judge. I think there is tolerance in her personality. I think we are living in an age where the idea of being fully accepting of people’s differences is something that not everyone is capable of doing, and I wish more of us were. I think those are the things that I respect about her.
OJ Williams: The film is so relevant for so many reasons today. What do you want people to take away after they see the film?
Carmen Ejogo: I hope the film encourages people to realize that there is value in having a fight, a good fight that you believe in and that you try to stay the course. But I think it’s also a film that appreciates and accepts the fact that we all have our weak moments, and that’s okay too. I think for people to be okay in themselves, that they are just doing their best at the end of the day. Also, I hope to recognize that to be somebody that makes the effort to be in service of others. I think that’s something that is clearly what motivates Maya and Roman. I think that’s something that it would be great if people took away.
OJ Williams: Lastly, I have to ask about Denzel. How was working with him?
Carmen Ejogo: What is great about Denzel, he could very easily make you feel as though you’re a little lesser than him as an artist, but he never does that. He never did that. He really recognized that, “If you’re here standing opposite of me right now, you must have earned that spot. So let’s play, let’s have fun.”
OJ Williams: Does one get nervous when handing a script over to Denzel Washington?
Dan Gilroy: Oh yeah. Particularly because I wrote it without getting paid, and I wrote it knowing that if he didn’t do it, I wasn’t going to do the movie. I said it to him, and I got a phone call that he read it and he wanted me to come to New York. I went to New York right before he did Fences. We sat down and an hour into the lunch, he stuck his hand out and said, “Let’s do this movie.”
OJ Williams: What about the story of Roman appealed to you?
Dan Gilroy: What appealed to me is the idea of somebody who never left the 1960s, who was committed to an idealism, an activism and fighting injustice of every form and for 40 years never stopped. One of the few people who never left. Where would that person be? What would it have cost them? What would they have gained? That really interested me.
OJ Williams: What do you hope the viewer takes away?
Dan Gilroy: What I’m hoping they take away is that when you spend part of your day in service of other people, helping people, trying to change something in the betterment of our country, you’re not going to get a financial award. You’re not going to get recognition in many cases, but you will get, I think, an inner satisfaction that you’ve done something that’s maybe more relevant. I’m hoping that when people leave the theater, they take some of Roman with them, and anyway that they think it might be relevant, they apply it.
OJ Williams: You’re having a great year, just project after project. How do you pick them?
Charles D. King: I have an amazing group of colleagues and partners, Kim Roth, Poppy Hanks, some really brilliant young executives at our company as well. We get submitted so much material. We sit down with a lot of brilliant artists, and we debate. We make sure that every one of our projects really checks a couple of key issues. One is it telling a story and a point of view that’s going to uplift culture? Is it doing it in a smart and unique way? Three, are people of color at the front of it or the key drivers of the storytelling? Is there a level of excellence of the creative element of the filmmakers and the talent involved? Plus other things, but we look at all of those, and we make sure that we have a balanced slate so that we’re not only fitting one specific genre. You think about this movie, which you’ll see where it’s dramatic. It touches on real issues, but it’s also fun and light and entertaining too. That’s part of what we hope to do is have a nice portfolio and balance of movies that we’re involved in. A film like Mudbound, which is very dramatic and then something like this is a little lighter, but then we think about some of the other things we have like our television show that just got green lit in Netflix, Raising Dion. It’s the story about a 10-year-old kid who’s a superhero, so it’s action and drama, some suspense to it with a little bit of levity. Think back to those movies back in the day like ET and the stuff that. Then we’ve got this really dark dramedy, quirky comedy called Sorry To Bother You with Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson and Armie Hammer that we’re in post-prod. It was written and directed by Boots Riley. That’s going to completely turn the genre on its head too. We try to mix it up and have a nice diversified slate and do it in a really different way.
The film is now playing.
Roman J. Israel, Esq., a film written and directed by Dan Gilroy, dives deep into the underworld of the Los Angeles criminal court system. Starring Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, and Carmen Ejogo, Gilroy presents a harrowing but hopeful picture of the reality of the justice system and the activism necessary to battle its shortcomings. The Knockturnal‘s very own O.J. Williams had the chance to ask Carmen Ejogo, known also for Selma, Fantastic Beasts, The Purge: Anarchy, and Alien Covenant, a few questions this past weekend about her experience with the film. Ejogo plays a young activist named Maya who enters into an unwitting friendship with the lawyer Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington).
Q [O.J. Williams]: When you first got your script, what was your initial, first reaction to the project?
A [Carmen Ejogo]: I was struck by how convincing the writing was of the character that I would be playing, of Maya. It can be quite a difficult voice to make sound authentic, the voice of the activist. It can sound like a trope very quickly; it can sound like a stereotype very easily. So, to find a piece of writing that felt like it had real soul and real spirit and depth was really exciting. And then having the visual of Denzel [Washington], which was not what Denzel ended up looking like in the movie at all, which was a complete surprise to me, how he ended up embodying Roman. But I could tell on the page that that was going to be a really sympathetic, complex, interesting character as well. So, there weren’t really many reasons not to want to do it.
Q: You play a young, activist lawyer in the film. What was the most intriguing thing you learned about the U.S. legal system while doing the film?
A: In some roles, you have to get really down into the nitty-gritty of the career part of the character, and then in some roles, hopefully you bring something innate to the character. I don’t have a lot of the jargon to speak, as Denzel does, with his character, I don’t really necessarily have to be as savvy as to the ins and outs of that stuff. So, I really focused more on making sure that the essence of the character felt appropriate. I’m in few scenes in this film, but they had to be moments that really counted in terms of illuminating who Roman was by virtue of the way in which he affects others, and Maya is one of those people. So really it was illuminating what the effect was, was more of my job than maybe understanding the modern legal loopholes.
Q: In the film, your character Maya has to deal with the very eccentric Roman, played by Mr. Washington. How do you deal with eccentric people in real life?
A: I am a little eccentric myself, and I feel more comfortable with people that are a little less than straight-laced. In fact, I feel like I was raised by eccentric. I think I’m most comfortable with people that think a little outside the box, or a lot outside of the box, even. And I also have a great sort of empathy for that type, which is maybe again why Dan [Gilroy] thought I was right for the job to play Maya, because I think embodies that too. She has a patience and an innate understanding of what makes Roman work, or not work. And that’s what makes them good, kindred spirits on this journey.
Q: In this film, Roman is someone you turn to often for advice, or for a re-centering. Who is that for you in real life?
A: Two people come to mind, two sets of people. The first set is my children, who will remind me and keep me in a place of balance, because it is my absolute job to, then, offer them the same in turn. They are very good at keeping me in a place that is a little more rational than I might manage without them. But, not to completely discredit my own sort of influence on myself, I think I somehow over time nurtured the ability to find that within myself in my own personal way to cope and to maintain rationale and a sense of purpose and ability to keep moving forward.
Q: Speaking of children, in the film, there is a scene where a younger character decides to school you and Denzel. Why do you think the young people have a hard time heeding the older generation’s advice?
A: We live in such a youth-based culture that anything past a certain age isn’t valued in the same way. I think it goes both ways; I think there’s a problem with elders and people in positions of power that don’t always appreciate and value our youth in the ways that they ought to, and therefore there is this natural antagonism that then emerges. And a lack of appreciation of the elders that I think should be in place as bastions of wisdom. But if people of an older generation don’t attempt to understand those of the younger generation and have contempt and suspicion of the youth, it’s not surprising that younger people then, in turn, do the same, and then on top of that we do have a culture that really doesn’t celebrate anything as being time-worthy if it tops a certain age. That, I think, really needs to change. For me, speaking as a woman, that’s something I’m very conscious of, as I feel women get more interesting as they get older, somehow in this industry in particular, we aren’t being hit with the same eyes. And it’ll be a great day when we all start to appreciate the wisdom of people getting older. That would be a benefit to all of them, I think.
Q: Speaking of learning, you have a lot of amazing scenes with Mr. Washington. What did you take away from him? Were there any gems, or any tips that you took away from him?
A: I think what was most valuable was to just witness somebody that hasn’t given up on their love of the craft. For someone of that stature that’s reached their age, that’s reached their place in the industry, the potential for having less of a degree of passion for the work could easily set in, and it just hasn’t with him. So that was certainly what I took away from it.
Q: While we’re on the subject of him, in this film, he gives you an “unexpected gift,” as you call it. Have you ever gotten a gift in real life that you later appreciated down the line?
A: I’m very un-materialistic. I’m the worst person to give presents to. I’m one of those people. And so, in the moment, it may be hard to get it right for me, and to give something to me that I feel that I want to keep in the cupboard or keep on a shelf. But I’m learning in myself that despite my lack of materialism, sometimes when things are given to you, even if you didn’t want them, they’re worth keeping around, because they do embody some of the spirit of the person that gave it to you. So, there are several things from people that are close and dear to me that I’m glad I didn’t throw out, even though I may have wanted to.
Q: Mr. Dan Gilroy, we love him as a director. Talk about working with him and what it was like collaborating to pull the character together.
A: I’m madly in love with Dan Gilroy. He is a man of such heart. I don’t say this lightly – this industry is full of all types, and it’s rare that you get somebody that I would describe as being full of heart. It’s a very self-involved industry and business. So, to find somebody as a director, which is a position of ultimate power on the set, that hasn’t lost that sense of heart and compassion and real commitment to the most pure idea of why he’d make that film in the first place, is a really rare thing. And after meeting him once, I had no doubt that his motivations of telling this story were pure. If anyone responds to this film positively, it is for that reason, because the voice from its very beginning was a pure voice. I can’t think of a higher praise you can give anybody than that, frankly. To have a pure voice in the world, as an artist, as a person.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. premieres in New York and Los Angeles Friday, and everywhere else this Thanksgiving. Tickets can be found here: www.romanisrael-tickets.com.
Check out the trailer here.
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The new documentary on jazz musician John Coltrane, Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, gives viewers an inside look on the legend’s life.
The film is filled with photos and videos of Coltrane that allow viewers to connect with his music as they learn more about his life as a saxophonist, husband and father. It goes over his early life, the steps he took to make it big in the music industry and the legacy he left behind. The film is raw and honest, telling the life story of Coltrane without leaving out all the unfortunate events such as the condition of the south, death of family members or heroin addiction that played a part in who he became as a jazz musician.
The film, written and directed by John Scheinfeld, works closely with the colleagues and family members of Coltrane. The words of John Coltrane are spoken by Denzel Washington all throughout the film, providing a first perspective narrative. His story is told through his sons Oran and Ravi Coltrane and his step daughters. Through the testimonies of some of his closest acquaintances like Sonny Rollins and Reggie Workman, viewers can understand Coltrane’s artistry through the eyes of artists he worked with closely. The film also includes commentary from musicians and other individuals the saxophonist has inspired such as President Bill Clinton, John Densmore and Common.
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