Dan Gilroy wouldn’t have made Roman J. Israel, Esq. without Denzel Washington, the writer-director has revealed. This is Gilroy’s second feature as a director, following his immense success with Nightcrawler, the dark comedy starring Jake Gyllenhaal that threw light on the murky morals of the media. This time out, Gilroy has put the legal system in his sinisterly satirical sights.
Washington has the title role as Roman Israel, an idealistic defense lawyer who ends up taking a leading position at his firm, learning in the process a lot of dark stuff about the business he’s immersed in. The movie was originally titled Inner City, before Gilroy switched it to the main character’s name instead.
Related: Denzel fights for justice in Roman Israel trailer
But one thing that was never up for debate or change was the leading man. As Gilroy revealed in an interview with Screen Rant, this was always going to be Denzel Washington’s role. Here’s what he said about writing and casting the role:
Screen Rant: You got to work with two of the best actors around in Jake Gyllenhaal for Nightcrawler and for this, Denzel Washington. Do you have these actors in mind when you’re writing the film and were you just really lucky in the casting department?
Dan Gilroy: I wrote Roman Israel for Denzel specifically.
Screen Rant: Really?
Dan Gilroy: I took a year on spec. Took a year to write it. Had he not done it I would have put it away. I didn’t think it was another actor that I wanted that I felt would have done had all the qualities of this character and I would put it aside so I got very lucky there. I mean, people were saying I was crazy. I took myself off the market for a long period of time. And I was just committed to working with Denzel I’ve always wanted to do and I thought this was the perfect part for him, so that’s that. Jake was right at the top a list of people I wanted from Lou Bloom [in Nightcrawler] and you know I’m incredibly lucky to get my first film and I get Jake because he really is one of the best actors out there and he’s only getting better.
Screen Rant: Yeah, I mean I just saw him in Life and I was blown away he was amazing. How much does the project or role change will obviously when Denzel jumps on board, I guess, in this case, it changes completely as it doesn’t happen at all.
Dan Gilroy: It doesn’t happen at all. So if he comes on board what happens to the role? Both of those situations where I underwrite these characters I don’t tell you much about them. I don’t give backstory in the screenplay. I don’t give much backstory, description. Very little. So I’m asking an actor to come in and create that character. So, when Jake comes in he does the twenty-seven-pound weight loss. He grows his hair out, and he does the scrunchie arms things, and he creates all of that. And I invite them to. I want him to. I can write a part of the story but I’m very much looking for a good actor come in and fill it out. Denzel comes in he had carte blanche to create the look of the character the mannerism’s of the character because no matter how good a writer you are or think you are, a great actor within a very short time he’s going to be ahead of you in the character. They’re going to understand and give to it emotional depth and motivation. They’ll make choices that are that about the externals of the look and I don’t want to get in the way of that. I very much like to collaborate.
Clearly, working Washington was a huge deal for Gilroy. He wrote the character with the iconic actor in mind, leaving plenty of space for Washington to craft backstory and mannerisms himself. Had Washington decided to pass, Gilroy would have wasted a year on his life on a project that would never get made. That’s a really brave move.
However, with talk of Roman J. Israel, Esq. being re-edited following mixed responses on the festival circuit, it’ll be interesting to see if this collaboration – as important as it was for Gilroy – pays off in the end. Will the re-edit result in better reviews and audience appreciation when the film releases in theaters? Only time will tell.
Stay tuned to Screen Rant for all the latest on Roman J. Israel, Esq.