LOS ANGELES—Antoine Fuqua doesn’t think of The Equalizer 2 as a followup film to his 2014 offering The Equalizer. They both feature Denzel Washington taking on the role of Robert McCall. The two films are built around the idea — first established in The Equalizer TV series in the 1980s — that McCall selflessly helps the helpless.
Fuqua knows these elements would serve in any dictionary as an exact definition for what it means to be a followup film. What the Pennsylvania native is referring to is his approach to making The Equalizer 2 was no different than any other movie he’s directed since his initial big screen offering, The Replacement Killers, in 1998.
“I just try to take each script on its own merit and make the best movie I can,” he says. “It’s dangerous to try to outdo yourself or try to do the same thing. You just have to make that movie the best it can be and make sure the character — because it is a continuation — has the same DNA as the other one,” Fuqua says. “It’s important that he stays in the zone of the character because he’s what leads you through the whole movie.”
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There was really no pressure on Fuqua to make sure the DNA of the character was the same as he had two-time Oscar winner Washington in the lead role. The pair’s history of working together goes back to 2001 when Fuqua directed Washington to his second Oscar with Training Day. Along with directing Washington in the first Equalizer movie, the two also worked together in 2016’s The Magnificent Seven.
They spent a lot of time talking about the role of McCall before filming The Equalizer. Once the decisions were made about the character, Fuqua was certain Washington knew exactly how to play him. Between the two films, a few tweaks were made, such as a change of day jobs, but the heart of the character has never wavered.
That new job takes McCall from working in a hardware store to being a Lyft driver. This helped Fuqua and writer Richard Wenk find a balance of one major mission for McCall mixed with a series of smaller jobs that most likely came from what he heard while driving. There were long conversations about all the story threads to make sure they felt natural to the Equalizer franchise without being too sentimental or going too long.
“One thing I learned from the first movie is how much people connect to this story,” Fuqua says. “It is arrogant to think you know what people care about. I remember in the first film wanting to cut out the scene where Jenny gets her ring back. I never showed you what McCall did to the guy, but when she opened the drawer the ring was there.
“I will never forget the gasp from the audience. People were connecting to it. There are little things that I was holding onto in this movie because I knew they were going to matter to the audience.”
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Not only does his new job give McCall a natural way to find out about people in need as they talk in the back seat of his car, it also gave the director a chance to focus on one of Washington’s greatest acting skills: his ability to get across a multitude of emotions with his face and eyes.
He could put the camera in Washington’s face because of the confined space in the vehicle. Fuqua is quick to stress that such a close scrutiny would not work with just any actor because if the focus of the scene can’t hold the audience’s attention, the director then starts turning to tricks in an effort to make it work. That wasn’t necessary in The Equalizer 2.
“He makes it work because he’s so powerful,” Fuqua says. “With the cameras focused on his face, you know that McCall is always thinking. He’s always watching. You know he’s paying attention because he is a very astute character.”
Actors who have worked for Fuqua praise his willingness to listen to their suggestions and being available as much as possible to talk about the best way to play a scene. He credits working with Chow Yun-Fat in The Replacement Killers for giving him early in his career that perspective on working with actors.
And then he met Washington before filming started on Training Day.
“He said to me, ‘Let’s never tie each other’s hands.’ The idea was that we would agree to trust each other,” Fuqua says. They’ve been sharing that trust through multiple films, including The Equalizer 2, which opens Friday.