An intense character study, a surprising legal thriller, and fish-out-of-water comedy of manners, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is the type of movie “they don’t make anymore” but for the fact someone did. The second film from writer-director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival this week and subsequently put star Denzel Washington back into the Oscar conversation for the second year in a row after last year’s Fences.
Set primarily in downtown Los Angeles, Roman J. Israel, Esq. follows the title attorney, played by Washington, an eccentric legal savant who grew up as a political activist and finds himself at a personal and professional crossroads following the death of his longtime partner. Wearing ill-fitting clothes, an afro left over from the 1970s, and headphones better suited for the 1980s, Israel is immediately one of the year’s standout capital-C characters — and he provides Washington, who appears in nearly every scene in the film, the chance to inhabit someone close to his personal values.
“Roman is defined by his belief in something greater than himself. He’s a man of faith. He has this common, universal humanity to him that he believes. Denzel, if you research Denzel, he’s literally a man of faith,” Gilroy says. “So it was never going to be hard for the audience to buy into the idea that the actor playing the part believes in the things Roman is doing. I think one of the reasons why Denzel dissolves into the character is because they’re so close to each other in so many ways. Denzel embodies the idea of a man living his life on terms that are based on a cause — going toward something. That’s why I really wrote it for him.”
As Gilroy explains, it was Washington who played a large part in creating Israel’s look — down to even getting dental work reversed to give Israel a gap-toothed grin.
“I under-write, and he very much came in an authored the character,” he says. “The physical appearance of the character. The weight gain. The teeth. He came in one day and smiled and said, ‘I went to the dentist.’ They drilled out the gap he was born with.”
Roman J. Israel, Esq. was a late addition to the prestigious Toronto lineup, where numerous Oscar contenders have launched annually (and where Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, which scored an original screenplay Oscar nomination, debuted two years ago). Says Gilroy of the initial response from critics and journalists on the festival circuit, “The critical reaction is hugely important. Massively important. You want the film to be seen. But I’m old enough to know some films get embraced instantly, some films never get embraced but they’re really interesting. When I did Nightcrawler, that was based on Ace in the Hole. When Ace in the Hole came out, it bombed. Nightcrawler was also based on the Sweet Smell of Success, that destroyed the Hecht-Hill-Lancaster production company. It was reviled. What a horrible, ugly film. So you don’t know. None of us know historically how these films are going to get judged. So at the end of the day, make the film you want to make. Listen to people. If people are saying they don’t like it for a reason, listen to what they’re saying. You’ve got to learn. I don’t want to marginalize myself and become a niche filmmaker only making films for small audiences. I very much care about what the reaction is but at the end of the day I can’t control it.”
What Gilroy can control, however, are his films and the process that he’s bringing to each feature (a third film, with Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, Gilroy’s wife, and Nightcrawler costar, is in the works at Netflix). “If you hire a great actor, trust them,” he says. “Do not look at the actor as someone that needs to be pushed around and told what to do and imprint what you want from them. Actors get a bad rap: they’re vain. In some degree it’s true. But if you hire a great actor like Jake, like Denzel … don’t be afraid.”