In making The Equalizer 2, Antoine Fuqua succeeded where no other director in Hollywood ever had: He convinced Denzel Washington to do a sequel.
In gearing up to revisit not-so-retired CIA black-ops operative Robert McCall — the character Washington first played in 2014’s The Equalizer, also helmed by Fuqua — both actor and director wanted to make sure there was sufficient reason to return to the character’s brooding, bare-knuckle corner of Boston. They both credit Richard Wenk’s script with drawing them back in, though Fuqua, now 52, says another major draw was the chance to use McCall to make grander statements about the simple value of doing good deeds in a dark world.
With The Equalizer 2 in theaters today, EW spoke with Fuqua about his desire to pass some of his wisdom onto younger viewers, the sometimes hair-raising realities of shooting in high-crime areas, and McCall’s new role in this film.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The Equalizer 2 finds you reteaming with Denzel Washington, who’s starred in some of your most acclaimed movies. It’s your first sequel, and his. What drew you back to this property?
ANTOINE FUQUA: Yeah, my first sequel. You know, it’s the script. Richard Wenk did a really good job with the Equalizer 2 script, still making it a standalone movie in its own right but keeping true to the character of Robert McCall. He still left the mystery and enough intrigue that made me at least want to know more about him and experience more of his character.
It felt like it was right for the times. Movies are funny, because you kind of have to feel where we are in the world sometimes. Making a film about righting wrongs, about justice, about giving people a direction and a path in life – it’s important I think today to do those types of films, to give you that escapism for two hours along with all the action and fun.
Working with Denzel again was another huge factor for me. He’s very picky about this kind of thing, so when he responded to the material and called me and said, “Hey, let’s go again,” I got excited about it. I could hear his enthusiasm. I think he has fun playing Robert McCall. I think he really enjoys that character.
One of the big additions to the story is the character of Miles, played by Ashton Sanders. McCall becomes a much-needed father figure for him as he debates linking up with a local gang. How did you approach that character?
Richard Wenk wrote that in the script, but me and Denzel dug it out a little more, because we both grew up in an environment where that stuff happened way too often. One bad decision can really turn your life around and change it forever. We were both very passionate about having something to say to these kids today: about choices and taking advantage of the life that we have and not going down the wrong path.
Denzel had a great passion for it. He would call me some days, and we would listen to different rap music. And some of these songs bothered him, and we would be talking about them a lot, people shooting each other and all this stuff. The character of Miles represented all these kids today who are extremely talented, creative, highly intelligent, and then their life ends too soon. Wrong place, wrong time, or wrong decision. It happens.
We just lost this kid [XXXTentacion], the rapper in Miami. Somebody just robbed him, and it’s such a shame.… Wrong place, wrong time. Some guys decided to rob him, to take his car or jewelry or whatever it was, and they killed him. It’s just heartbreaking, because you wonder what else he could have contributed to the world.
So much of Miles’ struggle in this film stems from the idea that he’s at risk of making the wrong decision, getting drawn into a world he’s not ready for, where he could very quickly end up with a bullet in his back.
You see kids like Miles going down a path. There’s a scene where he’s in an apartment with a bunch of guys who are already on the wrong side of civilization. They want to go out and kill people for whatever their so-called reasons are. That kid’s life is going to change forever. They’re going to use some of his pain from the loss of his own brother to convince him to do something that’s going to change his life forever, something he can’t take back. And that’s difficult and heartbreaking. Me and Denzel spent a long rime discussing that character, and then we spent time with Ashton discussing that character and how important we think that character is.
That scene is so potent, when McCall storms in to pull him out and has to get up in his face, pleading with him not to pick up a gun and turn to a life of crime. What was it like to film that?
It was tense, because we shot that in the projects. Two nights before that, two of our security guards got shot in a drive-by shooting, in that location, in those projects. And then we had a guy run onto the set with a knife in another location and jump into a car with one of our PA young ladies. She was smart enough to jump out. And then the cops all surrounded him, with guns out, to get him. It was pretty intense to be in that environment to begin with, and then trying to do that scene with Miles where that intensity already was in the air, me and Denzel really had that in our heads.
It was an important scene that I think surprised even our producers because we had it like that in our heads already, but it wasn’t written down that way. It came out of the moment more. Richard wrote a scene and then we restructured it, and then our rehearsals for it were more like conversations. And then Richard reshaped it out of those, so the conversation [between McCall and Miles] could be more immediate. It had been written that they leave there and go to the apartment and then they talk, but we said to Richard that it needed to be urgent. If that kid says, “To hell with you,” and gets back in that elevator, his life is over, really. He’s either going to be six feet under the ground or buried alive in some prison system. It had to be urgent, because that scene happens right there. The whole shooting of it felt exactly like that, and me and [director of photography] Oliver Woods set it up very quickly.
It’s doubly immediate in how it requires McCall to really show himself to Miles, to convince him a life of violence isn’t what he wants.
That was more a spiritual moment for me, because I always saw Robert McCall as more of a dark angel — not as a superhero, but as a very grounded dark angel. This is a moment where he has to save this kid by digging into his soul and really showing a bit of who he is. When he says to Miles, “You don’t know what death is. What do you see when you look at me?” That’s really who he is: death. And he reveals himself for a moment to this kid, enough so the kid can understand he’s not ready for that kind of life.
And that he can choose a different one.
Exactly. He gives him a choice to make. And I think that’s always important to help anybody. At least give them the reality of what a situation is, but don’t drag them along, because they’ll come screaming and eventually run back. But if you give them a choice, I think that empowers people to know that they made that choice. I think that’s important.
It feels personal, evolving McCall into this more paternal role-model figure. As a veteran filmmaker with his pick of projects, why do this one at this point in time?
It was the right time for me to do it. I have kids. I grew up in a rough area, and so what that means is that I’d seen it before. But not just me – look at our country. People are at each other’s throats, and everything’s so mean right now. People are mean to each other. The Equalizer, although it is action, with violence, is really more about how do you help people in other ways. Sometimes people just needs someone to listen to them, to believe in them, even if their dream seems far-fetched. Some people just want to garden and want someone to help them clean up the garden. It’s not always beating someone up.
And so often, in McCall’s world, it’s about small acts of kindness more than bigger, more epic interventions.
He’s not looking for an award for doing it. He does it without wanting a reward or congratulations or really anything. He just does it quietly: driving a Lyft car just so he can be around people, living on the fringes of society but trying to engage so he can put himself in a position to hear people, listen to people, and help people quietly, without fanfare. That’s just a rare thing in today’s society, to experience that. People do things now and everything goes right on Instagram. You wonder where the sincerity is. Can’t people just do it quietly in the dark and not worry about the rest of the world? I think we’ve really lost our way a bit.
Last question. You filmed this movie in Boston, as you did its predecessor. What keeps you coming back to that city?
Me and Boston have a deep history. I love Boston, I really do. It’s a weird relationship. I first went to Boston when I did Training Day and I got invited to a film festival, and I was in the air when 9/11 happened. I landed in Boston with all the chaos happening, and David Mamet — a good man, though we didn’t really know each other then, apart from by reputation — invited me to his house to hang out with his family until I could get a flight out. And then I wound up doing pretty well with Training Day.
And then my second time, with The Equalizer, the same thing happened. I was in the air when the Boston Marathon bombing happened. And I saw the city go through a ton of things, heartbreaking situations. When I was there this time, a racist group tried to march on Boston. I love the people of Boston. I watched them stand up and fight against all that, help each other through some tough things. Firsthand, to be there, to see the people hold each other up and push through that pain twice, to experience that was just amazing to me.
When that racist group tried to march, I watched from my hotel room, and I walked out and I saw all the people walking out to go stop that from happening. I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud of America, really, because they stood up. I saw all those people and I thought, “This city is just not standing for it.” That was powerful.