When casting Safe House, producer Scott Stuber and director Daniel Espinosa placed importance on avoiding tired tropes. Stuber explains the rationale: “Action without character is boring. The script read well because everything moves at a quick pace. Then, when you sit and get to know these people, there’s a real depth to them. We went after actors who could be in those moments and have the audience feel what these characters are feeling.”
As the producer and the director discussed their dream cast, Denzel Washington was brought up as their ideal Tobin Frost, the CIA’s most notorious traitor. The two invited Washington (then starring on Broadway in the play Fences) to discuss the proposition. Stuber recalls the meal: “At the end of lunch, Denzel stood up and said, ‘All right, we’re going to do this,’ and walked out. I thought, ‘What? Is he going to call his agent? Is it a done deal?’ I wanted to make sure, so I called Denzel’s agent and he said, ‘I just got off the phone with him. He’s doing the movie with you and Daniel.’ It was one of those rare, great moments in this business.”
Washington, who had a window in his schedule coinciding with preproduction, labored with the filmmakers to hone the project and the character of an operative who has spent the past nine years selling out the United States. The actor offers what attracted him to the role of a man wanted for espionage on four continents: “I got the chance to see Daniel’s film Snabba Cash, and it had a unique style and was a very different film. That made me very interested in him as a filmmaker. Scott, Daniel, David and I worked on developing the character. Safe House was an opportunity to revisit ways of working what I used to do. I invested heavily in the character and the story.”
As he prepared for the role, the performer went into full immersion mode. Washington says: “I didn’t want to do a lot of CIA research because Tobin Frost wasn’t CIA anymore. He hated everything about the CIA, and I wanted to discover his dark side. Scott gave me some great books to read, one of which was ‘The Sociopath Next Door,’ which became my bible that I would refer to in developing the character. I felt Tobin was a sociopath. When you think ‘sociopath,’ you think violence, and the majority of sociopaths aren’t violent but they want to win and manipulate. I thought he was a great liar, a great manipulator and perfect for the CIA.”
The filmmakers valued the actor’s work ethic on the project. Offers Espinosa: “Denzel is a master. He works harder than any actor I’ve ever met. When he decided to do the movie, he thoroughly researched and spent about a half a year studying his character before we even shot. When he got on set, no matter what the situation in front of him was, he reacted as the character that he was playing.”
With Washington attached, the team began the search to find Matt Weston played by Ryan Reynolds, the man responsible for his house guest. For Espinosa, it is the contrast between and the evolution of Frost and Weston that distinguish the story. Notes the director: “Matt is a guy who has a lot of dreams. He believes that he can maintain a relationship with his girlfriend and have a somewhat normal life, while at the same time, coming closer to his goal of becoming a full-blown CIA case officer. He clings to the notion that you can be a strong, ethical, moral person while working in his chosen field. There is no gray area. Frost, however, is well beyond any such notion.”
What attracted you to this film?
My late agent, Ed Limato, passed away last July and this was the last project that he wanted me to take a look at it. I just felt I should do it because I knew it was the last thing he wanted me to do.
Did you have a hand in developing the story?
Daniel Espinosa (director), Scott Stuber (producer), three different writers and I worked on the story for months. We wanted to keep going deeper, making more sense out it. I’m a logic monster. I always want to know why things happen the way they do.
How is it working with director Daniel Espinosa?
Daniel is a fine filmmaker. He did SNABBA CASH and it’s a really interesting film. I’m sure Hollywood is looking at Daniel as the new hot guy. He’s very passionate and very talented.
What’s been the most difficult aspect of filming on SAFE HOUSE?
I’ve got a bad knee and there’s been a lot of running, jumping and fighting. And I was water-boarded. Having somebody poor water up your nose when you’re upside down is kind of tough.
Do you see your character as a villain?
I see him as a sociopath. I’ve been researching and learned that 80% of sociopaths aren’t violent, they just want to dominate. Tobin doesn’t think he’s a villain. He thinks he’s right and everybody else is wrong.
“SAFEHOUSE” Showing on February 10, nationwide.
Released and distributed by
United International Pictures
through Solar Entertainment Corp.