HOLLYWOOD - As a youngster, Denzel Washington would take the No. 2 subway train from the Bronx every day into Manhattan. As the train sped through the dark, he'd gaze out the window of the subway car at the transit maintenance employees and wonder what it was like to be standing in those mysterious tunnels.
Last year, the two-time Oscar winner finally got his chance to see things from the other side of the window. Washington went on location in New York to film "The Taking of Pelham 123," an action-thriller about a hijacked subway train. Cast and crew spent weeks shooting in New York's subway tunnels.
"When you're young, you sneak onto trains and you go down to the [subway platform] steps and take a few steps down that dark tunnel," he said. "But you don't go too far because you're not too sure what's down there, and you don't know when the next train is going to pull in.
"Well, our day [on location] started at the steps, and then we would go a quarter-mile or half-mile down the tunnel. It's just a whole other world down there."
One of the locations was a long-closed station platform that can still be seen by passing subway cars.
"It was kind of trippy, because we were those guys out there at 4 or 5 in the morning" as the subway trains sped past, he recalled. "It was like I was down there working on the trains."
"The Taking of Pelham 123" stars Washington as a subway dispatcher whose ordinary day is thrown into chaos by an audacious crime. John Travolta plays Ryder, who commandeers a train and holds its passengers hostage. And he will talk only with Walter (Washington), who has the misfortune of being on duty when the hijacking unfolds. It's a game of cat and mouse, as Ryder gives Walter, and the city of New York, just one hour to meet his demand for a $10 million ransom or risk bloodshed.
Washington jumped at the chance to play the dispatcher. "I just liked the idea that when they hand him a gun, he has never held one before," he said. "He's a little overweight and he spills coffee on himself."
Usually, this handsome A-list actor plays more prominent characters. His past depictions have included anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko ("Cry Freedom"), boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter ("The Hurricane") and Malcolm X ("Malcolm X"), as well as cops and military leaders.
"The Taking of Pelham 123," adapted by Oscar winner Brian Helgeland from the best-selling novel by John Godey, reunites Washington with filmmaker Tony Scott. The two previously worked together on "Crimson Tide," "Man on Fire" and "Deja Vu."
A British filmmaker best known for his high-stakes action films, Scott said that Washington is one of his favorite leading men.
"Denzel's always reaching inside himself, trying to interpret carefully the character in a different way," he said. "We have a shorthand, which is trust. We also have the same work ethic."
The feeling is mutual.
"One of the reasons I like working with Tony is because, like myself, he's a research fanatic," said Washington. "I know, going in, he's going to have a lot of stuff for me to look at and reference."
Before shooting "Pelham 123," Scott and Washington visited New York's massive, high-tech MTA Command Center.
Washington, 54, also spent time with dispatchers who work in the facility keeping hundreds of thousands of New York commuters moving every day.
"I educate and entertain myself by going out and touching the real world and talking to real people - that's my way into movies," Washington explained.
One of the things they tried not to emulate was the 1974 suspense thriller starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw.
"This isn't a remake," said Washington. "It's basically a hostage situation on a train in New York City. That's what the two films have in common. [But] I don't think my character and the one Walter Matthau played are similar."
Washington enjoyed getting a chance to work with fellow A-list actor Travolta, who plays his foe in the drama.
Though the two spend little time together onscreen, they forged a friendship during the six-month shoot.
"For the first six, seven or eight weeks, we didn't shoot any scenes together on camera, but we were developing a relationship off camera through the microphone," he said.
Washington was there for Travolta when the actor lost his son in a tragic accident earlier this year. A parent himself, Washington says that he can't imagine the pain his colleague is going through.