Washington, Malek and Leto face off in ‘The Little Things’

AP – Denzel Washington has played some iconic cops over the years, but he doesn’t get hung up on things like that. For him, it’s all about the script.

So when John Lee Hancock came to him with The Little Things, a 1990-set crime drama about law enforcement and obsession, he was intrigued. The part was for Joe Deacon, who left city duties for the country after a gruelling case years ago but gets pulled back in to help with a new murder.

“There’s an old saying, ‘If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage,’” Washington said. “And this was on the page first.”

Then Hancock told him who he wanted for the other leads, Rami Malek for his unlikely counterpart, Sergeant Jim Baxter, and Jared Leto for the certainly suspicious but maybe not guilty loner Albert Sparma.

“I’m like, OK, let me RE-read it,” Washington laughed. “It wasn’t hard for me at all. It’s like, ‘OK, when do we start?’”

Rami Malek, Jared Leto and Denzel Washington in a scene from ‘The Little Things’. PHOTO: AP

The Little Things, which opens in theatres and on HBO Max on January 29, is one of Malek’s first big roles after his Bohemian Rhapsody awards sweep, where he first crossed paths with Washington. “Denzel and I met at the Golden Globes the year of Bohemian Rhapsody. He was there with John David (Washington) for BlacKkKlansman, and I locked eyes with Denzel for a moment. He locked eyes with me… I saw him start to stand up and I thought, ‘Well, you better get up and move towards him much faster than he’s moving towards you,’” Malek said. “It was shortly thereafter that I realised he and John Lee had me in mind for the role.”

The equation was simple enough: When Denzel Washington wants you for a movie, you say yes. Hancock liked that Washington and Malek were “strange bedfellows”.

“They don’t strike me as the types that would hang out and watch sports,” Hancock said. “I thought that would really benefit the movie.”

The unlikely trio all had wildly different styles too. Washington was in near constant conversation with Hancock from the moment he was cast, dissecting the character, the choices (down to whether or not he needed to be wearing a coat in a certain scene) and the script. Leto, on the other hand, stayed away from his co-stars until the shoot. It wasn’t that he wasn’t taking it seriously, but he’s a method actor and wanted to meet them in costume and in character. “You don’t want to show up and be the person who is not prepared on a set like this,” said Leto, who counts Washington as one of his personal heroes.

Hancock loved the energy it brought to their first encounter on camera.

“It was like they were smelling each other. They’re feeling each other out. It just was electric because they hadn’t been in a room together and hadn’t been buddy-buddy,” Hancock said. “It was Albert Sparma and Joe Deacon.”

Washington agreed and liked that it kept it fresh.

“At the end of the day, it is still acting,” Washington added.

Although Malek may be almost 40 and Leto almost 50, Washington, at 66, refers to them as young actors and “the next generation”. And he was just as excited to observe the two at work as they were to work with him. For one scene, where Malek’s character is interrogating Leto’s, Washington decided to sit behind the glass and watch.

“I wish I’d had some popcorn!” Washington said. “It was like I was watching a boxing match.”

His dedication, which included gaining and losing 40 pounds, astounded Malek.

“I appreciated that he was always there,” Malek said. “We got really excited after that scene in particular. We were in that moment part of a trio of something special.”

Hancock said it wasn’t about managing the three actors as much as it was just getting out of their way. All of them, he said, brought their A-game, even if their methods at arriving there were different.