Ethan Hawke says he received some faulty intelligence about whom he’d be costarring with when he was first sent the script for Training Day, Antoine Fuqua’s gritty cop drama released 20 years, on Oct. 5, 2001.
“I remember somebody had, in error, told me that Nick Nolte was playing the part,” Hawke told us during a 2014 Role Recall interview before offering his best impression of the grizzled 48 Hrs. star (watch above, with Training Day starting at 2:52). “And it seemed like kind of an obvious Nick Nolte part. You know, the dirty cop and drinking beer cans. … You can imagine Nick doing the whole thing.”
The part in question was Det. Alonzo Harris (as the character would ultimately be called), a corrupt if decorated LAPD narcotics officer who puts his fresh-faced new partner Jake Hoyt through the wringer as they police the streets of Los Angeles’s dirty underbelly. According to IMDb, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Gary Sinise and Tom Sizemore were all offered the role at points, but not Nolte.
Of course, the role went to Denzel Washington, whose fire-breathing performance as Harris earned him what many believed was an overdue first Academy Award for Best Actor. (Washington had previously won Best Supporting Actor for Glory in 1990.)
“When I heard it was going to be Denzel, I was like, ‘Oh, this is going to a whole ‘nother level,’” says Hawke, who netted a Best Supporting Actor nom for his role. “Not that Nick Nolte isn’t one of my favorite actors, because he is. But I’d seen Nick play that part.
“It was a very dangerous thing at that moment in his career for Denzel to play a bad guy. Here he was poised to be the Sidney Poitier of his generation. You know, he was being harassed by the NAACP that he shouldn’t play a bad guy and stuff like that. And he’s a guy that, not only did he do it, he went all the way with it.”
In a 2015 Q&A with students at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film & TV, Hawke elaborated on the blowback his co-star received from the NAACP.
“The NAACP came to the set and said, ‘What are you doing?,’” Hawke said. “And you know I never had a political organization talk to me about what roles I pick. And Denzel, I remember him saying, ‘What, Al Pacino can play a bad guy. Gene Hackman can play a bad guy. I can’t play a bad guy? I’m an artist. That’s how I lead, not by being some dubious role model by only playing squeaky clean people. I’ll be a role model by being great at my job.’ You know now that is impressive to me obviously.”
In an ironic twist, Washington eventually won Best Actor from the NAACP Image Awards for Training Day. As for the big Oscar win, Hawke says he saw it coming from their earliest ride alongs.
“I knew he was going to win the Oscar,” Hawke told us. “I knew it on about Day 3. I remember thinking that if I don’t f*** up the movie, he’ll win the Oscar.
“It was one of the great pleasures of my life to kind of sit shotgun on that movie. I felt like my job was to literally lob baseballs across home plate so he could just knock them out of the park every day. It was one of the best times I ever had making a movie.”
Watch Part 1 of our Role Recall interview with Ethan Hawke: