'Roman J. Israel, Esq' Team on Why Legal Drama Is a Fitting 'Nightcrawler' Follow

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Dan Gilroy, Carmen Ejogo and Denzel Washington at Monday night's 'Roman J. Israel, Esq.' screening

Writer-director Dan Gilroy and the cast of the Denzel Washington film revealed what inspired its driven characters.

With the Denzel Washington starrer Roman J. Israel, Esq., Dan Gilroy’s highly anticipated follow-up to his hit thriller Nightcrawler, the writer-director shifts his focus from the media to the legal arena.

But with both projects, Gilroy explored personally important issues — in this case, causes.

"There’s a lot going on in the world that we don’t know about and each one of us can be an advocate for change,” he told The Hollywood Reporter of his new legal drama at a screening in New York earlier this week. "I’m in great awe of activists or anybody who really spends time trying to help others rather than trying to get a partnership at a law firm or get the Tesla. It’s a lonely career path. It’s one that’s not greatly rewarded. Really in a way, this is an homage to somebody who’s sacrificed himself to serve other people."

Even though Washington's titular, idealistic defense attorney and Jake Gyllenhaal's Nightcrawler character Louis Bloom seem very different, producer Jennifer Fox, who worked on both movies and learned about Gilroy's idea for Roman J. Israel, Esq. as he came up with it, sees parallels between the two characters, calling them both "alienated people who are maybe not as socially equipped as they could be."

Israel is clearly not neurotypical, but according to Fox, "Both [Roman and Louis] are probably somewhere on the spectrum."

"Whereas Jake’s [freelance crime videographer] character in Nightcrawler was working with a system that’s very broken and he wins as a result. He’s deeply corrupt as a human being," Fox added. "Denzel’s character … because he’s working against a system he hits a wall."

Washington memorably played a lawyer in Philadelphia, but the actor said it wasn't so much his character's occupation that made him willing to suit up again.

"It wasn't so much that I wanted to return to the law. It didn't really have so much to do with that," the actor told THR ahead of the screening at the Time Inc. building’s Henry R. Luce Auditorium. "[Gilroy] wrote a good script, a good story. The guy happened to be a lawyer. Law wasn't the thing that attracted me to it. It was the story."

And for Gilroy, it was Washington's persona in real life that made him the right person to play his titular protagonist. "Roman is someone whose cause is so fervent it becomes a faith, a religion. Denzel is a man who in real life is a man of faith. He talks about it over and over," Gilroy said. "I wanted to work with Denzel because he's a great actor, but I also thought he'd be perfect for the part because very quickly when you start watching the film, you never doubt for a minute that Roman believes in something because Denzel has transformed himself in myriad ways, things that don't have anything to do with his real life persona, but he does bring this core sense of like 'I believe in something.' The biggest pill I believe you have to take with this film is you have to believe that there's a guy out there who's been doing this for 40 years and Denzel feels very organic to me."

But Roman's far from the only principled character in the film's present-day Los Angeles setting, and he strikes up a bond with a young equal-rights advocate (Carmen Ejogo).

While Ejogo typically likes to research the roles she plays, with this one, she was able to draw on her own emotions and past work with activists through her role in Selma.

"This is a script that I just felt on a very visceral gut level that I could relate to and that there was going to be something that I would be mining of myself for inspiration," Ejogo told THR. "Maya is somebody who's very empathetic and really feels people's energy and is very compassionate and sensitive to other people's states of mind and just general being, and that's something that I think of as being part of who I am in the world. I also got to work with activists and to be alongside real pioneers in the civil rights field when I made Selma, so I brought that information with me to this role and this movie."

And Gilroy hopes that the Sony film, which is in theaters now, stirs up some activist impulses in its audience.

"I’m hoping that when people leave the theater, they might take some of this character out with them and apply it to their lives, whatever form that might be," he said. "I’m not trying to preach, but if [the movie] fans an ember inside of you in some way, that would be a really amazing thing."