In Dan Gilroy’s Roman J. Israel, Esq.Denzel Washington steps into the role of the title character, a driven, idealistic defense attorney whose life is upended when a turbulent series of events challenge the activism-of-a-different-era that has defined his career. When Gilroy wrote the script on spec, he was vying for Washington to do it — even though he’d never met him.

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“If Denzel didn’t do it, I was gonna put it aside,” said Gilroy. “I sent it to Denzel shortly after he did Fences, and then we had a very long lunch and we decided to do it.”

The drama, which dives into the underbelly of the overburdened Los Angeles criminal court system, flows in the same vein as Gilroy’s critically acclaimed Nightcrawler, which put a gritty spotlight on the TV news business. Gilroy drew inspiration for the character of Roman from growing up in the ’60s and how everyone was involved in activism.

“I noticed a diminishment of that in the last four decades,” said Gilroy. “I wondered what would happen if someone never left from that period. What would the benefit be for their self-sacrifice for a cause?”

Washington dived deep into the role and says that the Roman character was well-written and very different from many of his past roles.

“It led me down the path of the spectrum and I did research on Asperger’s,” he said. “He’s brilliant but lacks certain social skills. He’s been the man behind the curtain during his career, and he’s thrust into the forefront and can’t deal with it.”

Gilroy said Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a very unusual film for a big studio like Sony Pictures to pick up. “There was great interest once Denzel was attached, as you can imagine,” he said, adding that Sony has been a great believer in the film and put strong support about it.

Although Gilroy wrote the film, he credits Denzel with creating the character — including his signature ’70s-style. Washington says it was an easy era for him to relate to because he lived through it — but as for Roman’s hair, he laughs, “[Questlove was the] inspiration for the hair.”

Roman J. Israel, Esq. will be in limited release on November 17 and expand wide November 22.