For his second film as a director, Roman J. Israel, Esq. helmer Dan Gilroy has written another drama that hinges on a star coming out of his comfort zone. Just as Jake Gyllenhaal inhabited a sociopath in Nightcrawler, so Denzel Washington is ’70s activist throwback Israel–an attorney whose strong morals are threatened when he takes charge following his law partner’s heart attack.

“Denzel is a deeply empathetic guy in person, but he has this shell in his films of being hard-nosed,” Gilroy says. “He really wanted to play a different part, a part that allowed those sides to come out.”

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Gilroy wrote the role for Washington, but didn’t know he would do it. “I’ve always been interested in what happened to the mass movement protests of the ’60s and what would that guy be like now,” the director explains. “I spent nine months writing the script, alone, on spec, and had [Denzel] said no, I would have put it away and not done the film.”

Washington saw a lot of himself in a lawyer ill-fitted to the materialistic billable hours-obsessed legal profession. The actor stays hidden until he has a movie to promote, always taking to heart Sidney Poitier’s advice that if they see you all week, they won’t pay to see you on the weekend.

Says Gilroy: “Denzel told me from the beginning, ‘I understand working in the back room because that’s what I do. I don’t get out or put any emphasis on my personal appearance. I eat junk food, I’m out of shape.’ His transformation into the character was organic and took a year, down to the music he listened to and the suits he wore when Roman leaves the back room and is so out of step that his clothes and everything else are anachronistic.”