Denzel Washington, Jared Leto and Rami Malek Tapped Into Darker Territory for Cop Thriller ‘The Little Things’

The Little Things” brings together quite the ensemble of screen notables to cover a familiar crime scene. Denzel Washington, Jared Leto and Rami Malek have all won Oscars and played larger than life personalities. Each one is an icon. So it’s a bit of a surprise to find all three toning it down for this somber slow burner about veteran detectives helping upstarts track down a low-key serial killer. The film is the latest from director John Lee Hancock, who also dabbles in both large and quieter productions. His credits include historical epics like “The Alamo” and the Walt Disney meets Mary Poppins drama “Saving Mrs. Banks.” With “The Little Things” Hancock wants to mine more disturbing territory.

Washington plays Joe Deacon, a small town California cop in 1990, who left Los Angeles in disgrace. But a murder new case brings Deacon back to L.A., where old colleagues are both intrigued and worried about him getting involved. A younger detective, Jim Baxter (Malek), is willing to let him tag along if for no other reason than to challenge his large reputation. Evidence from a recent murder eventually leads them to a loner, Albert Sparma (Leto), who becomes the prime suspect. The three are caught in a web of dark obsession as the detectives become determined to solve their case and Sparma seems determined to get away with it. Hancock recently joined Washington, Leto and Malek to discuss with Entertainment Voice how they all came together to make “The Little Things.”

“I wrote it in 1992 when I was living in a crappy apartment in Hollywood,” said Hancock. “I was looking out the window and writing about what I’d been seeing to some degree. I had been a big fan of crime dramas and psychological thrillers to some degree. But sometimes I felt they were becoming very stale in the third act where it all became about the good guy chasing the bad guy. That was always less interesting to me than the first two acts where it’s more about the clues.” 

“If it ain’t on the page it ain’t on the stage,” said Washington about the importance of agreeing to a project after reading what he finds to be a strong script. “I read this script and found it so interesting. I just thought it was different for all the reasons John mentioned. It also gave me the opportunity to work with these two young actors in interpreting John’s script. And yes Jared, I am being honest when I use the word ‘opportunity.’” Leto can only smile in embarrassment since he has an obvious appreciation and respect for Washington. Malek also chimed in. 

“For me it was an opportunity to start with an altruistic perspective and delve into obsession was something that appealed to me,” said Malek, who is best known for playing Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody” but before that, had already travelled through darker waters in the show “Mr. Robot,” about anarchist hackers.  “You just breezed through this script and With Denzel coming in and then Jared, I just couldn’t pass that up.”

Leto was particularly attracted by the prospect of playing a potential serial killer. Unlike his manic turns at villainy like The Joker in “Suicide Squad,” his Albert Sparma is a quiet creeper, like a hippie gone bad who taunts the detectives with his cryptic demeanor. “When I think of Albert Sparma I think of him as kind of a charmer (laughs). I guess I wasn’t on the receiving end of whatever felt terrifying, I never really felt that. I thought he was kind of a lovable guy (laughs). But I had actually chased John down a few years ago after seeing his movie ‘The Founder,’ about the rise of McDonald’s, which was just an amazing movie. Michael Keaton was phenomenal in that film, the style was amazing. He’s a good guy through the process.”

“We would have days where we would just sit around and talk about scenes for hours,” said Hancock. “Not rehearsing, but just talking. One day we might just be listening to love songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s. All that helps. That builds a foundation. All three actors were completely game for those discussions and it helped build the movie.”

Washington has of course played cops before, both good and bad. Film fanatics remember his Oscar-winning 2001 role in “Training Day” as an LAPD detective gone rogue. So what makes Joe Deacon different from the rest? “About 35 pounds,” said Washington with a chuckle, “that’s the answer. But in all seriousness, the universal stems from the specific. You just start asking questions about the character to John and you both build him up. What does he eat? Why? What time does he get up? I watched true crime shows, watched how these detectives go about in their behavior and solve things. They have tenacity.”

“I didn’t model myself on or think about other performances,” said Leto about his own take on a recognizable genre character. “I certainly didn’t research specific killers because there’s a lot of ambiguity there. I did a lot of observing and watching of documentaries or transcripts. I did my fair share of reading, since the character of Albert is a crime buff. I spent more time thinking about him as a person and why he can’t connect with people. As Mr. Washington says, you ask questions and sometimes find answers. I actually found Albert to be so funny. In some ways he’s very free, and that’s kind of attractive to be in those shoes.” 

Malek modeled his younger detective’s relationship to Washington’s seasoned expert on his own habits. “Personally if I see wisdom and great instincts and experience in front me I’ll lean on that. So I think that was inherent in the script for someone struggling on a case where so much building up is taking place. My character has an immense responsibility and has to lean on someone who had clearly been there before and seen something quite dark. There is almost a need to bring that person into your life and seek council from them.” 

Leto, who is also renowned for his career as a musician in addition to being an Oscar-winning actor for his role in “Dallas Buyers Club,” found some unique sources of inspiration for his role. “We tried different color eyes, nose prosthetics even, different teeth. I developed a walk and a talk. At one point we were looking for the very worst wig in all of Hollywood (laughs). Unfortunately we didn’t find it. But one wig made me look like ‘Annie’ from the musical. At one point I felt maybe Albert is balding and he chooses a bad wig he considers handsome. Rami and Mr. Washington inspired me because when they work it’s head to toe. If you watch Denzel in his movies his whole body is alive. That’s the Holy Grail and it’s not an easy thing to do, or look at Rami in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ I remember seeing him after that and the first thing I said, ‘forget the acting, what you did on the stage deserves the award alone.’ As someone who has performed on thousands of stages around the world, that is not easy. I’ll let the cat out of the bag and say I took Albert’s walk from Kim Jung-un. That’s the son right? He was the first inspiration. I feel Albert thinks he’s powerful when he walks around the room.”

“I actually took my character’s stomach from Kim Jung-un,” added Washington with light laughter. “It’s so funny. We’re of equal minds, me and Jared.”

Malek found a keen lesson in the story that for him has a particular relevance. “It’s about how obsession can overtake so many other aspects of your life. It’s a good thing to be reminded of. This year has taught us a lot about that. We get so focused on certain things and get narrow-minded about what needs to be achieved in life and what we need to do. We perhaps begin to neglect the most important things.”

The Little Things” releases Jan. 29 on HBO Max and select cities.