Denzel Washington isn’t big on labels. For instance, his latest film, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, isn’t a remake of the 1974 Walter Matthau subway caper.

“I don’t think it’s a remake. It’s a story of a hostage situation on a train in New York City. That’s what the two films have in common,” Washington insists. “I don’t know why anyone would remake a film.”

Another label Washington isn’t fond of is leading man. In fact, he bristles at the mention of it. “That’s something somebody calls you when you’re doing press junkets,” he insists. “I’m not a leading man; I’m an actor.”

And as an actor, what he liked most about Pelham was the chance to play something besides another cop or FBI agent. “I was concerned about Inside Man, where I was a cop and a hostage negotiator,” he explains. “I liked the idea that he was an ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances.”

In fact, preparation for playing an average MTA worker was a breeze. “I just ate a lot and kept getting smaller and smaller sweaters,” he jokes.

The movie also gave Washington a chance to go head to head with John Travolta — only they initially had to keep their distance from each other. “For the first seven or eight weeks, we didn’t shoot any scenes together on-camera, but we were developing a relationship through the microphone,” Washington explains.

“It’s like an old courtship, over the phone. You get to know a person. We’d sing songs and tell jokes, singing Broadway tunes.”

The downside of that set-up for Washington was that they filmed his scenes first, giving Travolta a distinct advantage. “He had the luxury of practising because I was on camera first,” he says. “He had a chance to work on his part, to develop it.”

As a native New Yorker, shooting on the subway was something of a homecoming for Washington, who admits he used to goof off as a kid, sneaking down the tunnels a bit from the platform, but never too far.

But for this film, he got to venture much farther, seeing a side of the city few get a chance to. Though, there’s plenty to see on subway itself, as Washington remembers from his youth.

“If you could do it on the subway, I’ve seen it,” he says. “From robbery to parenting.”