Washington, 57, earned his first Oscar nomination for playing anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko in "Cry Freedom."
In "Safe House," Ryan Reynolds plays a CIA agent charged with minding Washington's brilliant, dangerous ex-intelligence officer, who has gone rogue, in a remote location in South Africa.
"When we shot 'Cry Freedom,' I wasn't even allowed in South Africa," Washington told reporters in New York recently, referring to how the country was racially segregated for decades by the white minority running it.
"They told me I could come but I wasn't going to leave. So I had heavy death threats at that time and we shot in Zimbabwe. In 1995, I had the privilege and the honor of getting to meet Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. I got to eat breakfast with Desmond Tutu and lunch with Nelson Mandela in the same day and had the good fortune to get Mr. Mandela to actually come to my house in California," recalled the double Oscar winner. "So there's been a tremendous amount of change. You have a whole other generation from when Nelson Mandela got out [of prison] in 1990. So you've got 20-year-olds that heard about it. I saw this show on television and they were talking about South Africa now and you had kids with Valley accents because of the Internet and the information age that we're in. They're exposed to so much more. At the same time, I still saw a lot of the psychological damage."
Washington described being stunned to find contemporary Cape Town "like Santa Monica on steroids" when he was shooting "Safe House" in the region.
"It's one of the most beautiful towns you've ever seen, but it's still set up the old way. You go 10 miles inland where the townships are and they're still there and they are helping to build some of them up," he explained of the communities where black citizens were ordered by the government to live from the late 1940s until apartheid ended in the 1990s. "I was surprised, in Langa, you'd think it's all just slums. But they have three- and four-bedroom homes on an acre of land. It was just that was the area that they were allowed to live, so they decided to stay there. Langa is so big. It's not like you can call 911 and the police show. They police themselves."
He then described an incident that occurred when he was traveling to the "Safe House" base camp.
"The women were making all this noise and these men were walking around this one guy and he was just walking and the guy had this big stick and he was whipping him and he was just walking. So I asked my driver. I said, 'What are they doing?' He said, 'They are putting him in his place.' I said: 'Whoa! What do they think he did?' He says, 'Well, something related to the women.' And he says, 'He may have messed with a young girl or something.' And I was like, 'Why doesn't he run?' He was like, 'They'll kill him.' He says, 'If he tries to run, they'll stone him.' So that still exists, but you can get DirecTV. That was the weirdest thing, seeing 'Keeping Up with the Kardashians' in Langa," Washington said.
"Safe House" is now on DVD.