It requires a certain caliber of actor to make a film centered on a phone call riveting, but that’s exactly what Denzel Washington and John Travolta do in Tony Scott’s latest film, The Taking of Pelham 123. Originally adapted from the novel in 1974, the first film grew into a cult classic starring Walter Matthau in Washington’s part as a Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) worker and Robert Shaw as a terrorist holding a New York City subway car hostage, this time incarnated by Travolta.

In a post 9/11 Manhattan, hostage situations take on an entirely different meaning, something Scott was pointedly aware of while staging the standoff.

“For me, the city in the third character in the movie,” he explains, his voice husky and grumbling. “I opened with freneticism [because New York] is always about noise, anxiety and people. This was a canvas, from the bowels of the subway system to the calmness and the quietness of the MTA center, which is like NASA.”

While making the movie, Washington, who grew up in New York and joked he was practically born in the subway, was able to experience a world he’d whizzed past innumerable times but was never able to investigate. Sitting in the ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, the actor reminisced about playing in the subway when he was a youth, taking a few timid steps off the platform and down the cavernous tunnel before racing back for fear of what might happen.

During filming, however, “Our day started at the steps,” he says, “and we would go a quarter mile or a half mile down there. When I was younger, I remember coming home late at night and you see the workers [in the tunnels] and think, ‘Man, what are they doing out here?’ and then we were those guys at four o’clock in the morning.”

The film’s late-night shooting schedule was especially stressful for Scott, whose cast and crew were working on real subway tracks where the electrified third rail or a passing train could have killed anyone who wasn’t paying enough attention. Luckily, there were no incidents on set and Scott insists the authenticity of those surroundings, rather than depending on CGI, is one of the reasons the film succeeds.

“What you get in a real life situation,” he declares, “elevates performance and drama. We had real trains running behind the boys.”

“You do a rehearsal and then you run a real train through,” Scott continues, “and it just changes everything. My whole career I’ve tried to avoid CGI because [real effects] illicit something that gives me more edge.”

Despite trains flying by, helicopters circling and explosions going off (It is a Tony Scott movie after all.), the film’s real drama is between the two stars, even though they’re rarely face-to-face.

“It’s a tough movie to do because 90 percent of the movie is two guys on the phone,” Scott admits.

While they don’t share physical screen time, the verbal dance between Travolta and Washington is mesmerizing. During filming, the two actors, who became quite friendly, spoke over microphones from opposite sides of the studio, a process Washington describes as “like an old courtship over the phone, a long-distance relationship. We’d sing songs, tell jokes and do Broadway tunes.”

When asked about the casting of Travolta, Scott says he chose him because he was unexpected.

“John’s got a big heart, he’s dangerous, he’s sweet and he’s smart. So, as a bad guy, it’s a contradiction of what you expect from a bad guy.”

As for Washington’s place in Hollywood and as one of Scott’s favorite leading men, this being their fourth film together, the actor shakes his head humbly and says, “I’m not a leading man, that just what people call you. I’m an actor. I get a part, and I interpret the part.”

The Taking of Pelham 123 releases in theaters June 12.