Denzel Washington talks to Saga

By Andy Stevens, Thursday 24 January 2013

Denzel Washington has carved a super-stellar Hollywood career by often playing good guys with a strong moral compass. In his new movie, Flight, that compass, along with all other instruments, ends up in a frenzied tailspin as he plays an alcoholic airline pilot in a turbulent tale of hero to zero.
Denzel Washington is Whip Whitaker in <i>Flight</i>, from Paramount Pictures. Photo: Robert ZuckermanDenzel Washington is Whip Whitaker in Flight, from Paramount Pictures. Photo: Robert Zuckerman

The double Oscar winner, now nominated for his third statuette in the 2013 Academy Awards, took Saga's Andy Stevens on a short haul to the heart of his latest film. And with no mixers on the drinks trolley.

You won't forget the start of Flight. Nervous air travellers will want to, though. In fact, you may want to look away now and seek an alternative route. Denzel's Whip Whitaker meets us head-on as a bleary, boozed-up, coked-up airline pilot. Donning the uniform of ultimate trust, and squirting the mouthwash before boarding to dull any lingering booze fumes, the hotshot alco-pilot is then seen topping up his vodka levels prior to take-off, while feigning an even keel to crew and passengers after a heavy night on the tiles with a soon-to-be-doomed stewardess. He might be drinking straight, but you know he's not thinking straight - and so does his God-fearing co-pilot. Otherwise would Whip really have swaggeringly taken the tin-can up into weather that turns into a 35,000ft dress rehearsal for Armageddon?

Whip saves the day - bar six casualties - by flipping the plane upside down in a seat-of-your-pants 20-minute sequence that's got Hollywood classic stamped on the seat-backs. So follows an absorbing, gruelling, sometimes funny and at turns touching tale of denial, redemption, a man wrestling his demons and a peek into the pressurised cabin of corporate cover-up.

At this point, just remember what they always say about the many unseen dangers of simply crossing the street, or steering a car in a safe and meaningful fashion. And don't cancel those bookings.

So how did Denzel get to grips with shooting such a terrifying sequence? Strictly on terra firma, in the calm sanctity of his London hotel suite while doing the European red carpet rounds, he explained: "You know, it didn't feel like that when we were shooting. There were so many elements added to it afterwards. I mean, we were shooting on the set, although we did actually turn upside down on a big gimbal. But you're looking out at green screens, and you don't have the sounds and effects. So I was really amazed when I saw it." But does Denzel think a pilot - even a sober one - could do a manoeuvre like that? "It has been done, yes." Not often, we hope.

Whip Whitaker's got the cap, the stripes, the aviator shades, the prestige, but a whole cargo-hold of troubles. This is where Denzel's famously meticulous approach to his roles kicked in. "To play a part like this, you start by flying. By trying to fly. We used the flight simulators at Delta Airlines, which was great.

"What we did, myself, Bob (director Robert 'Forrest Gump' Zemeckis) and the writer John (Gatins), we sat in a room for weeks to learn the script. That really helped me get into the role and find out what the writer's ideas were."

Did he find Whip hard to like? After all, he might have saved a heap of lives with some remarkable mid-air deftness, but every flight manual you'll ever read would confirm that an airline pilot necking vodka miniatures on board is a very bad thing. Denzel explained: "Well, I was taught in acting school that you have to love the character you play. You can't judge him. You have to be him.

"The fact is that it (Whip's story) is not so black and white in the film. It is complex; he's a good man going bad, sometimes good, sometimes awful - that's what was interesting about it. Ultimately, it's a very well-written script."

As the extent of Whip's deception unravels, the power of Denzel's performance draws the viewer ever deeper as the character drifts in and out of his destructive spiral. How did he pace this so well? "Well, you know, it starts with a small lie. Like this: 'Did you drink tonight?' 'No. Well, I had one.' I didn't think or worry about whether people would like him or not. He's a troubled man. Nobody likes a drunk. Except another drunk, I guess."

A clash of circumstances sees a tender relationship unfold between Whip and recovering drug addict Nicole (played by rising star British actress Kelly 'Above Suspicion' Reilly). Nicole is nearer to handing in her notice on Skid Row than Whip, who won't even admit such a place exists. There's an unspoken understanding of the mess each other is in and Denzel said: "Yeah, I guess that's what that relationship is about. She (Nicole) gets it together earlier. She was getting help and he - his ego - well, he thought he didn't need any help. And he was wrong."

So when the tormented pilot in Flight stares his demons square in the face, does that really restore him as a hero in the viewer's eyes? Here was a man catastrophically breaching the faith and trust of his passengers and crew by drinking on the job, after all. Denzel said: "He could have been the mailman, he could have done any job. But the most dramatic is (to make him) a pilot, who's got hundreds of lives in his hands. I don't see it as a heroic role. I just try to see what the words tell me."

And has playing such a visceral part put Denzel off flying? Does he look just that little bit closer into the eyes of the flight crew now when he boards a plane?

"Not really," he laughed. "Well, I'm here, aren't I?"

Flight is on general release from February 1 2013.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.


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