BEVERLY HILLS -- One bad flight in particular sticks in Denzel
Washington's mind. Four years ago he was on a private jet landing at
Burbank, Calif.'s Bob Hope Airport in a tremendous wind storm.
the first approach we were literally coming down the runway this way -
sideways," he says, demonstrating with his hands swiveling at an odd
angle. "I could see the whole runway out of my window. I thought,
'that's not a good sign.' "
On the next approach the wind was
blowing so hard into the nose "it felt like we were sitting over the
runway. We were not moving," says Washington, who stars as a pilot in Flight, opening Friday.
this ordeal the lone flight attendant freaked out. "She started going
crazy. I had to calm her down. It was just she and I there. I was
churning inside. But it was out of my hands."
Washington, 57, says
he simply made peace with the situation and counted on the pilots.
"After having said my prayers, I really relaxed. I said, 'They got it.
Me screaming ain't going to help.' "
After the crew successfully
landed at a different airport, "I think I had to go to the bathroom.
Quickly," he says, laughing. "But it was like, 'You made it. So it's
over.' But it was pretty harrowing."
Washington was able to tap into those feelings when filming his role as Whip Whitaker in Flight.
During one key sequence Whitaker must contend with a passenger airliner
that goes into a full, uncontrolled dive. After a daring maneuver -
turning the plane upside down to halt the dive - the calm Whitaker is
able to bring the plane down in an empty field, averting a disaster.
think I remembered that (night)," says Washington, recalling his calm
during his own incident. "But the pilot's training takes over. My
co-pilot is over there screaming and I am trying to keep them relaxed
and get things done. And there could be something said that (Whip) was
buzzing a little bit. That he might have been a little more relaxed than
he should have been."
As it turns out, Washington's character had
consumed alcohol and cocaine before hitting the skies, and the
resulting investigation sends Whitaker into a tailspin despite having
saved most of the passengers on board with his miracle landing.
But it's Washington's performance that has the critics buzzing about
awards contention for the two-time Oscar winner - and it is his Flight director who is raving about how few actors could carry the audience along for the emotional ride.
has this gravitas," says Robert Zemeckis. "I couldn't imagine anyone
else but (Washington) for that part. And he just nailed it beyond my
Washington is particularly effective when his
character is in heroic pilot mode early in the film. After all, the
veteran actor carries himself onscreen with the confidence of a star
who has reigned over Hollywood's A-list for the better part of three
decades. During a lunch at the Polo Room in the Beverly Hills Hotel, the
Armani-clad Washington shows off this full star luster.
"This is my office," he says. "It's a good place for me to hold meetings."
appears very at home, flashing his famous smile as he walks past a
table full of diners who tease him about his beloved New York Yankees, a
team that had a crash-and-burn of its own out of the baseball playoffs a
But what pushes Washington's performance to another level in Flight is his willingness to show his character's not-so-glamorous side as his life spirals out of control.
"To play a guy who is circling the drain of his personal life - he just went for it," says Flight screenwriter John Gatins. "He did everything we asked of him. He literally bared his (butt). Seriously."
butt-baring scene takes place in the hospital days after the crash when
a drug dealer (John Goodman) walks in on the injured Whitaker with his
hospital gown askew. It's a very different side of Denzel Washington
than audiences are used to seeing.
"Yes, I gave it all, more than I
wanted to," a laughing Washington says of the hospital scene. "We were
going for it. I don't know if it was in the script like that. But once
we got into it, we went for it. It's real."
Zemeckis says it was
this willingness to go with the uplifted hospital gown that shows
Washington's eagerness to hit the right emotional marks.
is no vanity," says Zemeckis. "He understands he has to go down and find
this character. He doesn't create a watered-down version. He goes way
Goodman says that he and Washington (with whom he co-starred in 1998'sFallen) shared some laughs in rehearsals about the scene, but mostly it was about maintaining intensity.
"D is such a pro," says Goodman. "I didn't have to worry about anything else but myself in a scene. And his work is amazing."
Washington also shows a noticeable extra girth to his normally
athletic 6-foot frame. He wasn't going for a particular weight, and
never got on a scale. He just wanted to be heavier than his norm of
about 190 pounds. Nor was there a big technique to get there: Late-night
meals that included milkshakes ("a lot of shakes") and burgers. And no
"It's real easy to do. Just let it go and let it show,"
Washington says, suddenly proud of his motto. "I just came up with that.
I'm going to run with that now. Let it go and let it show."
before Washington could start the show, the film took more than a decade
to get off the ground. Gatins was already shopping his screenplay
around Los Angeles when Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger landed the US
Airways "Miracle on the Hudson" flight in 2009, saving all the
"He's the guy I want in the cockpit," says
Gatins of Sullenberger. "He's the guy who has his life in order, a very
steady-heady kind of guy. And it's a
miraculous, heroic thing that he did."
Whitaker performs a similar miracle under very different personal
circumstances. In the opening moments, Washington is shown in a hotel
bed the morning after a bender with an airline flight attendant (Nadine
Velazquez). The prolonged scene ends with a light-headed Whitaker
snorting a line of cocaine to prepare for his upcoming flight.
a very light powder, it has a very sweet taste to it," says Washington
of the movie-set powder, before joking, "I can get you some if you need
it. I know a guy."
But the moment is jarring and audience
expectations for the movie-star Washington can be a serious thing.
Gatins recalls a story that came up during the actor's stint on Broadway
in August Wilson's Fences.
"One night, when it's revealed
that (Washington's character) is having an adulterous affair, a woman in
the 10th row just yelled out. 'Oh Denzel,' " says Gatins. "It gave me
perspective of how his art and his life intersect. People ask so much of
But as far as audience expectations of his screen personae,
Washington is uncompromising. "That's their problem," he says. "I don't
worry about that. I do what felt right for the part."
includes playing a character that spends much of the movie in various
stages of intoxication. As far as nailing the much-needed drunken
behavior for his character? "I just drank the whole time," Washington
Actually he credits YouTube as a guide - the hours
of material found when "drunk" is typed into the search field. He has
one favorite where a man spends minutes trying to get a simple sandal
onto his foot.
"Usually what people are trying to do is maintain
themselves," says Washington. "Where actors get into problems is that
they act drunk. In fact, you're trying to keep it in. Especially a
pilot. This guy is basically lying most of his life. He's used to it."
prompts Washington to kick into subtle drunk-mode, his eyes get
instantly heavy and his hand goes slightly unsteady reaching for his
iced tea on the table. It's low-key but highly effective.
says he never instructed Washington on the acting method for
drunkenness. "The one discussion Denzel and I had very early on is that a
little of that is going to go a long way."
To improve his
confidence in the cockpit, Washington trained on a Delta Airlines flight
simulator with retired airline pilot Larry Goodrich until he looked at
home behind the controls.
"We got in there as often as we could, a few hours at a time. You want to know what it feels like," says Washington.
learned the flight basics and even worked his way up to a take-off.
"But no landings. There are no landings in the movie. We didn't bother
with that. Save that for the next one."
The movie itself is clearly not an indictment of pilots.
a tough gig, you're going from L.A. to Hong Kong twice a week, sleeping
in hotels," says Washington. "I can see how it gets away from you. But
(in Flight) it's this particular man's problems. He could have been a mailman or a waiter."
fact that Whitaker is a hero pilot increases the drama stakes and gets
the rabid media on his tail. The scenes of Washington avoiding the media
scrum are all the more ironic, since the actor has managed to avoid
this kind of personal scrutiny even in the TMZ era. Washington continues
a steady and low-key Hollywood life with his wife of 29 years,
Paulette, and their four grown children.
"No one has a drama-free
existence. You just don't hear about it. There's no perfect situation,"
says Washington. As for marriage, "There's no magic pill. People say,
'You know about marriages in Hollywood.' I say, it's marriages anywhere.
You have to work at it."
The star is going a completely different direction for his next film, the mob comedy 2 Guns with Mark Wahlberg.
"After this film, I needed to lighten up," he says. "It's a little silliness."
before that will likely be the long parade of awards show accolades
(Goldderby.com puts Washington at 8:1 odds to take the best-actor Oscar,
which means an odds-on nomination). It's not a subject he likes to
"I don't read reviews," says Washington. "But you get
a sense of what's going on. And that feels good. You don't want to get
ahead of yourself. You stay humble and see what happens."
one group whose opinions he is curious about - the pilots of the
planes he's going to be flying going forward. Washington might not be
done with his own personal air dramas.
"I can see it as they close
the (cabin) door, 'So I saw your film. So you went upside down, huh?
I'll show you upside down,' " Washington says, laughing. "That's going
to be interesting."