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.
“In 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.
During 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.
“I 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.
“He has this gravitas,” says Robert Zemeckis. “I couldn’t imagine anyone else but (Washington) for that part. And he just nailed it beyond my expectations.”
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.”
He 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 week earlier.
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.”
The 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.
“There 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 deep.”
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.”
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