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Denzel’s high on alcohol
Denzel Washington’s career took off a long time ago, but his latest role as a pilot has earned him another Oscar nomination. He talks to Steve Pratt
DENZEL WASHINGTON is talking about celebrity and fame. He’s well placed to know how it affects and changes an actor as one of Hollywood’s A-listers with a long list of successful movies to his credit.
This is a two-time Oscar winner whose diverse roles range from runaway slave in Glory to South African freedom fighter Steve Biko in Cry Freedom, from Shakespeare in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing to grizzled police officer in Training Day.
“You know, when you pray for rain, you gotta deal with the mud too. Everything’s a trade-off,” he says, quoting something an old West Indian woman told him.
If you want success, you have to expect – and accept – the public recognition that goes with it.
Not that he lives the celebrity lifestyle. He’s not an actor who features regularly in the gossip mags or is pictured partying hard and falling out of nightclubs.
But he’s aware that trying not to be recognised – going out in disguise so as not to attract attention – brings its own problems. “That can have an effect on you at times because it’s not natural to put a hat on, keep your head down. You know, you’re missing life, you start to miss life,” he says.
In person, his answers are more restrained than effusive. He’s as close as you can be to normal when you’re one of the movie industry’s highest-paid, most reliable, frequently acclaimed actors.
He’s not looking his usual self in his latest film Flight, in which he plays an airline pilot who drinks to excess, takes drugs and beds stewardesses – all on the night before he due to fly.
After a midair catastrophe, he manages to land the plane with little loss of life. He’s hailed a hero, but his secret life of excess threatens to be exposed.
It’s earned Washington yet another Oscar nomination, although the smart money must be on Daniel Day-Lewis’s turn as the American president in Lincoln.
“Thank you,” says Washington courteously when congratulated on the Oscar nod. Later, he elaborates on how it feels to be in the running for one of those gold-plated statuettes. “Well, you know, it’s nice,” says the actor. “It means people appreciate what you do. I’ve been down this road before so I don’t get too high, get too low.”
The decision to accept the role of Captain Whip Whitaker wasn’t difficult. “It was such a good script. It was such an easy read, a pageturner.
There was no question about it, when I finished the last page I said I’m gonna do it,” he says.
Washington learnt to be a pilot to prepare for the role. “We were allowed by Delta Airlines to use their flight simulators, which was great. I wish I could take one of those home,” he says.
“But you actually get in and have the same devices that pilots practise on. So that was great and gave me the sense of knowing what I’m doing. Even though I might not have been pushing the right button, I look like I knew what I was doing.”
The spectacular opening to the movie follows the aircraft as problems strike in mid-flight and Whitaker inverts the plane 180 degrees, flies it upside down and crash lands it in a field.
Filming those scenes were not without difficulties as the cabin of the plane was positioned inside a “rotisserie rig”, a circular ring that could spin the cabin 360 degrees. “I remember the first time they started turning it over and I started leaning up against the window and I went, ‘wait, wait, wait, whoah, whoah, whoah.
Back, back’. You had to figure out how to brace yourself. I started sliding, I thought I was going to fall out,” he recalls.
The plane crash sequence didn’t deter him from flying. He was taking flights while making the movie. “I’ve been on planes that have been struck by lightning and hit some pretty rough air,” he says.
“The time to worry about flying is when you’re on the ground. No point worrying about it when you’re in the air. It’s too late, nothing you can do about it anyway. In fact, one flight – it was a private plane – I was on was particularly rough and I had to calm down the flight attendant after she got a little upset.”
Captain Whitaker is a mass of contradictions, a good guy and a bad guy rolled into one who’s unwilling to admit to his drink problem. Is he a hero for landing the plane or a villain unwilling to deal with his personal demons?
Washington didn’t worry about retaining the audience’s sympathy. “I just play the part. I’m not thinking, ‘oh, I must make sure they love me or not’. You just interpret the role and besides, ultimately you don’t know what the director’s going to use anyway. It might be this great scene and he’s focusing in on a bottle of water or something.”
Airline pilot is the latest job Washington’s had on screen after playing police officers, detectives, lawyers, nuclear submarine officers and train conductors. That’s part of what he liked about being an actor, he says.
It’s not true, as has been reported, that he ever considered being a preacher like his father. “It was suggested to me to be one but that wasn’t a plan of mine. That’s a part of the fun of it, to get to be different things. I’ve driven trains, I’ve flown planes… that’s part of our job.”
While learning to pilot an aircraft was necessary for the part, Washington didn’t investigate Whitaker’s drink problem. “I didn’t do any research because he didn’t think he had a problem.
The guy has an occasional drink – you know, every night,” he says.
He’s very matter-of-fact about his approach to acting and getting it right. “You never get it.
First of all, I’m not watching myself while I’m working, I’m just doing the work. I don’t know what ‘getting it’ is really. You trust the director and do the work.
“It’s a process, not like ‘oh, yeah, I nailed that’. If you feel too good about a scene then you haven’t done anything because you’re too busy watching yourself.
“When I started directing and knew I had to be in the picture, I had to watch myself so I had to get used to it.”
- Flight (15) is now showing in cinemas.
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