View Comments
New slant on high-flyer
New slant on high-flyer

Admittedly, Denzel Washington enjoys a glass of wine as much as the next man. "Yes, I like red wine, you know, fine, French, Italian, Californian," confesses the actor, throwing back his head and letting out a deep, guttural laugh.

"But was I drunk when I played this role? No! I'm an actor, you act, that's what I do. But I didn't drink to do it, I'll put it that way."

Flight is the kind of movie that could put you off flying forever, fastening up your safety belts to witness this double-Oscar winning actor flying high and throwing a whole new slant on the friendly skies.

Delivering a bravura, if not sobering, performance as a drunken, chain-smoking, cocaine-snorting pilot, this devout Christian and father of four reveals how his research into drunken behaviour was conducted strictly on the web.

"I started with YouTube, the worst drunks of all time, or else you can just go online and hit 'drunks', and you will see every level of it.

"There was one guy, all he tried to do for about five minutes was get his foot in his shoe! And somebody would come by, and he'd be like 'I'm fine!' And then when he got it on, he was like 'See, I did it!' And I actually used that in a scene where I'm out of my head and I'm trying to put a beer bottle down," he laughs about his outrageous cockpit performance.

But within moments, his smile disappears and his expression clouds over as he goes on to examine the reality of addiction.

After all, it was less than a year ago that he lost his dear friend and The Preacher's Wife co-star Whitney Houston to addiction. "Whitney had done so well in recovery, and that is the toughest part about addiction. It's never easy. That was a tough drug that got a hold of her. You can't go back to that and survive. I will always remember her as the sweetest person."

The very nature of addiction is in denial of the truth, he suggests. "Yeah, whatever your addiction is. Sex? Too much water? I guess that's a part of it."

Ask him if an addict can ever really be cured, he pauses a moment: "We don't know, people go through rehab and, even after rehab, people stay sober for years, and then one day, they fall off the cliff, so we would like to hope he takes another path, but you really don't know."

The son of a Pentecostal preacher, Washington travels his own path to redemption: "I still read from the Bible every day. I've attended the same church for 30 years."

With so much in the news about drunk pilots, the actor takes a diplomatic line when talking about the real pilots he met using flight simulators during preparation for Flight: "I didn't ask a whole lot of stories. When you are in the simulator and you're doing that kind of work, you just get a lot by being quiet and listening. I didn't ask a lot of questions about drinking because obviously, that would be a very sensitive area for them, and I didn't want to get anybody in trouble, and drinking too much rears its ugly head in every profession. Writers, actors, pilots, hotel operators . . .

"The experts I talked to when I did my research, I was really impressed with how they took care of their own. If a person has a problem, and he's willing to get help, they will do everything to help that person and I guess a pilot is a valuable asset."

If movie-goers are used to enjoying the more athletic, sculpted version of Washington, then Flight sees him letting it go, even baring his butt in some less-than- flattering scenes. "It was embarrassing some days, but you had to let it go, that's who he is because he obviously wasn't going to the gym! He wasn't a health conscious go-to-the-gym kind of a guy, so I had to go with that."

Now closing in on 60, he adds: "Well, I'm trying to remain in better shape from this point forward."

Likewise this non-smoker reveals that no real cigarettes were smoked during the course of portraying the chain-smoking pilot: "They were herbal. I would be dead otherwise! But again, that's another addiction; the sign of an addictive personality."

Washington's performance in Flight has since earned him numerous accolades including best actor nods from The Screen Actors Guild, Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.

Enjoying an eclectic career coloured by both heroic and less-than-heroic characters, Washington makes no excuses for the moral ambiguity of his pilot who can be perceived as both hero and antihero.

"I'm not interested in letting anyone off the hook," he says. "If a person is a big financial person and they have a fall from grace, it's probably because they did something wrong, not because society lifted them up. In this case, the guy was drinking, sniffing coke in a bed with a girl half his age. That's what he did. Society didn't do that to him, he did that. So he fell. He wasn't lifted up or brought down."

It's no plot spoiler, given that the scene has been played countless times in trailers, but one of Flight's most dramatic - and startling - scenes is when Washington's pilot turns the passenger jet upside down.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis, himself a licensed pilot, Washington is confident this can actually be achieved for real: "You think of jet planes, they do that all the time. I'm sure, some pilots will tell me I'm wrong, but jet planes and even the small propeller planes, they go upside down all the time. It's just that we've never seen that. I sure don't want to see it or be in it. But that is a manoeuvre that can happen . . ."

'The experts I talked to . . . I was impressed with how they took care of their own. If a person has a problem, and he's willing to get help, they will do everything to help that person.'