Denzel Washington: Solid gold star flies high as a flawed hero

Denzel Washington in a scene from "Flight."
Denzel Washington in a scene from "Flight."
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He’s the 24-carat star who just can’t help being consistently good. Film critic Tony Earnshaw meets Oscar nominee and bona fide movie legend Denzel Washington as his latest film Flight opens in the UK.

Forget your Method approach to acting – Denzel Washington doesn’t need any of that nonsense to get into a role.

In Flight, he plays a pilot fuelled by booze and cocaine who nevertheless manages to avert disaster when his plane catastrophically fails in mid-air.

In the days of Brando, Dean and Clift – and even into the ’70s with Dustin Hoffman – it was de rigueur for an actor to immerse himself in whatever it took to ‘get’ the part. Not Denzel Washington. Recalling an incident from a quarter of a century ago the astonishingly well-preserved 58-year-old dismissed all talk of research involving real alcohol, real imbibing and real results.

“Years ago, right here in London, I did a movie called For Queen & Country and there was one scene where we were supposed to be drunk,” he smiles knowingly.

“As young actors, we actually had some drinks and we thought we were great, but the director [Martin Stellman] was like, ‘You guys were awful. What’s wrong with you?’ So that cured me of that.

“I don’t usually drink on any movies. Getting drunk doesn’t work. I can’t work like that.”

Thus the alcohol on set was actually watered-down tea (a prop man’s staple) while the drugs were replaced by powdered milk. He giggles when recalling his one moment of actorly research. In a flight simulator operated by Delta Airlines he prepped the film’s opening sequence: a crash.

“I remember the first time they started rotating it and I started leaning over. I was like, ‘Whoa, turn back!’ because I had to figure out how to brace myself and I started sliding. I thought I was going to fall out!” All decorum dissipated. Washington felt about 12.

Washington is the despair of many of his contemporaries because he rarely makes a dud. He skips between action films – he enjoyed a long partnership with the late Tony Scott on films such as Crimson Tide, Man on Fire and Unstoppable – and more considered fare.

He doesn’t do franchises but instead opts for that thesp’s fave: the flawed man. His Oscar nominations – six of them counting the Best Actor nod for Flight – have been for roles in which Washington has been able to ricochet wildly from emotion to emotion.

He insists however that Whip Whitaker, the airline captain in Flight, falls outside that category.

“I never looked at him as a flawed hero,” muses Washington. “He’s a good man with problems. We’ve all seen that when certain people have too much to drink this other side comes out. He has a tremendous ego, and he’s a brilliant pilot but he has issues.”

Playing such a man – a walking disaster maintaining a façade of respectability – allowed the normally fastidious star to indulge himself.

George Clooney piled on the pounds to portray an over-the-hill spy in Syriana and won an Oscar, so why not Washington? “He’s a slob, he’s letting go. He’s not in the gym, he’s a womaniser and a drunk,” adds Washington.

“I wanted my stomach to stick out. So I was breathing out, if anything. I could have easily covered myself up but that’s not the point. I wanted it to feel real. This is who he is, and this is what he is. I didn’t want to be half in, half out – no pun intended.”

The paunch stayed. What’s more, Washington had coveted the role since first reading the script in 2009. Knowing it was on the horizon gave him time to bulk up.

“When I read it, it was so good, it was a no-brainer. As soon as I finished it, I told my agent, ‘Make a deal’. The role was good, but I hadn’t read anything like that and obviously haven’t played anything like that. I didn’t put on that much weight; I just didn’t exercise and ate a late meal every night.”

Tricks of the trade.

For a time Washington had a reputation for being – if not ‘difficult’ then not far from it. Always professional, always punctual, always courteous there was nevertheless a nagging feeling that he wanted recognition. He appeared to mellow after winning the Oscar in 2002 for his corrupt cop in Training Day.

There were those who felt he should have won for 1992’s Malcolm X or The Hurricane in 1999, playing jailed boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter. The roles show he’s content to play unsympathetic men.

Straightforward heroes don’t appeal.

“I’m not thinking, ‘I’ve got to make sure they love me’, you know? I don’t worry about that. I just play the part and interpret the role.”

Off set he generally keeps a lower profile than many of his contemporaries, though he happily tells a story against himself of the day he was invited to a party by President Obama.

Of fame he says, “It’s not natural to put a hat on and keep your head down, because you start to miss life. Everything’s a trade-off. If you pray for rain then you’ve got to deal with the mud, too.”

And so to the 85th Academy Awards. This year the showbiz show of shows takes place on February 24. Washington has picked up his sixth nomination – the others were for Cry Freedom, Glory, Malcolm X, The Hurricane, and Training Day – and faces some stiff competition.

His fellow nominees are Joaquin Phoenix for The Master, Hugh Jackman for Les Miserables, Bradley Cooper for Silver Linings Playbook, and two-time winner Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln. How does he feel? That handsome faces creases into a familiar killer smile.

“It beats a sharp stick in the eye!” he laughs. “It is what it is. Daniel is Lincoln so he’s 
going to be hard to beat. 
He’s obviously the front-runner.

“It’s always exciting to be commended, to be accepted and honoured but I’ve been down this road before so we’ll see what happens.”

Denzel’s path to screen stardom

The son of a Pentecostal minister, Washington graduated from Fordham University with a 
degree in journalism and drama.

He made his fleeting uncredited film debut aged 19 as a mugger shot down by vigilante Charles Bronson in the late Michael Winner’s Death Wish.

In the 1980s he was a regular on TV’s St Elsewhere, playing Dr Chandler.

He has directed two films: Antwone Fisher (2002) and The Great Debaters (2007).

Among the roles he turned down was the detective later played by Brad Pitt in Seven.

Flight (15) is released today.