The last anti-hero
As bad guys go, the lying, cheating, coke-sniffing drunk in Robert Zemeckis’ Flight is hard to beat. So who better to play him than squeaky-clean all-American Denzel Washington. TARA BRADYcatches up with the five-time Oscar nominee
IT’S JUST another day at the office for ace pilot Whip Whitaker. He wakes up with a naked air stewardess, he swigs from the bottom of a beer bottle to get rid of the taste of who-knows-what, he fights with his ex-wife on the phone, he snorts a little cocaine for breakfast and then he staggers out to fly a plane from Orlando to Atlanta.
The flight, alas, is doomed. Can Whip bust the aviation moves required to save the 102 souls onboard from a killer combination of engine failure and turbulence? And will the vodkas he just swiped from the service trolley affect his ability to land the plane?
Director Robert Zemeckis’ new film opens with a virtuoso crash sequence but the real tailspin comes in the aftermath as the pilot seeks to defend his actions. It’s a terrific part for a terrific actor, namely Denzel Washington, who today leaps to his feet and shakes my hand: “You just fly over to London?” I sure did.
The actor and the team behind Flight – the Oscar-nominated air disaster drama – simply couldn’t have planned it better: London is uncharacteristically blanketed in snow and air travel is, well, rather less fun than usual.
“Still safer than driving, you know?” notes the star, dryly.
I know. I fly most weeks but I don’t drive.
“What do you mean you don’t drive?” I can’t drive. It scares me. So I don’t.
Denzel Washington goes quiet then explodes with a wagging finger: “Drive a car. For crying out loud. You a chicken? You want to be a chicken forever?”
I’m minded to leave the building and jump behind the nearest available wheel. After all, what right-thinking judge would ever convict anyone on the back of that legal argument: Denzel Washington told me to.
Everybody loves Denzel. Everybody. He’s a good guy, we’re told, who dotes on his family and gives millions away to charities. What do Michelle Obama and Farc have in common? Answer: they love Denzel.
In 2006, when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia wanted to exchange hostages for imprisoned guerrillas they submitted a very short list of approved negotiators: political firebrands Oliver Stone and Michael Moore were perhaps predictable candidates, but the two-time Oscar-winning actor was a surprise nominee. The American First Lady, meanwhile, cites Washington as her top choice to play Mr Obama should the relevant biopic arise.
The actor has signalled some interest in the idea, but ultimately, for Denzel Washington, it’ll come down to the script. It always does.
“I look for a good script and a good part, and that’s it,” says Washington.
“I won’t do a movie just because it’s a good idea. I never think ‘I’ll do the movie because I like page 16’. I never think ‘I’ll play a villain because I played a hero last time’. It’s always about the material and me interpreting the role.”
Back in the day, just as Denzel Washington was blossoming into a global brand, fans liked to think otherwise. Denzel-watchers speculated that the actor, a happily married, devout Christian and the son of a Pentecostal preacher, didn’t do love scenes, didn’t play drunk, didn’t do villains. African-American audiences reportedly jeered Milla Jovovich when she appeared, in the biblical sense, alongside Washington in Spike Lee’s He’s Got Game (1998).
“For a lot of black women, Denzel represents everything that’s right in the black man today,” Sonia Alleyne, editor of Black Elegance, told the Observer at the time. “I think they are looking at this new role almost as though he is being unfaithful to black women.”