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Hitting highs, showing depth

WHILE it may never happen, in the event you find yourself in a queue with Denzel Washington for a plane, train, automobile, bus, rickshaw, or any other form of transport, catch the next one.

take-off: Denzel Washington in his 1987 breakthrough role in Cry Freedom.
take-off: Denzel Washington in his 1987 breakthrough role in Cry Freedom.

When it comes to travel, and as he confirms in his new film, Flight, the double Oscar winner is something of a Jonah on wheels. Previously, he played a driver chasing a runaway train in Unstoppable. Before that, in Pelham 123, he was caught up in the hijacking of a subway train.

In Flight, Washington plays a pilot who flies into spectacular trouble. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, helmer of Forrest Gump and Back to the Future, the picture has been nominated for two Oscars: best screenplay for John Gatins, and best actor for Washington.

All those hours spent in Atlanta in a flight simulator were worth it for the confidence with which Washington handles himself at the controls. But nothing could truly prepare him for what Zemeckis, a pilot himself, had in mind once the cameras started rolling.

Washington was strapped in and ready to go when the cabin, set inside a "rotisserie rig" that could rotate 360 degrees, began to turn. Then it turned some more, and some more. "I started leaning against the window and I said, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, turn back!' You had to figure out how to brace yourself. I started sliding. I thought I was going to fall out."

That is just the beginning. Flight marks Zemeckis's return to live action filmmaking after 12 years of directing animations including A Christmas Carol and The Polar Express. It shows that whatever wonders can be conjured through technology, there is nothing to beat having the right flesh-and-blood actor when it comes to generating genuine thrills and showing complex emotions.

Zemeckis was in no doubt he had the right actor in Washington to play Captain Whit Whitaker, a man with more demons than Hell. "The genius of Denzel is when he can do something that I like to call 'performing behind the eyes'. There are many scenes where you can just feel his misery and it's breathtaking to see."

The man himself is not given to much pondering out loud about his craft. Not from Mr Washington any Inside the Actors Studio-style speeches about "journeys" or method. He talks about acting as if it is one of the many workaday jobs he has played on screen, from police officer and train driver to lawyer and naval officer. He didn't agonise, for example, about knowing everything about his character from the off. "I don't know that you need to know who he is," says Washington, speaking in London before the film's UK premiere. "It's all on the page in this case, it says who he is and what he does and doesn't do."

After the initial incident with the plane Whitaker is celebrated as a hero. It is after that, once investigations begin, that the character starts to reveal a less heroic aspect. Washington refused to worry about keeping the audience on his side. "I'm not thinking, 'Oh, I've got to make sure that they love me'," he says. Though he had sympathy for the character, he wasn't going to sugar-coat the pill of addiction. "It's sad but I can't worry about that, I've got to go for it. If I'm a fall- down drunk that's what I am. But yeah, for anyone that has those kind of issues it's a sad thing and you hope the person gets help."

With four decades in the business, Washington, 58, can leave his cv to shout for itself. From his breakthrough part in 1987's Cry Freedom, playing anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, he has been an actor on a hot tin roof, moving from television (St Elsewhere) to the stage to cinema, where his work has stretched from Spike Lee (Malcolm X) to Shakespeare (Much Ado about Nothing), with thrillers (American Gangster, The Manchurian Candidate), high drama (Philadelphia), and more heavyweight biopics (The Hurricane) in between. Add to those his Oscar-winning performances in Training Day and Glory.

There is some high-octane nonsense in there too, such as the time travel thriller Deja Vu. There are directing stints (Antwone Fisher, The Great Debaters), and he has even been immortalised in rap, with En Vogue's description of the ideal man in Whatta Man having "a body like Arnold with a Denzel face".

Washington, in short, has serious claim to be one of the Mount Rushmore faces of modern Hollywood. Come the Oscars, although he is up against Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix among others, it would be unwise to discount this New York-born son of a Pentecostal preacher man.

"It's nice, it means people appreciate what you do," he says of this year's nomination. "I've been down this road before so I don't get too high, don't get too low."

Since Flight's release in the US, he acknowledges, with a smile, that he has been on the receiving end of "a few odd looks" from pilots. Despite his experiences in the rotisserie rig, and at other times, he remains sanguine about flying.

"I've been on planes that have been struck by lightning and hit some pretty rough air. The time to worry about flying is when you are on the ground. There's no point in worrying about it when you are in the air. It's too late and there's nothing you can do about it anyway. One flight that I was on which was particularly rough – it was a private plane – and the flight attendant, I had to calm her down. I was like wow, you are supposed to be helping me."

In the same way that James Cameron's Titanic was a game-changer in showing maritime disasters on screen, so Flight takes the depiction of trouble at 36,000ft to a whole new terrifying dimension. Though the film might do for flying what Jaws did for sea swimming, Washington is keen to stress this is not a movie that is out to knock airlines or pilots.

"It's not so much about flying as it is about addiction," he says, adding that his character could do many another job. That said, he tips an imaginary captain's hat to air crews.

"Being a pilot is a tough, high-pressure job. You fly from LA to NY to Hong Kong, spend 24 hours there, turn around and come back then do it again. That's hard on the body, you're alone in these hotels with strangers and your flight attendants become your family. But it could be anyone who spends that lonely night in a hotel room wrestling with demons."

When he heads home it will be to his wife of three decades, Pauletta, their four children, and a life that, between promoting films, he likes to keep as low-key as possible. As with flying, he is relaxed about fame. "When you pray for rain you've got to deal with the mud too."

With that he's off to the premiere. The next day, Heathrow was hit by snow and thousands of passengers stranded. Pure coincidence, but it just goes to show that when you pray for another Denzel Washington film, you might just have to deal with the travel consequences too.

Flight opens on February 1

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