BEVERLY HILLS—It was the wee hours of the morning and Denzel Washington appeared to be passed out on the hotel-room bed. A naked brunette wandered by, lighting a joint. She tapped him on the shoulder. Wakey-wakey. He sat up, took a hit of reefer, downed the dregs of a beer from the nightstand, and snorted a long line of white powder. Ahhh. Much better.
But this wasn’t the real Denzel Washington. This was Whip Whitaker, the character Washington plays in his latest movie, Flight: a man whose motto could be “Just say ‘Yes.’ And often.” Although, there is that other catchy possibility: “Why simply fly, when you can fly high?” That’s right. Did I mention Whip is a commercial-airline pilot?
One recent afternoon in a Beverly Hills hotel, Washington, the handsome, Oscar-winning Hollywood star was discussing his new movie (which opens Friday [November 2]) and his perpetually smashed character. He wore no flashy items of clothing, didn’t look remotely like the almost 58 years old he’s said to be, and exhibited only polite incredulity when asked what anybody might consider some rather unusual questions. (More on that later.)
Some reporters were wondering about the specific skill set a boozing, coke-addicted pilot brings to the cockpit of a jet airliner. It isn’t a spoiler to say that Whip averts a plane crash while maintaining an interesting blood-alcohol and cocaine level. “Obviously, we’re not endorsing that pilots should fly in that state,” director Robert Zemeckis said, seated beside Washington. “I don’t think any one of us would want to fly on a plane like that.” This seemed to amuse exactly everyone.
Perhaps it was “tough” playing Whip, whose ride from his nubile bedmate to the less agreeable company of his own demons is a decidedly bumpy one? “You know, tough spots for me are pictures I don’t want to be on,” Washington said. “If you’re on a movie and it’s, like, the third day and you’re like, ‘How many days have we been shootin’?’ ‘Three.’ ‘And what have we got to go?’ ‘117.’ That’s a tough movie for me.”
Flight, in fact, was an “adventure”: “flying MD-80 flight simulators, hanging upside down in the plane, playing a drunk”. That sort of thing.
Down the table from him, Kelly Reilly, his pretty, auburn-haired costar, was describing how a former drug user helped her understand her own role playing an addict. “He taught me how to inject heroin,” she said.
“You should have just come to me,” Washington said. “I could have showed you that.” Then he laughed.
“You can’t joke at things like this, I was told,” Reilly said. Everyone laughed, though it wasn’t entirely clear which part was the joke.
A reporter began a rambling meditation seemingly about what Washington might dream at night. It was uncertain whether a question would materialize. At last, she alighted on something: “What do you wake up in the morning thinking about?” Washington looked at her as though she might be a mirage. “I have the flying dream,” he said. “I’ve had it for most of my life.” He described flying under, or perhaps over, bridges, trains, and wires. “I don’t know what it means,” he said finally, laughing. “I have no idea what it means.”
“I have that dream about hot dogs chasing doughnuts through the Lincoln Tunnel,” his costar, John Goodman, interjected. Everyone laughed again.
There was joking about a pivotal scene involving a dangerously well-stocked hotel minibar. “I like when the refrigerator kicks on,” Goodman said, referring to the appliance’s sudden devilish hum in the darkness. “‘Come here,’” he said, doing a plausible possessed fridge.
Another reporter stood up. The character of Whip, she said seriously, reminded her of Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm X. Did Washington think of the fallen human-rights leader during filming? “Really?!” Washington said, looking bemused. “Wow. That’s a stretch.” He obligingly reminisced about that 20-year-old biopic. “But I didn’t think about that at all related to this film.”
He was still thinking about Flight. “I had to be a part of it.…It was on the page: the guts, the pain, the tears. You know, it was like a Eugene O’Neill play. The tears were on the page.”
And the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll-ing involving a large aircraft. Or at least a convincing simulation of such.
Watch the trailer for Flight.