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Washington lets it all hang out
7:00am Saturday 2nd February 2013 in Celebrity Interview
Two-time Oscar-winner Denzel Washington is up for his third Academy Award this year, for his performance in Robert Zemeckis's drama Flight, which opens in cinemas on Friday, February 1. The legendary actor talks about his latest Oscar nod, his stripped-down performance and taking on iconic roles.
By Shereen Low
Flight starts with a phone ringing, disturbing a man who is fast asleep.
Waking up with a jolt, his clothes strewn on a chair with an equally nude woman beside him, he answers the phone before reaching for the vodka and a line of cocaine.
Minutes later, Captain Whip Whitaker is strutting down the runway, head held high in his pressed SouthJet uniform with his flight attendants beside him.
Baring his body in its (almost) full glory, paunch and all, is two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington, who plays Whitaker.
"Did I have any doubts about letting it all hang out? No, that's what it's about," says the star of Malcolm X, American Gangster and Courage Under Fire.
"He's a slob, he's letting go. He's not in the gym, he's a womaniser and a drunk."
For his all-important close-up, Washington admits there was no sucking in.
"I wanted my stomach to stick out. So I was breathing out, if anything," he admits, with a deep chuckle.
"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," he adds.
The usually fit 58-year-old let himself go a bit to make his body look bloated. "I didn't put on that much weight - I just didn't exercise and ate a late meal every night."
His commitment has paid off, with Washington up for another Academy Award. Having won twice for his roles in 2001's Training Day and 1989's Glory, he now faces Daniel Day-Lewis, Bradley Cooper, Hugh Jackman and Joaquin Phoenix in this year's category for Best Actor.
"It is what it is," he says about his rivals. "Daniel is Lincoln so he's going to be hard to beat. He's obviously the front-runner."
This marks his sixth Oscar nomination so, understandably, he's being quite modest about the nod. "It beats a sharp stick in the eye," he jokes, before adding, more seriously: "It's a great honour. 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."
Directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by John Gatins, who has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, Flight sees Whip's background under scrutiny after he miraculously crash-lands a plane after a mid-air catastrophe.
But despite being hailed as a hero, underneath the ironed uniform and stiff pilot's cap, the seasoned pilot struggles with his own personal demons, particularly with alcohol and drugs.
"I never looked at him as a flawed hero. 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," explains Washington.
The actor immediately agreed to the role after reading the script in 2009.
"When I read it, it was so good, it was 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."
He didn't do any research into alcohol or substance addiction because Whip "doesn't think he has a problem", and reveals that there was no real alcohol on set. The whisky was replaced by watered-down tea, while the drugs were actually powdered milk.
"I don't usually drink on any movies. I can't work like that," he says.
"Years ago, right here in London, I did a movie called For Queen And Country and there was one scene where we were supposed to be drunk. As young actors, we actually had some drinks and we thought we were great, but the director was like, 'You guys were awful. What's wrong with you?' So that cured me of that. Getting drunk doesn't work."
Washington did prepare for the role by doing some training in a flight simulator.
"We were allowed by Delta Airlines to use their flight simulators, which was great, and I wish I could have taken one of those home. It's what the pilots practise in and was incredibly helpful," he says.
"It gave me a sense of knowing what I'm doing. I may have not been pushing the right button, but I looked like I knew what I was doing."
His brave demeanour waned during the filming of the crash scene, when the plane was turned upside down.
"I remember the first time they started rotating it and I started leaning over. I was like, 'Woah, turn back' because you had to figure out how to brace yourself and I started sliding. I thought I was going to fall out!" he recalls.
The film has not put him off flying though. "I've been on planes that have been struck by lightning and hit some pretty rough air. You know, the time to worry about flying is when you're on the ground," he says.
"There's no point worrying about it when you're in the air - it's too late. There's nothing you can do about it anyway. There was one particularly rough time on a private plane and I had to calm the flight attendant down."
Washington - who was born in Mount Vernon, near New York - is the son of a preacher man, but has always wanted to be an actor after the acting bug bit him at university.
"I never considered being a preacher. It was suggested to me to be one but it wasn't a plan of mine," he admits.
Instead, after graduating with a degree in drama and journalism, he started off in theatre and on the small screen, before getting his first Oscar nomination for his performance as South African anti-apartheid political activist Steven Biko in Richard Attenborough's Cry Freedom in 1987.
Since then, he has played iconic roles such as Malcolm X in Spike Lee's biopic and world middleweight champion boxer Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter in The Hurricane, and starred in more than 40 films.
"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," he explains.
In spite of his fame, Washington has remained down-to-earth while steering clear of tabloid attention.
"It's not natural to put a hat on and keep your head down, because you start to miss life.
"You know, if you pray for rain then you've got to deal with the mud too. That's right! Everything's a trade-off," he says.
Extra time - Airline disasters :: Airplane! (1980) - Robert Hays and Leslie Nielsen star in this parody of disaster films, which remains one of the greatest comedies of all time.
:: Con Air (1997) - Transporting hardened prisoners becomes a nightmare for Nicolas Cage and John Cusack in Simon West's action thriller.
:: Flightplan (2005) - Jodie Foster loses her young daughter on a flight in Robert Schwentke's tense thriller.
:: Red Eye (2005) - Rachel McAdams plays a hotel manager caught up in an assassination plot by a terrorist (Cillian Murphy) while aboard a red-eye flight to Miami.
:: Snakes On A Plane (2006) - David R Ellis' thriller-turned-cult classic sees CGI snakes taking over the flight, as Samuel L Jackson fights to save the day.
:: Flight opens in cinemas on Friday, February 1
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