Denzel on the Guts, Pain, Tears of 'Flight'

Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker in Flight  (Paramount Pictures)
Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker in Flight (Paramount Pictures)

(The Root) — When it comes to playing complex characters, there are few actors who have as much swagger as Denzel Washington. It's his walk, the way he talks and how he makes that one teardrop descend from his right eye.


That'll get you every time.

And, of course, he's not too hard on the eyes, either — especially when he's in uniform. In Flight, which opens this weekend, the two-time Oscar winner uses all of his tools to play Whip Whitaker, a commercial airline pilot whose cocky demeanor is enhanced by a cocaine-and-Jack Daniels chaser.

Whip, however, manages to pull a "Sully" and safely land a mechanically malfunctioning plane in an open field during a storm. The good news is that only six lives are lost. The bad news is that one of the fatalities is a flight attendant with whom Whip was romantically involved on the DL. By taking their secrets to her grave, she has essentially saved his career. In the end, he nails himself.

But even though Flight — which is equal parts thriller and compelling drama — is somewhat predictable, Washington appreciated the ambiguity of the script. It was one of the last ones his agent, the late Ed Limato, gave him before he died. The film also stars John Goodman, Melissa Leo and Nadine Velazquez and reunites Washington with Don Cheadle for the first time since 1995, when they shot Devil in a Blue Dress, a film adaptation of Walter Mosley's mystery-crime novel.

"The complexity was wonderful to play," Washington told The Root. "Tough spots for me are pictures I don't want to be on. [But] this was an adventure. Starting with the screenplay and the collaboration with the filmmaker, getting a chance to fly around in flight simulators, hanging upside down in a plane and playing a drunk … "

While it's hard not to root for Whip — his courageous actions do save 100 souls and the crash isn't technically his fault — Washington said he wouldn't have had much empathy for a pilot flying high.


"I believe he deserved more prison time," Washington said adamantly. "I think he should have gotten at least 20 years."

Speaking of which, that's exactly how long it's been since Washington played perhaps his most iconic character to date, in the film Malcolm X. The 1992 Spike Lee joint was nominated for two Oscars the following year. Washington nabbed one for best actor, and Ruth E. Carter got the other for costume design. Lee and the film were snubbed, but the director has often said that Washington, who was up against other heavyweights like Clint Eastwood, Robert Downey Jr., Stephen Rea and eventual winner Al Pacino, was the one who was truly robbed.


"Wow, it's been 20 years?" Washington said. "You know, I remember the first time landing in Africa was 1986, and I was doing a movie called Cry Freedom. And the first time landing in Egypt was on Malcolm X in '91 or '92. It was just a powerful feeling to be able to move around with the people, and I never felt threatened or anything like that. Wow, that was 20 years ago … I was 12 when I made that!"

Although Washington declined to comment on how he felt about the X snub ("That's old news"), he had already won an Oscar for his supporting role in 1989's Glory — the first time we saw that one tear fall. He wouldn't win the big prize until 2002, for his rogue cop performance in Training Day, on the same memorable night that Halle Berry became the first African-American woman to win best actress, and Sidney Poitier, the first brother to win best actor, was honored with a lifetime-achievement golden boy.


"I don't get all caught up in that," said Washington, who probably should have won for The Hurricane, a film that was released a year before Training Day (in which he played the titular boxer wrongly convicted of murder who fought to prove his innocence). "The awards are nice, but it's about the work. It's very rare — and I read a lot of scripts — but this one, I felt like I read it in 14 minutes because I was turning the pages so fast. I couldn't wait to see what was going to happen. This was one of those scripts, I had to be a part of it. It was on the page — the guts, the pain, the tears."

Miki Turner is an award-winning photojournalist in Los Angeles.