Ageing disgracefully

Downward spiral ... Washington plays Captain Whip Whitaker.
Downward spiral ... Washington plays Captain Whip Whitaker.

It's not uncommon for movie stars to keep you waiting, but when Denzel Washington finally opens the door to his Beverly Hills hotel suite, he has a good excuse.

''You'll never believe it, but I just had my neck cracked,'' he says, cheerfully waving off the man with the massage table.

''I just slept wrong on Saturday and screwed up my neck, and because I'm macho I was like 'I'm fine, I'm fine' but it was just getting worse and worse till finally I'm like, 'I've got to do something!' Now it feels much better.''

It's another reminder that the 58-year-old leading man is closer to senior citizen status, so it's even more fitting that his latest Golden Globe- and Oscar-nominated role in Flight is one of his most broken roles yet - an alcoholic airline pilot on a downward spiral.

''Yeah, I think rolling around naked with my stomach hanging out, that was something I couldn't pretty up,'' Washington says. ''I think that I had to be naked in a sense, literally and metaphorically, because he was a slob and a drunk and if you keep going with drugs and alcohol, something very bad happens and this was the beginning of the end for him.''

Flight stars Washington as Captain Whip Whitaker, a pilot at the helm of a domestic airliner in the US on a routine flight with 96 passengers and six crew on board. After a series of inexplicable mechanical malfunctions, the plane, out of control, spirals downward and Whitaker decides the only recourse to maintain altitude long enough to crash land outside a built-up area is to invert the plane and fly it upside down. He pulls off the manoeuvre, and while six lives are lost, everybody else is saved. Initially hailed as a hero, Whitaker has to face the consequences when he fails the blood-alcohol test.

Washington was eager to embrace such a flawed role, especially when he heard that filmmaker Robert Zemeckis had signed on. ''Bob has been sober 14 or 15 years, he's also a pilot himself and not a bad director either,'' Washington says.

''The script was obviously very powerful in its original form, but when I heard he was interested, I knew he was the man to make this film.''

The son of a Pentecostal minister father and a beautician mother, Washington grew up in Mount Vernon, New York, but began hanging out on the streets after his parents divorced, prompting his mother to scrape together whatever money she could to send him to a private boarding school. ''I'm from a broken home, so it wasn't all cheery, that's for sure,'' he says. ''There wasn't any alcohol in my home though, and I didn't tell my mother until years later, but all the real druggies and alcoholics were at the boarding school she sent me to, because the rich kids knew where the good stuff was!''

After catching the acting bug, he moved to San Francisco to study at the American Conservatory Theatre and began his career with a regular role in the TV series St. Elsewhere before winning his first Oscar for his 1989 supporting role in Glory.

That was followed by films such as Malcolm X (1992), The Pelican Brief (1993), Philadelphia (1993), Crimson Tide (1995), The Hurricane (1999), Training Day (2001) and the two films he directed, Antwone Fisher (2002) and The Great Debaters (2007).

Washington is charming and dutifully old-school in his approach to promoting his films. He'll show up gladly to talk about an upcoming project, but you won't see him the rest of the year. ''I'm just an actor, I'm not a celebrity,'' he says firmly. ''My job is to act and I want to be good at it. The celebrity stuff? There is a whole lot of other folks that do a whole lot of other things to be famous but I'm not even trying to be famous; I'm just trying to do my work.''

Asked about his own attitude to flying, Washington replies: ''I'm a firm believer that the time to worry about flying is when you're on the ground! I remember I was once on this flight from Las Vegas to Burbank when we got caught in some strong winds. The flight attendant was screaming and I was the one saying, 'Sit down, we're going to be all right!'''

Animated about live action

Robert Zemeckis says he was undaunted returning to live action films after a decade in animation.

''It's just like riding a bicycle; it was like I'd never left but that's because I didn't leave,'' the 61-year-old director says.

''There's live-action movies, there's performance-capture movies, there's animation movies, there's documentary movies, but making a movie is making a movie and in the past 10 years, I made three huge movies [Polar Express, A Christmas Carol, Beowulf] and look at the actors I worked with: Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey. So I felt like I'd been doing theatre workshops all this time.''

Zemeckis's initial successes were in live-action films, including Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future, Forrest Gump and Death Becomes Her.

In 1988, he directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit and went on to pioneer many of the digital breakthroughs that advanced animation in subsequent films. In Flight, he used more than 300 digital shots to create the ambitious plane-crash footage without breaking the film's $US30 million budget.

''Digital cinema is a magnificent tool,'' he says, ''and everything I've been doing in the past 10 years allowed me to make Flight for much less.''

GENRE Drama.
Oscar-nominated performance by Denzel Washington and stunning digital plane-crash footage will draw a crowd.
Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Don Cheadle.
Robert Zemeckis.
RELEASE Now screening.

This story Ageing disgracefully first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.