Denzel Washington rolls into London on a chill January morning and the snow-storm that follows can barely compete. He has a cup of coffee at his elbow and a frosted window at his back. He’s talking up a blizzard, he’s talking to keep warm; spouting off in great, rousing, charming gusts. “You’re not even having to ask me any questions,” he marvels happily. “I’m just talking.” Afterwards it will strike me that this is exactly how he likes it.
If one judges an actor by how adeptly they immerse themselves in the roles that they play, then Washington is the industry’s sasquatch; the performer who would not be caught. Over the past quarter-century I have known him as Malcolm X and Easy Rawlins, as a runaway slave and a corrupt LA cop. I’ve seen him gassing with Oprah, and collecting his Oscars, and yet could probably walk past him in the street without so much as a backward glance. Washington, for all his verbal flurries and on-screen explosions, is a Hollywood actor who hides in plain sight.
In person he is trim, athletic and casually self-assured, a 58-year-old man who could pass for 40 and a far cry from the human wreckage he plays in Flight. Robert Zemeckis’s film casts Washington as William “Whip” Whitaker, an alcoholic, coke-snorting airline pilot who performs a daredevil rescue and is then hauled before the jury to account for his actions. The actor explains that he researched the role by working on flight simulators and sitting with pilots. The younger trainer felt the plot was unrealistic and potentially damaging to his airline. “Ah,” he said. “We never have this kind of problem. Drunken pilot, no such thing.” The senior trainer told a different story.